In recent weeks, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan on October 24, 2017 and his visit to New Delhi visit on October 25, and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s visit to New Delhi on October 24, have drawn significant attention to South Asia’s geo-political situation.
If one were to look beyond these visits, a number of other interesting developments have taken place recently in the context of India-Pakistan ties which have been frosty for some time. Since the Pathankot attacks in January 2016, the bilateral relationship has witnessed a clear downward spiral.
A few interesting developments have taken place in recent weeks:
First, India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj, who has exhibited dexterity in handling a number of complex foreign policy issues with distinction, made an announcement that all deserving Pakistani citizens will be granted visas. Tweeted the Indian Foreign Minister: “On the auspicious occasion of Deepawali, India will grant medical Visa in all deserving cases pending today.”
Sushma Swaraj also met with the Pakistani envoy to India, Sohail Mahmood, on October 21. The Pakistan foreign office dubbed this as a routine call by the recently appointed envoy.
New Delhi also appointed Dineshwar Sharma to Jammu and Kashmir, as an interlocutor to reach out to the myriad of stakeholders. Sharma had served as head of the Intelligence Bureau from December 2014-2016. Sharma’s appointment order stated: “The President is pleased to appoint Shri Dineswar Sharma, former director of the Intelligence Bureau, as the representative of the government of India to initiate and carry forward a dialogue with elected representatives, various organisations and concerned individuals in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.”
The key question on many people’s minds is if these developments were driven by a nudge from Washington, given that all the above developments took place around the time of Tillerson’s visits. If so, is it driven by the fact that it wants to help Pakistan save face given that it has been extremely tough on Islamabad in recent months, and would not like to shut down communication? In August 2017, days after Trump’s dressing down of Pakistan, the US State Department spokesman stated: “I think one of the things that we would do is ask or encourage India and Pakistan to sit down together and engage in direct dialogue that is aimed at reducing tensions between both of those countries.”
Over the past few months, Pakistan has received stern warnings from the Trump Administration. President Donald Trump, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and the US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley have all sent an unequivocal message that Pakistan should stop lending support to terrorist groups. The Trump administration has warned about withdrawing non-NATO status from Pakistan and spoken about reduction of military aid, but functionaries have also said that they are willing to give one last chance to Pakistan. On the eve of his visit to India and Pakistan, Tillerson said: “We are concerned about future stability of Pakistan as much as Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to take a clear-eyed view of the situation they are confronted with.” During his visit to Pakistan, Tillerson again reiterated the point that Pakistan needs to take action against terrorist groups.
It is tough to argue whether there is any US influence, but New Delhi realizes that Washington will not dump Pakistan all of a sudden. After Pakistan helped secure the release of a North American family (Caitlan Coleman, a US citizen, and her Canadian husband Joshua Boyle) who were held hostage by the Haqqani Network, the US President was quick to praise Pakistan.
Given all these factors, New Delhi may at some stage think about giving one final chance of peace to Pakistan. The key question is: Beyond terrorism, what are the substantive issues in which New Delhi can engage with Islamabad?
The Trump Administration has been unpredictable vis-à-vis Iran, and has spoken about scrapping the Nuclear Agreement signed in 2015. On more than one occasion, this has caused some discontent in New Delhi, given that India is investing heavily in the Chabahar Port project, which will provide India with access to both Afghanistan and Central Asia. During Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Iran in May 2016, not only did New Delhi sign an agreement for development of the Port, but also a Trilateral Agreement on the Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor.
For even more effective bilateral trade, Pakistan needs to grant India Most Favored Nation status, which it has continuously dithered and is unlikely to happen over the next few months.
Significantly, on October 29, India sent its first consignment of wheat to Afghanistan via Chabahar Port, a clear reiteration of the fact that India gives high priority to this project, and both New Delhi and Tehran have categorically affirmed their commitment to early completion of the project. The shipment was flagged off from Kandla Port in Gujarat. Indian Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart Salahuddin Rabbani joined the ceremony through video conferencing. Over the next few months, six more shipments of wheat are likely to be sent to Afghanistan.
Chabahar Port is important for India because Pakistan has kept India out of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, much to Afghanistan’s discomfort. According to this agreement, Afghan goods can be sold to India, but trucks are not allowed to enter Indian territory or unload at the Wagah border. Kabul had pitched for New Delhi to be part of this agreement on repeated occasions, and even threatened to stop the entry of Pakistan trucks into Afghanistan. It is only recently that Afghanistan has banned the entry of Pakistani trucks. The Afghan Transport Ministry Spokesman said:
“The Afghanistan and Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA) has expired. Before this Pakistan did not allow Afghan trucks to enter its territory. So we do the same and after this Pakistani trucks will be unloaded at borders and Afghan trucks will carry the goods to Hairatan and Shir Khan ports.”
In a lecture delivered at New Delhi, the Afghan President categorically reiterated that if Pakistan did not provide transit access to Wagah and Attari for trade with India via Pakistan, then Kabul would be compelled to restrict Islamabad’s access to Central Asia. President Ghani also spoke about the potential for Afghanistan to emerge as an important hub: “We are clear, we want to be what we call an Asian roundabout. This is important for integration of the Asian economy.”
During a meeting with President Ghani in Kabul on October 1, the Pakistani army chief, Qamar Jawad Bajwa told Ghani that Pakistan was ready to talk to India regarding transit issues. Ghani conveyed this to India through its embassy in Afghanistan, but the offer was turned down, with India stating that Islamabad’s offer was not genuine and that New Delhi had no role to play given that this was a bilateral treaty. Given the Pakistan establishment’s zero-sum approach towards bilateral ties with India, New Delhi is likely to focus on the Chabahar Project. A change of mindset from the Pakistani side and Indian flexibility would be a win-win and could reduce tensions in the region.
The second possibility is giving a further fillip to economic ties especially through the Wagah-Attari trade route. Given the increasing resentment with China in sections of Pakistan’s business community, this could be an effective way of reaching out to certain lobbies in Pakistan which are opposed to Chinese domination. For even more effective bilateral trade, Pakistan needs to grant India Most Favored Nation status, which it has continuously dithered and is unlikely to happen over the next few months.
In addition, goodwill gestures like granting visas to ordinary Pakistani citizens are always welcome for lowering the temperature. Apart from medical visas for Pakistani citizens, people-to-people exchanges through religious tourism must be given a further push and exchanges between common people must continue.
New Delhi should not be totally averse to engagement with Pakistan. Yet, India needs to be categorical, and revival of engagement with Pakistan should not just be a symbolic act with an eye on the West (especially the US) or for merely saving face to Pakistan’s civilian government. The first test for Pakistan would be whether or not it can genuinely change its behavior towards terrorist groups targeting India. So far, the action on the ground has been minimal, and in fact terrorist groups have been mainstreamed with the Milli Muslim League (MML), a front for Lashkar-e-Tayyeba.
Lastly, Pakistan needs to show pragmatism and exhibit greater self-confidence in the economic context and emerge as an interface between India, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. It would do well to learn from other neighbors like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh, which has kept robust ties with China while improving ties with India, has emerged as an important economic player in South Asia and is positioning itself as a connector between South Asia and Southeast Asia. Pakistan has a golden opportunity to emerge as an important transit hub in South Asia, but it remains to be seen whether it will be willing to shed its zero-sum approach, as well as whether external powers, especially US and China, can play a role in convincing Islamabad to focus on more robust ties and connectivity with its South Asian neighbors.