New Talks, Old Fears
By Dr Maleeha Lodhi
12 May, 2010
Last month's meeting between the prime ministers of Pakistan and India yielded an agreement to resume the stalled dialogue between the two countries. The diplomatic challenge now is to find a way of reconciling different visions of how that dialogue should proceed and what it should address.
The format and agenda of future talks were not discussed at Thimphu. This means that the very ambiguities that enabled an agreement to emerge can frustrate further progress.
The diplomatic ice was broken by an hour-long conversation between Prime Ministers Yusuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh that took place on the sidelines of the 16th summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc). The two leaders agreed that their foreign ministers and foreign secretaries should meet to figure out modalities for future talks. The foreign ministers' meeting is now expected after the budget session of the Lok Sabha.
The outcome was welcomed in both nations as a necessary step to prevent further regression in the fraught relationship. But it was also accompanied by doubts whether the latest effort at rapprochement would set relations on a more normal course.
What was revived was not the dialogue suspended by Delhi in November 2008 in the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attack, but a process of talks whose details have yet to be settled.
If the most meaningful aspect of the thaw at Thimphu was that the next stage of diplomatic engagement is more talks about talks, then caution is in order. There is a long way to go before the way is cleared for the renewal of a broad-based and purposeful dialogue.
Both Delhi and Islamabad conceded ground to break the diplomatic impasse. Until now India had insisted that Pakistan take prior action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks before the renewal of broader talks. Pakistan, on the other hand, wanted a return to the composite dialogue of 2004-08 that was halted by India after Mumbai. In the past year India has flatly refused to resume the composite talks, while engaging sporadically with Pakistan and indicating that it was prepared to only talk about terrorism.
The agreement at Thimphu meant Delhi put aside its "terrorism only" approach to talks, while Islamabad gave up the term "composite" dialogue to move the process forward. The apparent Indian willingness to discuss "all issues of mutual concern" seemed to give Pakistan reason not to insist on "nomenclature" on the premise that it would be able to pursue the composite dialogue in all but name.
For its part, the Pakistani side accommodated not only the Indian insistence on dropping the term "composite" but also the suggestion that no reference be made to the earlier understanding reached in July 2009 at Sharm el-Sheikh (where the composite dialogue was decoupled from the terrorism issue following the meeting between the two prime ministers). Pakistani officials also reiterated the assurance that Pakistan's territory will not be allowed to be used for terrorist attacks against India.
Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi confidently declared that "all eight issues that were discussed in the composite dialogue will be part" of the upcoming talks with Delhi.
This is by no means assured when the format, scope and agenda of the process have yet to be agreed. Caution is also urged by recent experience. The February talks between the foreign secretaries that aimed at repairing relations and kick-starting the dialogue ended in disappointment. No agreement emerged on even a schedule for further talks. This suggests that the diplomatic reengagement will creep rather than leap forward, on what can be expected to be a bumpy road.
The path to a full-fledged dialogue is strewn with many difficulties and obstacles. For now the foreign ministers and their secretaries have been mandated to meet to assess the reasons for the current stalemate. The Indian view conveyed in the discussions at Bhutan was that trust and confidence had to first be restored for the process to advance.
What this means in practice is yet to be ascertained. But it could involve a protracted diplomatic dance aimed at trust-building before substantive exchanges get underway. In his May 3 statement to parliament the Indian foreign minister cited Manmohan Singh as telling Gilani that "if the trust deficit between India and Pakistan can be eliminated, all issues can be resolved through dialogue." This seems like a big "if" for wider talks.
While Delhi clearly prefers a step-by-step, confidence-building approach Islamabad wants the process to transition quickly to a broader dialogue that aims at dispute resolution.
Many Pakistani officials fear that a graduated step-by-step approach may provide Delhi the means to use each stage of that process as a lever to press Islamabad on Delhi's demands. Indian papers have quoted their officials to say that the dialogue will be focused on "confidence-building measures relating to terrorism." From this perspective, building trust could mean that the contours of future engagement will be determined by actions Islamabad takes to satisfy Delhi.
This presents the diplomatic challenge of finding a way to address mutual doubts and reconcile the differing priorities and concerns of the two sides in order to move towards normalisation.
Although Delhi has signalled the willingness to take up "all issues," it continues to avoid returning to the framework of the "composite" dialogue. In the past year's exchanges with Islamabad, Indian officials have questioned the utility and relevance of the composite process and conveyed to Pakistan that the issues that warrant priority attention are different today. This raises the question of how Delhi will seek to recast the dialogue.
The merit of the "composite" dialogue construct was that by identifying eight baskets of issues, it was able to craft a common agenda because the broad-based format reflected the varying priorities of the two countries. Originally Islamabad's phrase of choice to describe this framework was "integrated" dialogue, while Delhi preferred to call it a "composite" process.
The principles that informed Pakistan's approach in fashioning this architecture for engagement are worth recalling. The agenda of eight issue areas tied together by the notion of "integrated" dialogue meant that the principle of "simultaneity" was injected into the process.
The expectation was that all issue areas would be addressed simultaneously, and not consecutively--i.e., placing one issue before the other, or making the resolution of any one issue a precondition for discussion of the others. This was also meant to prevent one side from cherry picking and moving only on issues of its concern and not responding to the other's priorities.
This "mutuality" helped sustain a wide-gauge process that involved multilayered talks and the creation of a web of multiple interactions across different ministries.
A second principle was that of broad-based engagement, so as to bring to the dialogue a comprehensive–not selective–approach, as the latter would expose the peace process to fragmentation, even disruption. This also meant the rejection of a step-by-step approach.
A pragmatic consideration also lay behind the construct of the "integrated dialogue." As progress on all tracks would not proceed at the same speed or make similar advancement, "integrated" dialogue aimed to ensure that all tracks of engagement would remain in play, with no issue ignored or cast aside because of its difficult or vexed nature.
The third principle that undergirds this dialogue was the pursuit of "comprehensive" peace, without which the normalisation process was deemed to be shallow and vulnerable to deadlock.
Looking ahead, these principles--which served the interests of both sides in the past--can offer an instructive guide to finding a mutually agreed framework for the pursuit of peace. And while process is important, it is the substance of the engagement that will determine whether the latest diplomatic effort heralds a new beginning or turns into another false start.
The writer is a former envoy to the US and the UK, and a former editor of The News.