The writer is an Islamabad-based security analyst
Finally after an eight-month hiatus Delhi decided to return to the dialogue table and the prime ministers of the two nuclear neighbours met in Sharm el-Shiekh. The subsequent joint statement carried no surprises. It recognises terrorism as a major issue on which the two governments must cooperate. But returning to the dialogue table will not translate into significant bilateral engagement on all bilateral issues. As is already evident the primary focus of engagement will be terrorism. Specifically, India will demand action against those Pakistani groups and individuals involved in the Mumbai attack. Pakistan’s refrain will be that India provides evidence that is admissible in a court of law. Meanwhile, Delhi, Washington and, most importantly, many Pakistanis too are expecting action against those individuals whose involvement in the Mumbai incident was uncovered by Pakistani institutions. Equally, there is now a realisation that without substantive steps to resolve the Kashmir issue, terrorism and militancy will survive, if not thrive, in the region. In the last couple of years the widespread non-violent civilian Kashmiri protests in Indian-held Kashmir has demonstrated the political legitimacy, and indeed the political autonomy, of the Kashmiri demand that their political future be settled. Kashmiri participation in the elections is no substitute for the more fundamental issue of the political status of Kashmir and the Kashmiri self-determination. It was in acknowledgment of this reality that Barack Obama in his presidential campaign acknowledged the linkage between dealing with terrorism and the solution of the Kashmir dispute; a fact that UN Security Council Resolution 1172, passed immediately after Pakistan and Indian conducted their nuclear tests, did recognise as it called for the solution of regional disputes, specifically Kashmir. Even if Obama, the president, was forced because of political expediency and diplomatic correctness to not publicly reiterate the terrorism-Kashmir link there is realisation within the Obama administration that the unresolved Kashmir issue will sustain autonomous and perhaps even state-patronised militancy within Pakistan. On July 21 the US ambassador-designate to India, Timothy Roemer, told the Senate Foreign Relations panel that “I think, it (Kashmir) has been an extremely sensitive hotspot for the world and for the region, where we’ve almost experienced thermonuclear war on several occasions.” On the US role Roemer said, “it’s important to try to make sure that, where we can, in front of the scenes, behind the scenes, through diplomatic channels, encourage them to talk about this issue (Kashmir) and hopefully resolve it between their two countries.”The Obama administration has been instrumental in getting the Indians back to the negotiating table. For Pakistan the abiding flip side of India’s terrorism complaint has been the Kashmir issue. Whatever the level of antagonism and distrust between the two, massive destructive power has paradoxically ruled out full-fledged wars between the two. Multiple near-war situations emerged between 1989 and 2008, yet none translated into battle. Between the two neighbours military force has principally become one of the elements in the toolkit of compelling diplomacy; a toolkit that India has reverted to. Interestingly, two abiding and interlinked features have determined the dynamic of this relationship. One, there is an asymmetrical size and military power equation that works in India’s favour. Two, multiple problems, including Siachin and the water problem that mostly undermine Pakistan’s interests, have emerged from the unresolved Kashmir dispute. Increasing asymmetry and a growing list of problems has merely deepened bilateral distrust. The cumulative impact of this has been on the deepening distrust between the security establishments of the estranged and indeed embattled neighbours. Hence, virtually no substantive breakthroughs were achieved in many rounds of bilateral dialogue. In 1998 the framework for a structured dialogue framework with eight working groups for eight issues to resolve disputes was agreed upon. These included confidence-building measures, Kashmir, Wullar Barrage, promotion of friendly exchanges, Siachen glacier, Sir creek, terrorism and drug trafficking, and economic and commercial cooperation. What the composite dialogue has ensured has been continued bilateral engagement and in some cases helped to zero in on the issues in a systematic and informed way. For example, the economic and commercial group has commissioned studies on hurdles to bilateral trade. The Sir Creek group has had a credible study conducted. However, the composite dialogue framework has failed to make any breakthrough on substantive issues. In the last decade substantive progress has only been possible through top-level political intervention. For example, progress on Kashmir was made through the back channel because the back channel worked directly under the supervision of the political leadership. While the Foreign Offices on both sides were kept in the picture, Gen Parvez Musharraf and Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. Against the backdrop of unresolved Kashmir issue and India’s active participation in causing the 1971 breakup of Pakistan, Pakistan has indirectly or covertly created and aided forces to change the status quo principally on issues like Kashmir. Frustrated with a recalcitrant India, Pakistan opted for the wars and covert methods of conflict resolution. None worked. However the developments of the last decade slowly but surely have given birth to a global realisation that there is a linkage between terrorism and militancy and an unresolved Kashmir dispute. Now at the high table of policymakers the Obama administration has initiated the double nudge. It is nudging the Pakistanis to roll back Pakistan-based militancy linked to the Kashmir issue. The Indians, meanwhile, are being gently and discreetly nudged to get back to the Musharraf-Manmohan first-step Kashmir settlement formula. That formula, finalised in end 2007, called for a tripartite joint administrative framework in Kashmir. It was a starting point on which there was consensus emerging on both sides of the border and of the LoC. Significantly, the regional and global environment and players now appear more ready than before to substantively address the twin problem of Kashmir-terrorism. Given the havoc terrorism has wreaked in sheer death and destruction within Pakistan, and increasingly in the shape of communal violence within India, the interest of the two neighbours to jointly fight terrorism now conflate. As Pakistan begins to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with India on the Mumbai terrorism inquiry, Pakistan has offered direct contact and cooperation with their Indian counterparts. As part of the government’s policy to cooperate with Delhi at all levels, the ISI has expressed its availability to meet with the Indian agencies. Only direct negotiations between security establishments will ensure that the accusations and counter-accusations of each other’s involvement in the Mumbai terrorism, the Balochistan insurgency, the Samjhota Express bombing and the FATA militancy can be genuinely addressed. Earlier, during Prime Minister Vajpayee’s trip in 2004, Indian national security advisor Brajesh Mishra had then established direct contact with Pakistan’s ISI chief, General Ehsanul Haq. The purpose was anti-terrorism cooperation on terrorism. Now the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism, set up in 2006 in Havana, could be reactivated if genuine inter-agency cooperation begins. Ultimately it is the scope and texture of cooperation between the two security establishments that will determine the overall direction of the bilateral relationship. The extent to which suspicions of the two security establishments recedes the chances of settling the issues of trade, transit rights, the oil pipeline and settlement of other outstanding disputes would likely increase. Security has trumped all other considerations and indeed the security establishments of the two countries have largely determined the direction of this relationship. It is time that the two security establishment come on board as partners for conflict resolution and peace between the two countries. Battle time is long over. Global and regional developments, as well developments within the two countries, also rule out a cold war as an option for either. Dialogue, which includes active participation of the two security establishments, is the only way forward.