The meeting of the Director-General of Military Operations [DGMO] of India and Pakistan, which is due to take place on Tuesday at the GHQ in Rawalpindi, becomes a rare event in the chronicle of the fractured relationship between the two countries. Possibly, such an exchange between the two militaries is taking place for the first time since the then Indian DGMO Lt. Gen. Satish Nambiar visited Pakistan in 1991. Gen. Nambiar is a gifted soldier-diplomat and the visit went exceedingly well. His Pakistani hosts even took him and his delegation, in an exceptional gesture, to the Khyber Pass to peep into the tangled world of Afghanistan…
The forthcoming meeting at Rawalpindi would have a focused agenda, namely, the recrudescence of tensions on the Line of Control in the most recent months (which still lacks a reasonable explanation) – whereas, in 1991 Gen, Nambiar had a bigger mandate to discuss, chat up or exchange notes formally and informally on all issues of war and peace between the two countries. Nonetheless, it is of interest if the Pakistani hosts would offer to the visiting Indian DGMO Lt. Gen. Vinod Bhatia an excursion to the Khyber.
The Khyber is in the eye of a storm at the moment as the Afghan situation remains critical and the Taliban are in full cry, and it is indeed an interesting coincidence that Pakistan formally extended the much delayed invitation for the DGMO meet within days of the 'working visit' by Afghan President Hamid Karzai to India last weekend, an event that surely Islamabad and Rawalpindi watched closely for tell tale signs of any shift in the Indian mindset. It is entirely conceivable that an inference would have been drawn in Islamabad and Rawalpindi that Delhi has gently, unobtrusively distanced itself from wanton zero sum instincts of the great game in the Hindu Kush. Simply put, there was no 'posturing' toward Pakistan either on the part of Karzai or the Indian leadership.
No sooner than Karzai's talks in Delhi were over – within 48 hours, in fact – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's special advisor on foreign and security policies Sartaj Aziz spoke on India's Afghan policies. Aziz said to the effect that India's friendly relations with Afghanistan is something that Pakistan can learn to live with, but what causes anxiety in Islamabad is any prospect of Delhi extending assistance to any specific Afghan group in that country’s fratricidal war.
At any rate, Rawalpindi extended the invitation to the Indian DGMO within another two days after Aziz spoke, which was four days after Karzai concluded his talks in Delhi. By the way, it is also useful to factor in that on the eve of Karzai’s arrival in Delhi, an aide to Prime Minister Sharif also handed over to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh a letter outlining a new set of proposals to kickstart high level dialogue between the two countries, especially at the level of the national security advisors, and reiterating their invitation to the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan. Since then, Prime Minister Sharif made a public reiteration of Pakistan’s desire for friendly relations with Afghanistan and India. Interestingly, he chose a forum of Pakistan’s military establishment to make this statement on Wednesday.
Now, there have been so many false dawns in the India-Pakistan cogitations over the years that no one can be faulted in harboring a sense of déjà vu. On the other hand, it is also irresponsible to lose hope that India-Pakistan relationship may some day turn the corner.
However, what brings fresh hope is that the India-Pakistan processes will be taking place next week in a setting that is free of American interference and manipulation. The US-Pakistani relationship is on the mend but complex problems remain to be tackled, especially the US’ drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas. On the other hand, the current diplomatic row between Delhi and Washington over the latter’s abominable conduct of detaining an Indian diplomat in New York and subjecting the 39-year old mother of two children on a Manhattan street and subjecting her to what is euphemistically called “cavity search” has shocked the Indian nation and prompted the Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon to call it a “despicable and barbaric” act.
India has demanded an apology from the US for the “insult” caused to India – to borrow the expression from External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid – knowing fully well that one noble trait about Uncle Sam is that he never apologizes, be it for urinating on the Koran in Afghanistan or for killing Iraqi civilians in Fallujah with nuclear-tipped artillery shells or for indulging in ‘rendition’ in Guantanamo Bay.
But the uniqueness of the current diplomatic row is that it has brought to the surface the contradictions in the US-Indian relationship – described by President Barack Obama as a “defining partnership of the 21st century” – that have been accumulating. Plainly put, Americans have many complaints about India’s independent foreign policy – towards Afghanistan, Syria, climate change, Doha Round, Iran and so on. But at the core of the discord would lie two issues, namely, India’s refusal to be part of the US’ “pivot” to Asia and, secondly, the disenchantment in Washington over the non-fulfillment of expectations over the 2008 US-India civil nuclear cooperation agreement.
Delhi has refused to become a “lynchpin” (to use the colorful expression used by the former US defence secretary Leon Panetta while on a visit to India) in the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia. Instead it is distinctly ploughing a lone furrow to normalize India’s relationship with China. In an address at the annual conference of the top Indian military commanders in New Delhi a few days ago, Manmohan Singh openly distanced India from the US’ rebalance strategy and expressed concern over the rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific.
The Pentagon suggested that the scope of the annual US-India naval exercise called Malabar Exercises be expanded this year to include participation by Japan, Australia and Singapore, but Delhi refused, sensing that the American side was bringing it within the ambit of the US’ rebalancing strategy with a heavy overtone of politico-military posturing directed against China. Miffed at the Indian rebuff, Pentagon scaled down its participation at the Malabar Exercises held in the Bay of Bengal last month.
Soon thereafter, Pentagon brusquely called off the apex meeting of the Defence Review Group at the level of the defence secretary that was scheduled to be held in Washington on December 4-6.
Equally, Washington is unhappy that its expectations that the 2008 nuclear deal would generate something like $30 billion (and generate thousands of new jobs in the US economy) in the near term alone, thanks to nuclear commerce, remain unfulfilled – and perhaps, never to be fulfilled – due to the Indian legislation on liability for nuclear accidents. Quite obviously, the US has scaled down the attractions that the Indian market held for boosting American exports and creating jobs
in the US. Suffice to say, the current diplomatic row in the US-Indian relationship is symptomatic of a much bigger malaise.
In a near term, therefore, Delhi and Islamabad are finding themselves on a relatively happy turf where they can hope to work out their problems without the Americans staking claim, as they are wont to, that any good thing can happen in life between these two errant South Asian countries only with Washington’s guidance and benign tutoring. The big issue is whether India and Pakistan will rise to the occasion.
Of course, there is a criticality about the DGMOs meeting next week insofar as nothing can move forward unless there is peace and tranquility on the LOC and there is a modicum of predictability in the relationship. Alas, neither country is a real stakeholder today in a steady partnership. They have got used to living side by side without trading much with each other, with limited people-to-people contacts and largely able to get by in life without cooperation from the other party. The near-term (and medium-term) challenge, clearly, lies in building the sinews of a partnership where the two countries become stakeholders in friendly and good-neighborly ties.
One way this challenge can be addressed is by India and Pakistan partaking of some regional projects where they get to experience the mutual benefits of ‘win-win’ cooperation. Russia can help here. Big energy projects can be a starting point. Of course, there are entrenched pro-American lobbies within the elites of both India and Pakistan who wouldn’t want such things to happen where America is left out in the cold looking in. But with the impending withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the regional climate today is more favorable than at any time in the past two decades.