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May 11, 2021

Is the backchannel delivering?

The flags of India and Pakistan. File photo

Few things would be as transformational for the long-term wellbeing of the Pakistani people as the resolution of the Kashmir dispute and a meaningful process of normalization and de-escalation between Pakistan and India.

The backchannel talks that have been taking place between the two countries since the spring of 2018 therefore should be a source of hope for the country and the region. Sadly, for those that have invested years of effort in Pakistan-India normalization, the evidence from this process thus far does not indicate that it can yield the two things that are necessary prerequisites for Pakistanis to be satisfied that their interests are being addressed. These two things are: a fair and sustainable resolution to the Kashmir issue; and a permanent end to India’s aspirations as a regional hegemonic power.

Of course, to judge a backchannel process on the outcomes that it should achieve, without giving the process the time and space necessary to deliver, smacks of a certain unfairness. It is certainly possible that by the end of the current process, the issue of Kashmir is indeed resolved in a fair and sustainable manner, and it is also possible that India’s leaders engage in deep introspection and conclude that the country’s current path – rooted in a false notion of Hindu supremacism – needs to be abandoned in favour of an alternative, non-hegemonic destiny for the people and state of India. Anyone that is currently optimistic about the current backchannel process has good reasons to be so. The payoff is just so enormous, and so profound that the journey is well worth some risk. But how much risk, exactly?

In the absence of the process being concluded, and thus our being unable to judge the absence of necessary outcomes, how should Pakistanis assess the backchannel talks. Luckily, about three years or thirty-six months since the backchannel process began, Pakistanis have a slew of direct and indirect Indian actions and India-related events to choose from, to help assess the progress of these backchannel talks.

Let’s first identify the positive outcomes thus far. From February 2018 to July 2018, there was an unmistakable and substantial reduction in the level of violence on the Line of Control (LOC). This reduction is almost certainly a product of the backchannel between the two countries. This is not just obvious from observable LOC violence data, but also from open-source reporting of an agreement to dial down cross-LOC fire from both countries’ DGMOs in late May of 2018.

Fast forward to 2021, and the news of a formal agreement between the DGMOs for a restoration of the LOC ceasefire of 2003 is a clear positive outcome of the backchannel process. So, one clear outcome, and an important one, is the reduction of risk on the LOC, and the improvement in the quality of lives of the people of Kashmir, on both sides of the LOC, but particularly the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, for whom LOC violence is more meaningful, given the thicker and denser population that inhabits the LOC-adjacent areas on the Azad Kashmir side of the LOC.

A dramatically more robust implementation of Pakistan’s counterterrorism laws is another positive outcome that Pakistanis can observe since 2018. Over the last three years, UN Security Council Resolution 1267 listed terrorist organizations such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) have had the noose of state power squeeze them harder and harder – reducing the space for Pakistan’s critics at multilateral fora like the FATF. This may or may not be an outcome from the backchannel process, but Indian strategists are likely to claim this to be the case. Since a better counterterrorism effort is clearly something that myself and many other Pakistani patriots have argued for since at least 2008, as being in Pakistan’s strategic and national security interests, one would not mind the backchannel process to claim this positive outcome for Pakistan.

Other positive outcomes are harder to argue for. Senior officials speaking off the record have said that there are some confidence-building measures that India has taken in recent months that signal its will to continue building on the positive LOC outcome, and this may well be true, but there is no evidence of such measures that is easily visible to the naked eye.

Now the bad news. Since the spring of 2018, despite the presence of a backchannel that has the support of a key Pakistani ally, and the personal interest and engagement of some of the most powerful officials in Pakistan, India has taken kinetic and non-kinetic measures against Pakistan that signal not an appetite for peace, or normalization, but an appetite for war, and escalating hegemonic dominance.

The February 2019 Balakot attack fundamentally altered the escalatory shape of conflict in South Asia – so the less said about it, the better. The August 5, 2019 attack was much worse, as it altered the fabric and structure of India’s occupation of Kashmir, and its buttressing of these changes with a brutal lockdown that denied basic medical services, internet access and the freedoms of movement, association and expression to the people of Kashmir. This is so profound a breach of confidence by India that anyone endorsing a backchannel to continue, despite this blatant violation of trust, deserves a Nobel peace prize consideration for such an obsession for engagement with India.

Either way, the status of Kashmir, now altered, merits deep reflection within Pakistan. If the UN Security Council resolutions that define the dispute are ignored in service of a larger set of Pakistani national interests, such a change would need to be debated in parliament, and agreed on by not only parliament, but by the wider national discourse. Thus far, the appetite for such a shift in thinking, or even the work required to bring about such a shift in thinking is not apparent.

The degree of pressure that has been brought to bear on Pakistani officials in their negotiations at multilateral fora such as the FATF may not be currently primed by India’s diplomatic and political efforts, but it is certainly anchored in New Delhi. The FATF grey listing has not changed in the three years of the backchannel.

India’s national discourse, even during the tragic and heart-wrenching spike of the Covid-19 pandemic there, continues to treat Pakistan, and Muslims, as interchangeable, bringing enormous and destructive misery to the lives of Indian Muslims, and continued demonization of Pakistan – as the bread and butter of the Indian media. There has been no change in this appetite for hatred despite three years of the backchannel.

Perhaps worst of all, the last six months have seen a horrendous uptick in terrorist violence in Afghanistan, much of which the Afghan Taliban claim to not be behind, and an even more worrying escalation in attacks by the TTP and other terrorist groups targeting Pakistan. For the last decade, these groups are known to be supported materially, in spirit and financially by New Delhi.

A meaningful backchannel process should at least be able to deliver some respite for Pakistan’s incomparably brave soldiers and policemen. Instead, every week, there is a new terrorist attack in which Pakistan Army soldiers, paramilitary soldiers and policemen are being killed. In the last month alone, there have been more than a dozen terrorist attacks, including a brazen attempt to destroy the Quetta Serena Hotel – all of which are sourced to the TTP, the most widely known India-backed terrorist group in the region.

Annexing Kashmir, launching terrorist attacks on Pakistani soldiers, and continuing its diplomatic and political offensive through lawfare, are exactly what Pakistani leaders ought to expect from a Hindu supremacist regime in New Delhi. Narendra Modi and the messianic cult around him have delivered exactly what Pakistan should have expected. What is unexpected is for a process of normalization and one-sided de-escalation to continue despite PM Modi’s continued machinations.

Pakistani leaders must now decide whether this high-risk, and high-stakes gamble is likely to pay off, and who will own the stench of strategic defeat if it does not. Once India is able to claim the strategic victory its hegemonic hawks have sought for seventy years, it will be too late for retrospection, or parliamentary debate, or on-the-record briefings. A robust and meaningful engagement with India requires much more transparency, robustness, and evidence of positive outcomes than what we have seen so far from this backchannel process.