The foreign ministers' talks failed just when progress seemed on the horizon, says Sheela Bhatt
Forget the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks; move on, take home peace. That was the offer Pakistan made July 15 in Islamabad to the Indian diplomatic team led by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna.
"Pakistan was ready to talk amicably on all issues," a senior diplomat who was part of Krishna's team told rediff.com, "provided India stop harping on issues related to 26/11 - like taking strong action against the perpetrators."
India felt insulted when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, in a breach of protocol, tried to belittle his guest Krishna at a press conference when Krishna was in his hotel room, ready to leave for India. Pakistan found India stubborn and fixated on the issue of security and terrorism. Islamabad could not tolerate New Delhi's unrelenting focus on 26/11 and increase in terrorist infiltration into India from Pakistan - because that directly targets the Inter Services Intelligence and the Pakistan army's agenda and actions.
Thus, even after six hours of talks, nothing substantial was achieved. Some critics in India called Krishna's visit a disaster; some even declared it the collapse of the ongoing peace talks.
Ironically, July 15, the Krishna-Qureshi talks touched almost all issues pending between the two countries.
"When you talk to Pakistan," explained an Indian diplomat who was part of the talks, "you have to take care of every comma, pause and full stop. It took a long time because we covered lots of issues."
At a joint press conference after the talks, Qureshi said, 'In our discussions we were very frank and we had a discussion on all the issues that are of importance whether it is terrorism, Jammu and Kashmir, the recent developments in Jammu and Kashmir, Sir Creek, Siachen (glacier). How there are opportunities of economic cooperation, and how through economic integration we can uplift the quality of the ordinary citizens of South Asia, how people-to-people contacts will facilitate and create an enabling environment to sustain the dialogue, all these issues were discussed in a very open, in a very frank, and in a very candid manner.'
The Indian diplomat, who was pivotal in the talks, told rediff.com that the most important achievement was that Pakistan acknowledged the last four years of talks with India on the issue of Jammu and Kashmir - and that includes those held when Pervez Musharraf was the Pakistani president. Since the new government came to power in Islamabad, it had disowned those talks; but, now they were saying they want to build from there.
'We have made progress on certain Kashmir-related confidence building measures,' Quereshi said after the talks. 'We have discussed how useful they have been and how we can build on what we have achieved in the past, whether it is cross-LoC (Line of Control) trade or travel. We have talked about the fact that we can reach an amicable resolution of the Sir Creek issue. And Pakistan has asked for the Indian proposal that was made verbally to be sent to us in writing.'
At the press conference, the hitherto well-choreographed event collapsed, and the Pakistani military establishment's hand became clear. Faced with sharp questions, the ministers slipped into one-upmanship. Qureshi--evidently not a believer in diplomatic sophistication--equated Lashkar-e-Tayiba founder Hafeez Mohammad Saeed -- the Mumbai attack mastermind - and India's Home Secretary G K Pillai.
When an Indian journalist asked about Saeed's recent anti-India hate speech, Qureshi said even Pillai's remarks were 'uncalled for'. On the eve of the talks Pillai had said that the ISI had a 'much more significant' role to play in the 26/11 plot than earlier thought. He was quoting information provided by David Coleman Headley during interrogation by Federal Bureau of Investigation and Indian investigators regarding the Pakistani spy agency and Saeed's involvement in the Mumbai attacks.
Many thought Pillai's sensational disclosures were ill-timed, because Pakistan was ready to lay the red carpet for Krishna. When Pillai had the information since mid-June, many retired diplomats asked why reveal it on the eve of crucial talks?
Qureshi, Krishna said after that talks, 'has also assured me that the investigation in the Mumbai terrorist attack case, taking into account the additional information coming out the recent interrogation of David Coleman Headley and provided by our home minister during his visit to Pakistan last month, could be pursued rigorously to unravel the full conspiracy and bring all the perpetrators of that horrific crime to justice.'
That means the Pillai effect was discounted. After the talks and the joint press conference July 15, Krishna met Pakistani dignitaries at a dinner in Islamabad, where he again met Qureshi. So, the consequent press conference where Qureshi declared that Krishna and India were not prepared for the talks came as a bolt from the blue.
According to a veteran Pakistani editor, Qureshi was taken to task for not defending Islamabad's line on Kashmir at the joint press conference; so, he tried to play to the domestic gallery, and in the process hit hard at bilateral ties with India.
Qureshi alleged that Krishna kept leaving the meeting to take instructions from New Delhi. If India redeploys the army in Kashmir and imposes curfew, he sneered, how do you expect Pakistan to be silent?
Bharatiya Janata Party leader Yashwant Sinha said such statements are unheard of in diplomacy. "I would regard this as breach of trust by the foreign minister of Pakistan," Sinha said. "Dialogue is fine but before we go to a dialogue of this kind, we must assess whether it will bridge the gaps or create more gaps."
Former Indian diplomat Naresh Chandra believed Qureshi "overreacted while trying to score points. This is hardly a way to conduct diplomatic relations. I am sure world powers will take note of it - how difficult it is todeal with Pakistan."
In an e-mail interview with rediff.com, Pakistan expert Adrian Levy said, "There is a lack of strategic thinking on India's part vis-à-vis Pakistan and also Afghanistan In Islamabad, previously clear thinking that emerged as to how to halt the militancy is being dragged down into territorial disputes between different civilian agencies, while in New Delhi who is thinking further ahead than the next soft shoe shuffle over the border? The strategy seems to be sleepwalking right now."
K Subrahmanyam, doyen of India's strategic thinkers, argued that Krishna's Pakistan visit "was a setback to India but a disaster for Pakistan. What India needs to do is sit tight and wait for Pakistan and America to sort out the Afghanistan mess. Till the time the Pakistan army changes its basic campaign of use of non-state actors against India, things can't move forward."
He said Pakistan is confident because it is convinced it can fool America: "They are patting their own backs for their success in handling their interests but their gain is a short term gain."
Levy agreed that India-Pakistan talks will go nowhere until the Afghanistan issue is resolved.
When Krishna was on his way to Pakistan, US National Security Adviser James Jones visited New Delhi. In an interaction with scholars and retired diplomats he said America is unlikely to withdraw troops to below pre-Obama presidency levels any time soon. He elaborated that only those soldiers who came as a part of the surge strategy will go home.
"India's long term thinkers," Levy said, "are awaiting American withdrawal before committing to a new Pakistan strategy, eager to decouple Afghanistan from Pakistan, while Pakistan too wants to see how it all ends up over the border before deciding how belligerent it can be over India
The US wants both sides to make progress as some kind of sticking plaster to the Afghan imbroglio - make peace between the neighbors to lessen tensions in the region. But only the US can see this logic. On the Indian side, no one wants a peace that is linked to American/Pashtun interests in Kabul.
On the Pakistani side that wants to advance a conservative Pashtun leadership in Kabul after the US, it's just a waiting game with the usual actors waiting to foment insurgency in Afghanistan if things don't go their way."
India is well aware that if and when that happens, Pakistan will be disturbed beyondredemption. And, India's security will be much more in jeopardy.
Maybe that's why, even after Qureshi's diatribe, India said the talks had not collapsed. 'There are differences in perception but the gap is not unbridgeable,' Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said on arrival in India. 'In diplomacy, as in life, such ups and downs are common.'
The biggest loss is that political support within India to carry on peace talks with Pakistan has been eroded.