The now cancelled talks between the National Security Advisors (NSA) of India and Pakistan, originally scheduled for 23-24 August 2015, would have been the first meeting between the two wherein the public was duly apprised in advance.
Back-channel meetings between the NSAs had been established by the end of October 2004 as part of a composite dialogue process (CDP), as Sumona Dasgupta points out in a recent working paper.
The idea and the format of a CDP between India and Pakistan was first articulated in 1997 by the then Indian Prime Minister I. K. Gujral and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. However, it was not until 2004 that the process took off, due to a number of crises that put a strain on Indo-Pak relations.
Discussing terrorism has been on the CDP agenda since the beginning, but it was not until 2006 that progress was made on this issue. In 2006, the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf decided to create a joint counter-terrorism framework. Subsequently, the Joint Anti-Terrorism Mechanism (JATM) was launched in 2007 with several meetings taking place in 2007 and 2008. Yet, the JATM did not result in any visible outcomes. The action points highlighted in the joint statement issued by the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers, Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif, following their meeting on the side-lines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Summit in Ufa, Russia, therefore appeared like a promising step toward closer cooperation on terrorism. First, because it engaged the National Security Advisors (NSA). Second, for its exclusive focus on terrorism.
Engaging the NSAs
According to a September 1998 joint statement by the then foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, the Home/Interior Secretaries are responsible for discussing terrorism. By moving the talks on terrorism to the NSA-level, New Delhi and Islamabad hint at a change in their understanding of the issue – from a national to an international security concern. Simultaneously, it may indicate a preference of Indian NSA Ajit Doval and his Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz over the Home/Interior Secretaries to discuss security-related issues. As a former member of the Indian Police Service (IPS) and former Director of the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Doval has the knowhow, the expertise, the resources and power to take the talks on terrorism to the next level and therefore appears to be better suited to the job. Aziz on the other hand has served as Pakistan’s foreign and finance minister and has thus been involved in external affairs. Yet, he appears to lack connections to the Pakistani intelligence service and the military, whose support for Indo-Pak talks is necessary for their realisation and the implementation of joint agreements. This is particularly true for counter-terrorism measures.
Terrorism without Kashmir
Until now, counter-terrorism measures have been discussed alongside the territorial dispute over Kashmir, as neither side has been willing to talk about one without the other. By separating the two issues in the Ufa joint statement, India and Pakistan appeared to hint at mutual understanding that terrorism is a security concern, while Kashmir falls within the category of foreign affairs. This marked a departure from the contentious securitisation of the Kashmir issue and suggests a positive trend for Indo-Pak relations.
Yet, by agreeing to focus on terrorism alone, Islamabad was sure of criticism at home – on governmental, civilian, and military levels. This became evident in the developments following the statement – increase in cross-border shelling, terrorist attacks, and the invitation of separatist Hurriyat leaders – that foreshadowed that the talks might get cancelled. This raises questions concerning the real intent behind agreeing to NSA-level talks. Was it to show the world that India and Pakistan are on good terms? Or did Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seek to test Delhi’s commitment to the continuation of the CDP?
Islamabad had been pushing for the resumption of talks since 2013. In August 2014, the Indian government cancelled the scheduled bilateral Foreign Secretary-level meeting due to Pakistan’s engagement with militant Kashmiris. This time, New Delhi indicated to proceed with the talks, despite Pakistan’s notification of a meeting with Hurriyat leaders – a move which showed Islamabad’s reluctance to go ahead with the talks.
What implications does this have for the CDP?
The cancellation of the NSA-level talks does not necessarily show a lack of commitment to the dialogue process, given that the trajectory of official Indo-Pak talks has been highly unsteady to date – with a series of false starts and closures, resumptions and back-offs, and major incidents such as the 2008 Mumbai attacks, exacerbating the situation. Instead it is an indication that the nature of the engagement has not been thought through entirely.
Therefore, it seems necessary to continue back-channel meetings to set the scene for official NSA-level talks. This is particularly true because the media became the forum for communication between New Delhi and Islamabad – to the detriment of effective diplomacy. Restoring diplomacy is necessary to continue the official dialogue. Whether future talks will yield substantial results in the form of efficient joint mechanisms to fight terrorism is, however, doubtful. Regardless, it would be pragmatic for Indian and Pakistani leaders to move beyond talking the talk to walking the walk