INDIA – PAKISTAN: A THAW IN RELATIONS ?

Despite irritants, recent developments in both countries point to a thaw in relations. This is the view of Ashok K Mehta, retired Major General of the Indian Army and strategic affairs expert.

Islamabad, he says, has belatedly realised that addressing terrorism selectively — making a distinction between good and bad terrorists — is giving Pakistan a bad name. In a recent civil-military meeting, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was asked to rein in the Punjabi Taliban — Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — and act against them.

Further, intelligence and military officials were told that Pakistan risked international isolation for failure to implement its 20-point National Action Plan to counter terrorism. It appears, the new military team of Gen Bajwa and ISI chief Lt Gen Naveed Mukhtar are going along with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in defusing tension with India and reportedly quietly acting against the Punjabi Taliban.

Keeping the Line of Control (LoC) quiet, says Mehta appears to be part of the new Pakistan Army Chief’s plan. The eight suicide attacks in seven days in Pakistan last month gave the green signal for Operation Radd-ul-Fasaad to indiscriminately eliminate remnants of terrorism. Whether the operation will actually target India-centric groups like LeT and JeM is not clear. But the Army-backed arrest of Hafiz Saeed earlier.

Pressure from the US

Pakistan is also under pressure from the Trump Administration and US officials to fight terrorism across the board. US Commander of Resolute Force in Afghanistan, Lt Gen John W Nicholson, in his testimony to the US Armed Services Committee last month said that 20 of 98 designated US terrorist groups and three violent extremist organisations operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the highest concentration of terrorist groups in the world. He added that the Afghan Taliban cannot be defeated while it has sanctuaries in Pakistan. Congressman Ted Poe, who heads the House of Representatives Committee on Terrorism and non-proliferation, has called for a radical reset of ties with Pakistan demanding Pakistan be disciplined for being an appalling ally and quasi adversary and be named as a state sponsor of terrorism. Ten US think-tanks have recommended levying costs on Pakistan and making US aid conditional upon transparent action against all terrorist groups and individuals.

The International Crisis Group, in its latest report, has condemned Pakistan for its selective approach to countering terrorism. And Pakistan’s former National Security Advisor, Mohammad Ali Durrani two weeks ago at New Delhi called 26/11 a classic cross border event emanating from Pakistan and said that Hafiz Saeed should be punished as he is of no use to Pakistan.

Mehta is of the opinion that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is keen to give the dialogue process another chance. Already, the Uri heat is cooling off and a number of conciliatory steps have been taken like accepting the appointment of Amjad Sial as the new Pakistan South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) Secretary General, attending the Indus Water Treaty Commission at Lahore and releasing fishermen.

K C Singh, former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs, believe that India should leverage on the thaw that is developing. Pakistan, he says, in the last few months has been sending subtle signals. A new army chief, handpicked by PM Nawaz Sharif, appears in line with him. The detention of Hafiz Saeed and some associates may be a beginning that can be reversed or sharpened. Indian Punjab gets a new government with Capt Amarinder Singh, known to be sensitive to Punjabiyat(Punjabi culture), as a nebulous and diminishing link between the two divided Punjabs. Modi needs to test the window reopening for engagement and the calibrated resumption of normalisation, or even talks.

For a start, Indian NSA Ajit Doval needs to talk to his counterpart, who is a former general, with a line to army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. Signals at a recent India-Pakistan track II were that General Bajwa may indeed be the partner Nawaz has been seeking since 1998, when Vajpayee travelled by bus to Lahore. The cultural and ideological space needed for this can be created between the twin cities of Amritsar and Lahore.

The Prime Minister, writes Singh,“cannot alternate between a pugnacious fighter at home and occasionally a statesman abroad. He has a limited opportunity to test Pakistani signals and build a consensus behind a new approach to Pakistan. Forcing Pakistan deeper into Chinese arms complicates dealing with both, particularly in an uncertain Trumpian world, when the need to defend Indian diaspora, whether holding Indian citizenship or not, can sour relations. The foreign policy ball has rolled back down the hill which Modi must, like Sisyphus, re-climb”.