It seems matters are about to come back to the starting line, as it always does where Pakistan is concerned. After alternately denying and affirming back-channel talks with India, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Moeed Yusuf, has now been quoted as saying that talks with India have been abandoned.
The reasons for this statement bear analysis, particularly since Abu Dhabi’s envoy to the US confirmed that talks between the two sides were taking place. Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi denied any such development, and India’s Ministry of External Affairs maintained a studied silence. It’s also a moot question as to why Yusuf chose to announce this publicly. The reasons might be interesting for all those who follow the ferris wheel that is India-Pakistan relations.
First, remember that the Pakistan NSA’s post is an echo chamber of the establishment, which means primarily the army, but also Moeed Yusuf’s boss Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is increasingly swinging further and further to the Right, most apparent recently after his comments blaming women for rape.
Yusuf is cast in the same conservative mould, with the additional tendency to blame India for anything and everything. However, talks that took place between ‘security officials’ would have centred around ISI chief Lt Gen. Faiz Hameed, with the consent of his boss, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Bajwa – on extension since 2019, and expected to remain till around November 2022. That date doesn’t mean much. Both Bajwa and his ISI chief are somewhat shaky in their positions for reasons that include his reported support for talks. Any dialogue with India is dangerous for those involved. The Indian delegation, however, would have the consent of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and his cabinet, which means a certain continuity of purpose.
The most immediate cause cited by Moeed Yusuf for ending talks is related to the meeting between PM Modi and Kashmiri leaders. His stance is that Delhi did not deliver any ‘confidence-building measures’, echoing the statement of the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD), in a clear attempt to shore them up. Being Pakistani, however, Yusuf also reiterated the position of restoring Article 370. It’s true that leaders like Mehbooba Mufti demanded this, and also that Pakistan should be brought in; true, others also echoed the position on Kashmir’s ‘special status’, though refusing to endorse any role for Pakistan. But the reality is that no one, certainly not this government or even a ‘liberal’ one a decade from now, will ever consider going back to status quo ante. It’s political suicide.
So, the thing is done, and Pakistan’s ISI – which has been in this game for two decades – knows it very well. However, it is possible that Rawalpindi didn’t expect the meeting to be what it really was – a political outreach by the Indian government, which clearly had no place at all for the Hurriyat. Separatism no longer has any place in the political discourse post the scrapping of Article 370. Cancelling talks is probably therefore aimed at preventing a loss of face for Rawalpindi; a kind of back-up option in case the Article 370 demand gains ground on the streets with the help of the Hurriyat who will find themselves without the power and pelf they are accustomed to. That would be the best option for Islamabad. A lot of violence, which can then be projected on social media, and human rights forums. It’s a nice situation for boning up your bargaining position.
The Saeed ‘connection’
Then there was the outpouring of accusations by Yusuf against India about the 23 June blast at Johar Town in Lahore, very close to the residence of international terrorist Hafiz Saeed. It’s a strange situation even to enunciate; an NSA accusing another country of terrorism against a terrorist that it harbours. The accusations also showed confusion within official sources as well, as Yusuf talked of an Eid Gul, of Afghan origin as the main perpetrator, even as he railed against India;Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the mastermind was an Indian, and the IG Punjab was quoted saying the perpetrator was a “Peter Paul David”, a foreign national who was taken off a flight for interrogation. The whole situation was immensely embarrassing for Pakistan, given that the blast hit a security detail outside the house, to protect the ‘great man’. Embarrassing, because Saeed is supposedly lodged in jail with a 36-year sentence delivered in December last year.
Further, Saeed himself is an embarrassment to Pakistan. He can’t be ‘jailed’ like the normal troublemaker, nor can he be let loose to preach mayhem and destruction at a time when the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) has its sights set on Pakistan. An ‘assassination’ allegedly by India would have solved that problem nicely. Pakistan is usually adept at getting rid of any thorn on its side. A staunch critic of the Pakistan Army, former senator Usman Kakar recently died under suspicious circumstances in Baluchistan. Thousands attended his funeral, which was blacked out by the media. But getting rid of a terrorist leader who has long been rubbing shoulders with major politicians and army officials is another matter altogether. Besides, he has a following inside Pakistan precisely due to ISI’s image-building exercises in making him the face of jihad, as imagined by Army HQ.
That pet peeve – Afghanistan
Apparently, however, that is not all that bothers Moeed Yusuf. In a media interaction, he stated quite amazingly that India should be “ashamed” to talk to the Taliban; a group nurtured and guided by Pakistan for decades. Clearly, India’s outreach has annoyed Islamabad to no end. Earlier, following the meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in June, Yusuf’s office put out a series of veiled accusations against India for sponsoring terrorism within its borders, and playing ‘spoiler’ for peace negotiations on Afghanistan. That statement would be hilarious, if it were not so terribly tragic. Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan hasn’t just ‘spoiled’ things; it has murdered, maimed and killed its way towards Kabul, even as the Taliban continue to storm their way to the country.
In sum, it seems Yusuf’s choice of words were right. There are ‘spoilers’, but on the Pakistani side, who are determined to sabotage talks between the two neighbours. The drone attack on Jammu Air Force base is one indication. Less known is the fact that hours earlier on 26 June, a drone was also circling the Indian High Commission located in a high-security area in Islamabad, during an event where even Pakistanis were present. That was a clear attempt to stoke fires between the two. It would be wise if General Bajwa and others who presumably see peace between the two neighbours as beneficial to Pakistan’s interests, go through the roster of those in the know, to see just who is bent on sending relations again into a tailspin; and thereafter decide to move on with talks that are kept truly secret from all those driving a stake into it.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi, and former director, National Security Council Secretariat. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.