Towards a Change in Regional Ties

An Article by Gopalaswami Parthasarathy, former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, published at Business Line on June 11, 2014

President Barack Obama has set a firm schedule for the total withdrawal of American combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016.

The Pakistan military establishment will now finalise strategies for a progressive takeover of Afghanistan by its Taliban and Haqqani proxies. India’s predominantly economic role in Afghanistan will accordingly have to be augmented by imaginative regional diplomacy involving Iran, Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbours, China and Russia. At the same time, the US, its NATO allies and Japan have to be approached to keep funds flowing for Afghanistan’s national security and economic development.

India and Afghanistan

A mere India-Pakistan dialogue on Afghanistan would be like staging Hamlet without the king of Denmark. Strategically, an effective India-Iran-Afghanistan dialogue is also essential for the development of Iran’s Chah Bahar port and to provide India guaranteed and easy access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. This is the only way to overcome Pakistani efforts to undermine India’s influence in these regions.

When in Delhi, Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai alluded to his disappointment at India’s response to his requests for military assistance. This can be remedied, in consultation with Russia, given the huge surpluses we have in Soviet era equipment, ranging from tanks to fighter aircraft. Given Pakistan’s stated concerns about Indian involvement in Afghanistan, New Delhi should propose a regular trilateral India-Pakistan-Afghanistan dialogue.

Soon after his swearing-in, Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted with the charismatic, outgoing Afghanistani president. The two leaders had spoken earlier, when Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists had laid siege to our consulate in Herat. This was the eighth attack on Indian missions and mission personnel in Afghanistan. All these attacks have been executed by terrorists from the Taliban, the Haqqani Network or the Lashkar-e-Taiba, with clear evidence in three cases of ISI involvement.

After the swearing-in

However, the Prime Minister set the ball rolling on these knotty issues from the word ‘go’ when he engaged regional leaders soon after his swearing-in. He managed to make a purposeful beginning with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. Modi might have set the stage for back channel talks with Pakistan on a range of issues.

It must also be said that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed statesmanship in overcoming domestic opposition from the army and others, by attending the ceremony. He, more than others in Pakistan, recognises the perilous state of Pakistan’s economy and the role of protégés of the ISI in promoting religious extremism and sectarian violence within Pakistan.

At the same time, his effectiveness in dealing with terrorism by acting against his protégés like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the sectarian protégés of his Muslim League Party, like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Sipah-e-Sahiba, is inherently limited.

While Sharif was in Delhi, he told a senior Indian journalist privately that while he would not insist on continuation of the Composite Dialogue Process, he would be agreeable to high-level back channel dialogue on Jammu and Kashmir and terrorism.

The government will also have to decide on how it is going to act on the framework for a settlement on Jammu and Kashmir reached in 2007, through “back channel negotiations” between special envoys of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf.

Discussions on this framework were resumed last year, in Dubai. This negotiated framework was largely based on Manmohan Singh’s speech in Amritsar on March 24, 2006, averring that while borders cannot be redrawn, we can work towards making them “irrelevant” or “just lines on a map”.

He had also stated that people on both sides of the Line of Control could then move freely across the line and cross-LoC economic cooperation and trade could be promoted. All this was premised on respect for the “sanctity” of the LoC, as Sharif had solemnly assured President Bill Clinton on July 4, 1999.

Implementation of the framework on J&K agreed to in back channel talks is said to have required no legislative or constitutional amendment. With the Himalayan snows melting, it remains to be seen whether the Pakistan army adheres to Sharif’s pledge on July 4, 1999, to respect the “sanctity” of the LoC.

Message to Lanka

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse was told that India expected him to abide by assurances he had given of moving beyond the 13th Amendment in the devolution of powers to the Provincial Government in Jaffna. Sadly, Colombo has not done itself a service by continuing the suffocating army presence in the Northern Province and by curbing and undermining the powers and authority of Chief Minister Wigneswaran.

India has also given an assurance that it will spare no effort to continue its massive assistance programme of relief and rehabilitation for Tamils and for getting the Sri Lankan government to act on recommendations of its “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission”.

India has allocated an estimated $1.3 billion (₹8,000 crore) for the relief and rehabilitation of Tamils in Sri Lanka. This crucial programme cannot be implemented effectively unless maturity and restraint are observed by all concerned in dealing with the democratically elected government in Sri Lanka, by eschewing the rhetoric whipped up by Sri Lankan Tamil expatriates.

In sum, the presence of the leaders of India’s South Asian neighbours and Mauritius at the swearing-in of Narendra Modi provided an opportunity for India to reassert its primacy in the region, despite its economic downturn and eroding influence in the face of significant Chinese inroads.

Our Pakistan-obsessed media made it seem that Nawaz Sharif was the sole guest of honour. There was much more that happened.

Published at: