On Sunday, Pakistan and India’s foreign ministers reportedly met for 100 minutes on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York City. According to Reuters, it was “a fresh attempt” to improve bilateral ties between the two nations since the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. However, Pakistan’s Shah Mehmood Qureshi and India’s S.M. Krishna told reporters later that they “did not fix a date” for the resumption of full-fledged peace negotiations, otherwise known as composite talks.
Both sides insisted the meeting was “positive, frank and useful,” but Krishna noted that for a meaningful dialogue to continue, “it is essential to ensure an environment free of violence, terrorism and the threat to use violence.” He added to reporters, “We remain concerned about the threat which groups and individuals in Pakistan continue to pose to us.” And, although he acknowledged the legal action undertaken by Pakistan against suspects in the Mumbai attacks, “a crime of the magnitude that was committed in Mumbai could not have been done by seven or eight individuals.”
Dawn quoted Krishna, who also announced that India had rejected Pakistan’s proposal for back channel diplomacy, noting, “When we have front channel, there’s no need for back channel.” Given that Pakistan had already announced that former Foreign Secretary Riaz Mohammed Khan would be appointed as special envoy in the back channel talks, Krishna’s announcement was slightly embarrassing. The development, however, does raise some interesting questions about back channel diplomacy and its advantages for Indo-Pak ties.
Back channel diplomacy refers to negotiations that take place in secret between parties in dispute or with a neutral third party present. In Pakistan, such talks occurred back in 2003, when a ceasefire pertaining to the Line of Control was negotiated, as well as during Musharraf‘s presidency in 2007. In the March 2, 2009 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll delved into the talks during Musharraf’s era, noting the top diplomats involved – Tariq Aziz from Pakistan and Satinder Lambah from India – were tasked with developing a “non paper” on Kashmir, “a text without names or signatures which can serve as a deniable but detailed basis for a deal.” Khurshid Kasuri, the then-foreign minister, noted the back channel talks were so advanced by 2007 that they’d “come to semicolons.” An Indian official told Coll, “It was huge – I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem…You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.”
The agreement, which was close to being signed [Coll noted that one quarrel over the Sir Creek waterway would be formally settled during a visit by PM Manmohan Singh to Pakistan] was shelved due to political turmoil in Pakistan, i.e. Musharraf’s firing of the Supreme Court justices and the subsequent declaration of the state of emergency. Coll wrote, “In New Delhi, the word in national security circles had been that ‘any day now we’re going to have an agreement on Kashmir…But Musharraf lost his constituencies.”
Since Zardari’s PPP government came to power, there has been talk of reviving the back channel talks of the past and concluding work on this reported “non paper.” From a U.S. standpoint, a breakthrough in Indo-Pak talks would be conducive to shifting Pakistan’s attention to its western border, not to mention that progress could potentially reduce rivalry between the two countries in Afghanistan, [see Myra MacDonald's Reuters blog: Now or Never? for more]. Such an approach has been embraced by the current Pakistani administration, who advocate for front and back channels to “work in tandem.”
There are many advantages of back channel diplomacy. Shuja Nawaz, author of Crossed Swords and director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, told me that back channel talks are “essential to get rid of the undergrowth and to build up vested interest groups of non-official actors. Track I [diplomacy] tends to be stuck in history and detail as the mandarins fight old battles over and over again.” Ultimately, in atmospheres that are as charged as India and Pakistan, this type of back channel diplomacy bypasses the need to toe party lines and spout rhetoric. Coll, in his New Yorker piece, even noted the aforementioned “non paper” was a factor in tempering India’s response after the Mumbai attacks.
Despite these advantages, back channel talks can only be successful if trust exists between the two nations, and if both sides want to come to the table. Given the environment in India following the Mumbai attacks, there is a deep mistrust in New Delhi of Pakistan’s ability to control militancy within and outside its borders. And, despite Islamabad’s eagerness to enter into negotiations, the issue of Balochistan and India’s alleged involvement in the restive province also hinders the potential for successful peace talks. Moreover, Pakistan’s very publicized call for back channel diplomacy seems almost counter-intuitive, since the benefit of such talks is that they bypass constituency pressures.
Should Indo-Pak back channel talks resume? Given the current status quo in Indo-Pak relations, this alternate form of diplomacy could be instrumental in jump starting the peace process. But due to the above mentioned factors, the nature of the talks would be different from the ones that took place in 2007. A neutral third party would change the previous dynamic, but could help broker negotiations, acting as a bridge in bringing the two state actors to an even table.