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Time for Modi, Imran to talk

By Ajai Shukla
March 15, 2021 17:36 IST
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Modi's hardline policy towards Pakistan and J&K has created numerous leverages and bargaining positions that New Delhi can bring to the bargaining table and translate into concessions, argues Ajai Shukla.

Photographs: Reuters
 

On February 10 and 11 respectively, Beijing and New Delhi announced that their troops would disengage immediately from a 10-month long confrontation near the Pangong Lake in Ladakh.

Two weeks later, the Indian and Pakistani armies followed that up with a ceasefire announcement on February 24.

In a matter of a fortnight, a worrying two-front conflict that had tied down India was unexpectedly transformed into a two-front truce.

There has been predictable speculation about the extent to which President Joe Biden's newly installed administration pushed China and Pakistan to de-escalate tensions with India, or whether these developments stem predominantly from back-channel negotiations between Beijing, New Delhi and Islamabad.

Washington officials deny any role, pointing out that their national security council is functioning with skeleton staff and has more urgent preoccupations, such as meeting the May 1 deadline for thinning out from Afghanistan.

Yet the Biden White House (like the Trump White House) sees Pakistan as a key player in the Afghan peace process and would like Islamabad to allocate policy bandwidth to the Afghan peace process rather than being dissipated in tensions with India.

Given that, the Biden administration almost certainly encouraged New Delhi's and Islamabad's discussions on a ceasefire, especially given America's long-standing contacts with Prime Minister Imran Khan's advisor on national security, Moeed Yusuf.

While any reduction in tensions stemming from ceasefires or troop disengagement are welcome, pragmatists rightly underscore the fragility of such agreements.

In Eastern Ladakh, Chinese troops continue to occupy and control territory that Indian troops patrolled until last April. Trust between the Indian Army and the People's Liberation Army has been severely damaged by the PLA's transgressions across the Line of Actual Control -- the de facto border based on physical control.

New Delhi will not quickly forget the PLA's effective repudiation of multiple border agreements and confidence building measures dating back to 1993.

Nor would a cautious punter wager much money on the India-Pakistan Line of Control ceasefire holding indefinitely.

Technically, the LoC ceasefire of 2003, committed to by both armies' directors general of military operations, is still in place, as are two more ceasefire agreements arrived at in 2018.

On the ground, however, New Delhi accuses Pakistani troops of opening fire 5,133 times last year -- an average of more than 14 violations daily -- in which 46 Indians were killed. Islamabad accuses the Indian Army of being even more trigger happy.

Yet, the India-Pakistan LoC ceasefire provides grounds for optimism. At a time of acute Indian vulnerability, when the PLA's transgressions had forced the Indian Army to switch four divisions (about 75,000 troops) from the Pakistan border to the Sino-Indian LAC, the decision-makers in the Pakistan army's General Headquarters in Rawalpindi apparently decided against taking advantage of India's predicament. Instead, GHQ provided India strategic reassurance through a ceasefire.

It should not be forgotten that this was at a time when the numerous Indian strategists were raising the bogey of Pakistani forces advancing southwards into India along the Shyok Valley, and linking up with a corresponding Chinese pincer to cut off the Siachen Glacier and the Daulet Beg Oldi sector.

For multiple reasons, a ceasefire on the LoC with Pakistan is far more consequential than one with the PLA on the LAC, despite New Delh's repeated assertions that China constitutes India's primary threat.

One reason is that, even after the Indian Army switched four divisions to the LAC, only 14 Indian divisions face China, while 22 remain poised against Pakistan (two more divisions are reserves under army headquarters).

Furthermore, the sheer volume of firing exchanged on the LoC makes that border far bloodier.

The Indian Army links LoC firing levels with insurgency levels in Jammu & Kashmir since militants use the cover of Pakistani suppressive fire to infiltrate across the LoC.

Also, since many more civilians live in the close vicinity of the LoC, firing causes high casualties amongst those border villagers.

Finally, across large swathes of the country, the ebb and flow of India-Pakistan tensions resonate far deeper than fluctuations in Sino-Indian relations.

Given that public opinion across both India and Pakistan is conditioned to believe the worst of each other, the LoC ceasefire announcement came as a surprise on both sides of the border. This, even though there were statements from both countries indicating that something was in the works.

Speaking at the Pakistan Air Force Academy earlier this month, Pakistan's army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa declared it was time to extend a 'hand of peace in all directions' and for resolving the Kashmir issue in a 'dignified and peaceful manner'.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaking in Colombo a day before the LoC ceasefire was announced, downplayed tensions with India, stating: 'Our only dispute is Kashmir and it can only be resolved through dialogue.'

Given the civil-military power dynamics within Pakistan, a ceasefire with India at a time when the Indian military was embroiled in conflict with Pakistan's 'iron brother' China could only have taken place with the express concurrence of that country's ultimate power broker: General Bajwa.

There is ample evidence to believe that General Bajwa, like General Pervez Musharraf later in his tenure, holds the conviction that Pakistan cannot prevail indefinitely in a state of conflict with India.

Gnereal Bajwa's conviction has only been reinforced with the Balakot air strike in February 2019, Delhi's transformation of J&K state's political status in August that year, the steady pressure on Pakistan by the Financial Action Task Force in concert with the US, and the Indian military's steadiness and resolve in standing up to China's forays across the LAC since April 2020.

The experience of previous ceasefires demonstrates that they can only hold when they are accompanied by high-level political dialogue.

The Sino-Indian LAC has remained quiet since the late 1980s because border CBMs have been accompanied by regular dialogue between 'joint working groups' and 'special interlocuters' from the two countries.

The India-Pakistan ceasefire of 2003 held for years because it was buttressed by dialogue between special representatives of prime minister Manmohan Singh and president Pervez Musharraf and a clear intention to arrive at a settlement on J&K.

To keep the LoC ceasefire alive, therefore, a high-level political engagement must begin between the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers, and their governments. The new Indo-Pakistan ceasefire agreement specifically mandates addressing each others' core issues and disputes.

There is little reason for India to shy away: Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hardline policy towards Pakistan and J&K has created numerous leverages and bargaining positions that New Delhi can bring to the bargaining table and translate into concessions.

The opening created by a two-front truce must be taken forward into a two-front peace.

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Ajai Shukla
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