More of the same - Dr Maleeha Lodhi - Tuesday, July 20, 2010

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The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.

The July 15 meeting between the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India ended in a familiar stalemate. The talks were unable to reconcile differences over the modalities and agenda for future engagement.

The deal-breaker was the Indian refusal to include Kashmir, Siachen and Peace and Security in a future dialogue within an agreed timeframe. As a result the planned announcement on even a modest set of confidence-building measures fell through.

The only outcome of the Islamabad talks was the agreement to keep talking and for Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to visit New Delhi before year end. No schedule of meetings or roadmap for engagement was announced as some had anticipated. Instead the bitter exchanges between the two sides once the talks ended left the climate decidedly fraught.

The air of tension and frosty ambience at the joint press conference addressed by the foreign ministers laid bare the wide gap between the two countries. Qureshi and S M Krishna made clashing statements on just about every issue – including Kashmir, infiltration across the Line of Control and Balochistan.

The spat that followed this press briefing further soured the atmosphere. This public row was entirely avoidable. But it was symptomatic of the gap in perceptions and substance between the two countries which the talks seemed to have reinforced rather than mitigate. In terms of both optics and substance the talks and their aftermath produced disappointment, despite how low expectations were of this diplomatic re-engagement.

What unravelled the talks was the Indian side's unwillingness to agree to a comprehensive agenda and specific timeframe for future dialogue that would include Kashmir, Peace and Security, and Siachen. These three subjects had been part of the eight-issue "composite dialogue" that took place between 2004 and 2008 when it was suspended by Delhi after the Mumbai attack. The Indian delegation agreed in the Islamabad talks to proceed with secretary-level meetings on trade, culture, Sir Creek, people-to-people contact as well as cross-LOC confidence-building measures and humanitarian matters. But it insisted that the three issues of priority for Pakistan be left out for now and be discussed later at an unspecified, "appropriate time".

The Indian focus during the talks was almost exclusively on terrorism and on pressing Pakistan for "effective action" against those involved in the Mumbai bombings. Until "further" action was taken by Pakistan other efforts would be "futile" was the upshot of the line taken by the Indian side. Foreign Minister Krishna later told the press conference that he pressed the Pakistan side to "fulfil assurances" not to allow territory under its control to be used for terrorist attacks against India.

New Delhi's attempt to mount pressure ahead of the talks was evidenced by the remarks of India's home secretary G K Pillai published in an Indian newspaper in which he said that the interrogation of David Headley, who is in American custody, had 'established' that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence had directed the Mumbai bombings. Not only did this vitiate the atmosphere for the Islamabad parleys but it precipitated the war of words that erupted after the talks.

But it was what Qureshi called India's "selective" approach that produced the impasse in the discussions with Pakistan unable to accept "de-linking Kashmir" from the dialogue process. This seemed to be at odds with India's declared willingness to "discuss all issues of mutual concern" conveyed in the March meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries on the sidelines of the Saarc summit at Thimpu. This was then reiterated in exchanges during the run-up to the Islamabad talks.

Pakistani officials interpreted the assurance to mean that all eight issues that were discussed in the "composite dialogue" would be part of the future dialogue process. Indeed Pakistani officials had agreed to drop the nomenclature 'composite' talks on the premise that the same agenda items would be pursued in the process albeit by another name.

Although a framework for the dialogue had yet to be fashioned the Pakistani expectation was that the foreign ministers' meeting would enable an understanding on this to emerge, even if Indian officials insisted this should stop short of a structured process and instead reflect a "soft start" to dialogue. Pre-talks preparations also envisioned the announcement of easy-to-execute confidence-building measures. They included the release of imprisoned fishermen, exchange of prisoners, and revival of the working group on cross-LOC travel and trade. A meeting between the two countries' commerce secretaries was also to be announced. Some of this may yet happen after the present row dies down.

Whether a way can to found to reconcile contending visions of the framework and content for the dialogue is what will determine the future course of bilateral relations. Three related aspects of the Indian approach were evident in the Islamabad talks. One, that issues relating to the structure and agenda of the dialogue could be used as leverage or tools in the negotiations. Holding back on discussing Kashmir and Siachen was seen as a way of pressing Pakistan to accede to Indian demands before "conceding" to discuss what Pakistan regards as "core issues". That Islamabad is not prepared to accept this talks-as-a-concession or quid pro quo approach was made amply clear in the diplomatic encounter last week.

Two, the Indian approach in the Islamabad encounter made plain the effort to recast the dialogue around Delhi's "core" concern, terrorism and avoid, on the pretext of 'postponing' until an indeterminate time, discussions on Pakistan's priority issues. Public statements by Indian officials indicating their openness to discuss "all issues" seemed designed to signal a 'reasonable' posture. But the actual conduct in the talks exposed a narrow Indian focus and the attempt to set up a process on Delhi's terms configured around a "terrorism first" agenda. This recipe for a selected and fragmented dialogue will lead to a fitful and fruitless process and frustrate any real movement in the bilateral engagement.

Three, Delhi has set out its preference for an incremental approach which contrasts sharply with Pakistan's emphasis on a process that can transition quickly to a broader dialogue that addresses issues simultaneously, not sequentially, and aims at conflict resolution. Delhi's desire for a gradual, step-by-step process may appear logical given the deep suspicion and mistrust that characterise Pakistan-India relations. But it stems principally from Delhi's bid to determine both the pace and content of the normalisation process. Many Pakistani officials believe that unstructured talks on an open-ended and ad hoc basis will provide India with the means to use every stage of such a process as a lever to press its demands on Islamabad while avoiding accommodation of Pakistan's concerns. This would mean handing Delhi the initiative to determine the timing, modalities and agenda of the dialogue process.

These differences wrap the next steps in the diplomatic engagement in considerable uncertainty and mean that the resurrection of a full fledged peace process remains a distant possibility. The path to a broad based dialogue is strewn with many obstacles but the immediate problem is the continuing lack of common ground between the two countries about how the talks should proceed and what they should discuss.

Engaging with India has always tested Pakistan's diplomacy to its limits. Coming months promise more of the same. With divergences and clashing visions on both process and substance clouding the prospects for any meaningful improvement in ties between the two neighbours the pressing challenge is how to manage differences without relations regressing into tensions at a particularly fraught moment in the region and when there is renewed unrest in Indian-held Kashmir.

The key diplomatic challenge for Pakistan is how to engage India in purposeful talks that aim at solutions and avoid getting sucked into a process that ends up serving as an alibi for not settling outstanding disputes.

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