By Michael Kugelman
We should not be the least bit surprised that the NSA-level talks were cancelled.
After all, in recent weeks, the neighboring nemeses have waged a nasty war of words featuring all manner of accusations (from visa denials to destabilization) and threats. Firing along the LoC has intensified. New Delhi suggested that Pakistani fingerprints were all over terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur and Udhampur. Tellingly, there was no exchange of sweets between Indian and Pakistani border guards on their respective independence days.
Then, just the other day, Pakistan extended an invitation to the Hurriyat leadership to attend a reception hosted by the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. When a similar meeting happened a year ago, India called off scheduled foreign-secretary level talks with Pakistan. And now it’s déjà vu all over again.
Had the talks not been cancelled, two men would have sat down for an unpleasant chat. One, Sartaj Aziz, is believed by many to be a mouthpiece for a Pakistani military that is utterly uninterested in reconciliation. The other, Ajit Doval, is one of the most hawkish officials in an Indian government that insists it won’t sit quietly in the face of Pakistani provocations (though the Modi administration has been remarkably restrained after more than a year in power). Soulmates they are not.
The presumptive agenda items for the NSA talks were not exactly low-hanging fruit. Pakistan wanted to talk about Kashmir and about India’s alleged meddling in Baluchistan and Karachi. India wanted to talk about Pakistani terrorism and about justice for those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. These are not easy conversations to have at anytime, much less now, with relations in a deep freeze.
Aziz and Doval would have talked past each other, not with each other. The tone of the talks would have been far from jovial. The optics would have been quite subdued—perhaps limited to some less-than-enthusiastic post-talks handshakes and weak smiles for the cameras. It would have been a far cry from several years back, when the yo-yo of India-Pakistan relations was spinning upward, and the two countries’ beaming premiers attended a cricket match together in India.
So isn’t it good that a diplomatic exercise that would have amounted to going through the motions was cancelled?
Not necessarily, and for three reasons.
First, it could have brought some momentary calm to the LoC, in the form of a joint pledge to exercise more restraint.
To be sure, today’s pledge can be tomorrow’s broken promise. Given the hair-trigger state of the relationship, one can’t reasonably expect either side to hold its fire for long. And let’s face it: If Pakistan decides to send militants across the border and needs to provide them with cover, it will fire and shell away. Still, even a brief lull in the unrest would have been welcome. It would have enabled the two sides to lower temperatures that have risen alarmingly high.
Second, the NSA talks, simply by taking place, would have strengthened the fragile patterns of cooperation that undergird the bilateral relationship.
Indeed, even the current rough patch in relations has featured goodwill gestures. Prime Ministers Modi and Sharif met in Ufa. Modi placed a pre-Ramadan call to Sharif and released detained Pakistani fishermen. Sharif sent mangoes to Modi on Eid and released detained Indian fishermen. Neither side benefits from a complete breakdown in relations, and each side knows that. Pakistan reportedly intended to propose that the two sides resume their foreign-secretary level dialogue. This would have been a wise (albeit unlikely) outcome, because it would have allowed softer issues like trade to be put on the table. Non-security issues can elicit meaningful discussions and enable both parties to chip away just a bit at the relationship’s thick ice.
Third, these talks would have provided some much-needed breathing room. In India’s case, they could have allowed Modi to focus more attention on economic recovery, arguably his top domestic priority.
In effect, India wants the Pakistan problem to be more of a pesky distraction than a serious crisis, so that New Delhi can dedicate more attention to righting its economic ship. Conciliatory measures—such as talks—can help prevent crisis escalation.
Indeed, this is a more reasonable explanation for why Modi originally wanted these talks to go forward, despite their guaranteed low returns, then is an alternative argument that some may make: Modi still harbors a dream of one day having his Nixon-goes-to-China moment. If true, given Pakistan’s irreconcilable military, it is but a distant dream. Additionally, the idea that talks would have allowed India to corner Pakistan on terrorism is suspect; the Pakistanis have no intention of altering their long-entrenched policy of state-sponsored militancy.
Why Pakistan and its anti-reconciliation military had originally agreed to these talks is more of a mystery. Some in India speculated that Islamabad would have used the talks as a platform for grandstanding—a high-profile opportunity to parrot narratives about Kashmir, Indian meddling, and other cherished canards of the Pakistani deep state. Another possibility is that Islamabad wanted to please the United States—a strong advocate of India-Pakistan dialogue—and thereby give Washington more reason to keep the cash and arms flowing to the Pakistani military.
Then again, by courting the Hurriyat, Pakistan may actually have tried to dare India to cancel the talks.
Ultimately, these talks would have yielded little of substance and nothing ground-breaking.
Still, even the most modest of outcomes—pledges to exercise more restraint along the LoC and to hold future talks—would have been advantageous. They would have amplified how, at least for now, cooler heads are prevailing in this dangerous nuclear rivalry. The talks could have provided a modicum of reassurance—and thus not been an exercise in futility.
– Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached on Twitter @michaelkugelman or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This post has been updated after talks between India and Pakistan were called-off Saturday night.