India's National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, his Pak counterpart Sartaj Azi
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The curtain has finally come down on the planned NSA- level
talks between India and Pakistan that were scheduled to take place in New Delhi
on 23 and 24 August. It is not an unexpected development; indeed, the writing
on the wall has been clear for almost a week before the D-Day. What has
surprised, however, observers is the manner in which Pakistan executed its game
plan. First it tried its best to make New Delhi to blink first and when the
ploy did not work, it walked away from the talks putting the blame on India.
Pakistan's National Security Adviser Sartaj Aziz, who is also the de facto Foreign Minister, offered some insight into Rawalpindi Shura's pressure on Islamabad after the Prime Ministers of the two countries met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in the Russian city of Ufa last month. He was a party to the joint briefing/statement by the Foreign Secretaries on the Modi-Sharif meeting, which was not a structured exercise. Kashmir did not figure in the statement, which had set the stage for India hosting the now aborted NSA -level talks on terrorism.
Talking to his media interlocutors, Aziz ruled out talks with India without Kashmir on the table. This was the first clear and unambiguous signal that the Sharif government was ticked off by the GHQ Shura, which, as American scholar, Michael Kugelman says, reduced Prime Minister Sharif's turf space last year even on domestic scene by engineering anti-government protests through Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e- Islam (PTI) party.
Two things happened as a result of these demonstrations staged in the heart of Islamabad. One whatever little leeway Sharif had over foreign policy vis--vis India and Afghanistan simply disappeared. Two Sharif's alter egos like Sartaj Aziz have been reduced to His Master Voices of the Army Chief Raheel Sharif to the dismay of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The second indication of Pakistan trying to wriggle out of the NSA-level talks was the long delay of 22 days in Islamabad's response to New Delhi's formal invitation sent to Aziz on July 23 to come to India for two-day talks with his counterpart Ajit Doval. The response came only on August 14 with a spin on the agenda for talks. This period saw Pakistani forces indulge in massive ceasefire violations in a bid to provoke India into calling off the talks.
As a perceptive observer notes, the Pakistani military's swagger these days is meant to send "a message to the Indians, the Pakistani government, and anyone else for that matter that it is still very much in charge". In a manner of speaking Prime Minister Sharif can be said to have queered the pitch when he did not talk about Kashmir with his Indian counterpart in Ufa, and thus angered the security establishment of his country. Whether he did so by design or accident is not germane to this narrative. The jury is divided though.
One section of Pakistan observers believe that Nawaz is sincere in his resolve to let the dialogue resume with India in order to facilitate trade with his nuclear neighbour. A contrary view that has many takers in and outside India is that Nawaz, who owed his political baptism to the Army and ISI during the Gen Zia regime, was party to the design to sabotage the New Delhi talks right from the word go. If this view is taken as true, then the inevitable and, in fact, inescapable conclusion will be that Sharif had ducked Kashmir in Ufa as part of a well laid out plan for grandstanding against India.
On its part, India hoped almost till the last moment, going by the statement of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Aug 22 that Pakistan would see reason and the NSAs would talk as scheduled. This hope was belied when Pakistan insisted that Aziz would talk to the separatist Hurriyat Conference leaders before he met Doval. Pakistan knew that the proposition would not be acceptable to India, which has set the ground rule against such talks last year itself saying Hurriyat is not a party to the India-Pak talk on Kashmir. It was for this very reason India had called off the 2014 Secretary level.
Under the Ufa plan, the police chiefs of the two countries were to meet before the NSA- level talks. But Pakistan proposed a change in the sequence rising doubts about its intentions. It proposed that the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers should meet after the NSAs-meet. Pakistan did not give a date for the meeting between the directors general of the Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers or the two DGMOs (directors general of military operations) either. What was more post-Ufa there were as 99 ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB).
The two terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur of Punjab and Udhampur in Jammu & Kashmir have been traced to Pakistan. One of the terrorists involved in the Udhampur attack, Naved, was nabbed by the local people and thus presented a live evidence of Pakistani hand in terrorism on the Indian soil. Had Sartaj Aziz come to India, India would have presented "a live dossier" to him to back up its charge against Pakistan. Now, Aziz's decision to call of his date with Doval raises the obvious question: Did he want to avoid the embarrassment that Doval has set in store for him on terrorism?
Aziz-Doval talks would have set the stage for reviving the composite dialogue process that has been stalled since 2012 in the wake of the beheading of an Indian soldier by the Pakistani troops. There is a clear give away to the Pakistani thinking in the statement Islamabad issued after calling off Aziz visit "It is not improbable that India can delay the resumed dialogue indefinitely by concocting one or two incidents and keeping the LoC hot", the statement said, which inter alia means that Pakistan is unwilling to accept Naved as its citizen even after a resident of Faisalabad (Pakistan) identified him as his son who had gone wayward.
Denial mode is not new to Pakistan. It did not accept Ajmal Kasab, the lone gunman nabbed during 28/11 -- Mumbai mayhem engineered by Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) in 2008. For years it denied the presence of Osama bin Laden on its soil. Nor did it admit formally the presence of one-eyed Mullah Omar and his Shura in Quetta. And for Pakistan, the death of the Taliban supreme leader was a well guarded state secret for two years. The 'news' became public largely on account of internal rifts in the Taliban. And these rifts came to the surface because Pakistan, under the Chinese pressure, is in an overdrive to push forward the Murree dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban. Put simply, denial mode is a clutch that helps Pakistan to avoid inconvenient questions.
While ending the speculation on whether Sartaj Aziz would travel to New Delhi on Aug 23 as planned, the Pakistan Foreign Office made two observations. One that Pakistan reiterates the scheduled NSA talks cannot be held on the basis of the preconditions set by India. Two that India wants to unilaterally restrict the agenda to only two items -- creating an atmosphere free from terrorism and [ensuring] tranquility along the Line of Control (LoC).
Saying that terrorism had always been part of the eight-point composite dialogue, the statement said: "It is not reasonable for India to now assume the right to decide unilaterally that from now onwards other issues will be discussed after terrorism has been discussed and eliminated." India's pre-condition of scrapping Aziz's meeting with the Hurriyat leaders also did not go down well with Pakistan. "It would be inappropriate for India to now impose the condition of changing this long standing practice", the Pak foreign office said.
Frankly, these arguments don't stand scrutiny. Indian Minister Swaraj did not refuse to let the NSAs talk on other issues. She only said keeping the spirit of Ufa, don't expand the subject of talks beyond terrorism. "Pakistan is saying Kashmir is the core issue (now) but they did not say so in Ufa. Talk on terror first, we can talk on Kashmir later", she told the media on Aug 22.