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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Indo-Pak Intel Officials’ Backchannel Talks: A Case for Cautious Optimism

The ceasefire violations in recent days have once again exposed the historical fault lines that exist between the two states and had deemed, in the first place, a backdoor initiative necessary to solve outstanding issues.

The ceasefire agreement, reached between the Directors General of Military Operations of Pakistan and India late February along the Line of Control (LoC), caught almost everyone by surprise as the two South Asian neighbors that nearly went to war in 2019, in a rare move, decided to reduce tensions.

The development emerging in the backdrop of intense fighting on the borders, stark differences over long-standing bilateral issues, and repeated accusations at each other over instigating terror and harming peace in the region – sparked a serious debate amongst academia and policy circles over what led to this unusual development. As the negotiations running up to the ceasefire weren’t immediately available to the public, and were deliberately kept secret by the two sides, media became rife with rumors where many analysts suggesting a third state’s mediatory role.

UAE's Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
UAE’s Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

UAE’s mediatory role?

The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) envoy to the U.S., Yousef Al Otaiba, confirmed during a virtual discussion with Stanford University on April 14 that the UAE played a role “in bringing Kashmir escalation down and created a ceasefire, hopefully ultimately leading to restoring diplomats and getting the relationship back to a healthy level”.

“They might not sort of become best friends but at least we want to get it to a level where it’s functional, where it’s operational, where they are speaking to each other,” he added.

UAE Ambassador’s statements were swiftly rubbished by Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi when during an interview with TRT World he said:  “We are not having any peace talks at the moment and the UAE is not facilitating anything.”

What’s troubling however is Foreign Minister Qureshi’s assertion that India needs to prove that it’s negotiating in earnest by first creating a conducive environment in the form of revocation of August, 5, 2019 actions – when Pakistan’s intelligence high-ups are already allegedly engaged in quiet talks on all major issues since India approached Pakistan with an offer in December 2020.

India-Pakistan intelligence apparatus negotiating?

The news of the back-channel engagement with India was broken by Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a senior Pakistani TV anchor. “Highly placed sources in Islamabad reveal for the first time that back-channel engagement with India had been continuing for more than a year and Indian PM Narendra Modi may have visited Pakistan to participate in the SARRC summit in October this year,” he said.

While offering specific themes of the back-door talks, Dr. Pirzada said, “Focus of discussion remained normalization in Kashmir and its change of status back from the union territory towards a state with guarantees against feared demographic change.”

Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn reported on April 25 that High-level sources say backchannel talks are continuing between the intelligence leaderships of the two countries since December 2020. Previously, the two sides engaged in a backchannel contact in 2017 but that was at a lower level and failed to achieve any significant results.

According to reports, between December 2020 and April 2021, intelligence officials from the two countries met face-to-face at least four to five times in a Gulf country. Perhaps, UAE’s ambassador to US was alluding to these talks when he tried to grab a piece of the cake for his country as playing a mediatory role in bringing the South Asian rivals together for talks.

Farmers protest in India against BJP-led government's reforms.
Farmers protest in India against BJP-led government’s reforms.

While the information on the talks has been gradually released to the media by the Pakistani side to avoid speculations, thus far there’s no official Indian comment on such a dialogue. The only statement made by the Indian foreign ministry in the second week of April said: “Our respective High Commissions exist and are functioning. That is a very effective channel of communication.”

The latest series of negotiations behind closed doors have led to various confidence building measures: DG MOs Agreement on abiding by 2003 ceasefire agreement along LoC; holding of the long-stalled Indus Water Commission talks; felicitations by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the occasion of Pakistan Day and Prime Minister Khan’s positive response; peace overtures made by Pakistan’s civil and military leadership at the inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue; the abstention from the frequent politically motivated war rhetoric by India’s RSS inspired BJP leadership; and the recent extension of humanitarian assistance by Pakistan to India in the face of a national health crisis owing to Covid.

