Is there a Plan B?
The talks “were useful and moving in the right direction”. This was the official view issued by Pakistan’s Premier’s office after the end of the first day of the foreign secretary-level talks held in Islamabad on March 13. The positive tone reflects the general view of both the Indian and Pakistani official delegations busy in negotiating the bilateral peace process. But is a sustainable peace in sight?
These days, most people including the diplomats of the two countries argue that peace is an irreversible process. India and Pakistan seem to have covered a lot of distance in a short time since the talks resumed after January 2004. The dialogue process brought down the temperature in the region after over a decade of heightened tension between the two neighbours. Indeed, Indian diplomats in Pakistan carry themselves with greater confidence and a sense of hope. After having fought two-and-a-half wars and numerous skirmishes, India and Pakistan are on the table discussing the resolution of the Kashmir issue and other territorial disputes such as the Siachen glacier and Sir Creek.
This is part of the process of a comprehensive dialogue that was started between the two countries after India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s visit to Islamabad in early 2004. Subsequently, the two sides agreed to sit together and resolve a large number of issues including territorial disputes, terrorism, strengthening of people-to-people dialogue, improving the visa regime and trade, and other matters.
Does this mean that the two neighbours have managed a breakthrough? Can one hope to see a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, which Pakistan considers as the main bone of contention between the two countries, in the next six months or a year? Or, are the two governments ready to usher in an era of peace, friendship and development in their respective countries?
Sources claim that an agreement of sorts will be thrashed out by the middle of this year, which includes some understanding on Kashmir. General Musharraf has revised his earlier position on the dispute by announcing the withdrawal of Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir. This conservatives in Pakistan label as a volte-face on Kashmir. Ironically, the Foreign Office in Islamabad never made a legal claim on Kashmir. There are many in the establishment who are uncomfortable with the fast pace of negotiations with India. The General appears to be offering too much too soon. One of the General’s favourite diplomats, now stationed in London, also claimed that Musharraf was convinced that peace with India was the only way forward for Pakistan’s economic progress. However, time is the key and it might not be sufficient in solving major issues in the next three to four months, or even a year.
Musharraf needs time to understand and sell his idea to his main constituency: the Pakistan Army. He must make it understand that India will not settle for his formula of joint management in Kashmir. At present, the Indian side is insisting on introducing autonomy in both parts of the disputed territory. For Pakistan, this would mean giving autonomy to the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir, which itself is a gigantic task and would not be possible unless there is a political will to do so. Given Pakistan’s long history of control of these two areas, it is definitely not on the cards in the next six months or a year.
The inability of the diplomats and negotiators to thrash out such tactical issues, however, is the least of the concerns. The greater issue is of Musharraf’s ability to sell the peace project to the general public in an environment where his political legitimacy is increasingly under threat. The fact is that the peace process is intrinsically tied to the internal politics of the two countries. From Pakistan’s standpoint, the peace process has increasingly begun to look like an orphan and the question is: would the political parties eventually be willing to adopt a child fathered by a military general? The issue here is no longer that of India-Pakistan relations but the internal political dynamics of the country.
The peace process, in fact, is proceeding side-by-side with the unstable developments inside Pakistan. The recent crisis over the sacking of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court challenges General Musharraf’s ability to command respect from society, which he enjoyed a couple of years ago. Since writing his biography, the General seems to have acquired an unnatural confidence to take on the entire civil society and all national institutions with great fervour. However, such misplaced confidence will create greater challenges for him and reduce his ability to sell any policy to the people. On the other hand, the street power of the conservative forces, the political right and the mullahs seems to be growing. Not focused on the peace process per se, people are beginning to voice their discomfort with Musharraf’s policies, most of which are viewed as a product of American pressure. Although people are not unhappy with the peace initiative, there is also the tendency to see changes in the Kashmir policy as dictated by Washington. The Islamicist being the only segment of society, which has a vibrant and relatively responsive leadership, is more vocal about their mistrust of the policy changes initiated by the President.
At this juncture, Islamabad’s talks with New Delhi suffer from the lack of a political base. Despite the fact that the public wants improvement of relations with the larger neighbour, the political parties, especially those opposing the Musharraf regime, have no role in the peace initiative nor do they have any sense of ownership of the policy-making process. President Musharraf, unfortunately, is creating greater complications by creating crisis at home, which will not only erode his legitimacy but also the validity of the peace process.
What is worth considering at this juncture is what incentive the political parties will have to come up with any peace deal of their own if Musharraf was replaced as a result of political developments at home or because of some unforeseen crisis. A civilian dispensation might want to distance itself from the decisions taken during the Musharraf government.
Should one expect the military to guarantee the sustainability of the bilateral peace project? Some in the American establishment are of the view that given the corporate character of Pakistan’s armed forces, the organisation will consider it beneficial to support the peace process. Such an argument betrays an utter lack of knowledge of the Pakistani military. It certainly does not understand the fact that the key interests of the armed forces are represented by its military-strategic vision, which does not necessarily support a fundamental shift in the institution’s perception of India as a hostile neighbour. And, while the two neighbours are experiencing a ‘no war’ era, it would take substantive efforts, a longer period of systematic negotiations and stability at home to transform this age into an era of peace. More importantly, an immediate resolution of the Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek or other disputes doesn’t necessarily indicate a shift in policy and change of mindset.
Perhaps, the two neighbours need to work on a broader framework to understand how they want to pursue relations in the next 60 years. A broad-based concept backed by political legitimacy would be a better formula for sustainable peace in the region.
Ayesha Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based independent defence analyst and author of the forthcoming book, Military Inc, Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.