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February 11, 2020

The ground has shifted

Opinion

February 11, 2020

A lot has changed in the six months since India’s unilateral annexation of occupied Kashmir.In Pakistan, both the appetite for dialogue with India and any ensuing belief in the utility of strategic restraint (if pushed) stand drastically diminished. The shift in public and political attitudes towards India after August 5 cannot be underemphasized.

Following the UPA’s ouster in India in 2014, the strategic community in Pakistan had decided to give the newly invested Modi government the benefit of doubt, by advocating for dialogue and better relations despite the new leader’s disturbing reputation. But the BJP’s insistence on stonewalling goodwill gestures out of Islamabad, and its intransigence on the issue of dialogue steadily eroded confidence and goodwill on this side of the border. After India let slide another opportunity presented by Prime Minister Imran Khan’s election, followed by a near war run-in last February, and finally India’s usurpation of the 1972 Simla Agreement through its unilateral annexation and bifurcation of Kashmir, further diplomatic outreach by Pakistan is unlikely.

As Indian opinion makers maintain that Pakistanis accept the new status quo as a fait accompli, three policy directions seem to be available to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government to choose from going forward.

The first option – the tractable option – is for Islamabad to firmly maintain its current policy of disengagement, including the currently downgraded embassy presence in both capitals, continued suspension of trade, a rejection of bilateral meetings at any level, and minimal engagement on multilateral forums such as the SCO.

The challenge here is that New Delhi will quickly attempt to demonstrate that its alleged attempts to constructively engage its erstwhile bete noire are not only being rebuffed, but that that the establishment in Pakistan continues to be a regional spoiler locked in the past instead of the future. Given the sheer power differential in diplomatic options available to India and Pakistan, not to mention Modi’s adroit co-optation of business interests abroad and media machines at home, it will only be a matter of time before international pressure converges on Islamabad to accept the decision of August 5, and to meet India, however reluctantly, at some least-offensive middle-ground.

The second option for Islamabad – the risky option – is to coolly accept what has happened in Kashmir as evidence of the intent expressed in the earliest of BJP party manifestos; for it to view August 5 as the ultimate expression of the incompatibility of Pakistani interests and Indian designs, and to quietly prepare for the next phase of confrontation, likely to flow from another high-casualty/false-flag attack in occupied Kashmir as the curfew lifts, or worse, an explicit Indian military operation to seize territory in Azad Kashmir. The clear and present danger here, obviously, is the easy slide into nuclear confrontation, and no guarantee of an off-ramp once the crisis is underway.

Finally there is a third option – a midwicket option: for Pakistan to prepare for talks about talks, a strategy favoured and steadily honed by the NDA government itself viz Pakistan since 2014. This option, if played correctly, will entail the following: not ruling out the possibility of engaging India, but maintaining that talks can only happen “when the time is right” and with fixed pre-conditions, eg the lifting of the curfew and media and communications blackout in Indian Occupied Kashmir and some demonstrable guarantee of the rights and freedoms in the Valley.

It will also entail building pressure on India by maintaining that existing bilateral agreements “are under review”, while internationally flexing Chapter VII Article 39 to urge the UNSC (with Beijing’s support) to uphold UN resolutions on Kashmir; creating (and selling) a powerful international human rights narrative against India’s employment of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in the disputed territory, emphasizing that India continues to be in contravention of international laws in its targeting of civilians by security forces; and finally geopolitically signalling the risks of conflict spill over inside and outside South Asia.

The advantage of this third option is that it signals Pakistan’s political reasonableness to the audiences that matter – neutral third party capitals with stakes in engaging both Islamabad and New Delhi, as well as the FATF, IMF et al – without legitimizing an unacceptable status quo, one that religio-politicians in India have tried to impose with brute force (and that Kashmiris both inside and outside Pakistan, as well as Pakistani political parties across the board firmly reject).

Utilizing this option also means the compulsion to engage will, for the first time in almost ten years, not be driven by terrorism, India’s go-to bogey to avoid any meaningful engagement. Finally, this approach validates Pakistan’s domestic and regional commitments to stability in the neighbourhood, and its continued belief in the value of diplomatic engagement.

Today Pakistan remains the region’s single-biggest champion of a negotiated settlement to end the war in Afghanistan, and has twice in the last year played a role in crisis de-escalation in the Persian Gulf. In 2020, Pakistan will continue to enhance and diversify its partnerships with Moscow and Washington. Pakistan’s trump card is a president in the United States who is likely to win a second term, and has made clear he is capable of going beyond ‘the script’ on Kashmir.

Domestically, meanwhile, a temporary reprieve on pro-peace messaging on India will check internal polarization in Pakistan, and will give the government a chance to solicit the opinions of domestic stakeholders vis-a-vis future outreach to the Kashmiri leadership, and when the time is right, stakeholders in New Delhi.

The India and Pakistan relationship is likely to remain an inhospitable one in 2020, and nobody expects ties to undergo a substantive repair in the near or even medium term. But navigating this uncertainty requires some degree of resourcefulness, and ultimately a policy that puts a premium on securing the rights and freedoms of the Kashmiri people – values that India will continue to try to thwart.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Yale.

Twitter @fahdhumayun