It’s in the interest of both the countries’ leaderships to pursue secret, backchannel negotiations as a means of avoiding public criticism on account of conceding too much ground. It would be a nightmare for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is banking on the support base of Hindu nationalist RSS to cling on to the corridors of power amidst a worsening Covid crisis at the back of a polarizing farmers movement at home – if the public becomes aware of his extension of an olive branch to its perceived enemy.

For Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, it won’t matter so much even if the negotiations are exposed to the public eye. For one reason, he hasn’t come to power after having propagated an anti-Indian narrative. But instead, Prime Minister Khan, back in 2018 in his victory speech announced that he would take two steps towards peace if India took one. That the Prime Minister’s cabinet does not entirely share his opinion of engaging with India at this stage, especially when India’s August 5 actions are still afresh, was laid bare by the April 1 turning down of Economic Coordination Council’s (ECC) decision allowing sugar and cotton imports from India. As per reports, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi had expressed serious reservations over such engagements with India unless it revokes August 5 actions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Imran Khan at SCO Summit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Imran Khan at SCO Summit.

Whether the foreign minister’s denial of secret ‘peace talks’, discussed earlier in this piece was due to his ignorance of the matter for it being an interaction largely between the security apparatus of the two countries is still unclear. Insider reports suggest India’s side is led by the country’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval who is being assisted by high-ranking intelligence officials. This shows that thus far India’s Ministry of External Affairs has not played a major role in the lowering of tensions. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry has held a similar role during the latest series of backchannel negotiations.

In such a situation, it’s pragmatic of the two countries’ leadership to carry out talks through backdoor channels. Pakistan’s former Ambassador to the UN, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, while explaining the need of backchannels said: “Backchannels are useful to confidentially probe, explore and assess how much give there is in the other’s position. This is harder in a formal forum where negotiating parties stick to maximalist positions at least at the start.”

Rational optimism?

The ceasefire violations in the recent days have once again exposed the historical fault lines that exist between the two states and had deemed, in the first place, a backdoor initiative necessary to solve outstanding issues.

Pakistan lodged a strong protest on May 3 when Indian forces crossed over Charwa Sector of Sialkot and resorted to unprovoked firing.

Pakistan’s Foreign Office said: “The Indian BSF troops displayed aggressive behavior by crossing the Working Boundary and blatantly using mortars with an intent to sabotage the peace along Line of Control and Working Boundary” and termed it the “first serious and grave violation of Directors General Military Operation (DGMOs) understanding in 2021” by the Indian side.

At a webinar hosted by the Islamabad Policy Institute featuring high-profile analysts – a former defense secretary, and two former ambassadors having held key assignments, the panelists noted that “Islamabad’s optimism contrasted New Delhi’s stoic silence.” One of the participants urged Pakistan’s leadership to “place emphasis on ascertaining the roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir” which has remained the bone of contention between the two countries for decades.

He added, Indian move to reach out to Pakistan was tactical. Therefore, the Pakistani negotiators taking part in the talks needed to be more circumspect in every step that they take. “If we get invested into a situation where we agree to another round of formal talks, structural talks, that will take us nowhere. The emphasis at this stage should be on ascertaining as to what would be the roadmap on Jammu and Kashmir,” he said.

Jan Achakzai, a geopolitical analyst from Pakistan said of the latest engagement with India: “The cost for this engagement is already enormous and still accruing as we (Pakistan) have lost the trust of Kashmiris to who once we promised the moon and raised their expectations to unrealistic heights.”

India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval gestures during a speech.
India’s National Security Advisor Ajit Doval gestures during a speech.

While commenting on India’s moves aimed at blacklisting Pakistan through the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), he said, “Pakistan is still struggling to get off of the grey list, thanks to India’s formidable diplomatic reach. Islamabad has paid a huge price for being in the grey list. To avoid being blacklisted, it stifled economic activity which angered the business community. After meeting almost all demands of FATF, it may still be on the grey list by the end of the year.”