Pakistan’s army chief has launched talks with nemesis India to secure an eventual meeting between the neighbouring countries’ prime ministers, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The back-channel negotiations are being facilitated by the United Arab Emirates and are designed to defuse one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the people said. The steps towards rapprochement were taken two years after a terrorist attack in India brought the two countries to the brink of war.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa has told India’s national security adviser that he was prepared to declare a moratorium on fighting in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory that has been a battleground between Pakistan and India for decades, the people said.
Any long-lasting peace between the nuclear-armed rivals would redefine the strategic map in Asia. Pakistan and India have fought three large conflicts since independence in 1947, with Islamabad maintaining that Muslim-majority Kashmir should be liberated from New Delhi’s rule.
Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, and India’s Narendra Modi have powerful incentives to achieve peace.
Both need to revive their economies after the toll of the coronavirus pandemic while Modi is facing heightened tensions along India’s border with China.
The latest initiative, reportedly launched by Bajwa in January and backed by Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE’s ruler, and his national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan made a positive start with a ceasefire on February 25.
The next steps include reopening border trade, pandemic response co-operation and India’s participation in an anti-terror drill to be held in Pakistan. If successful, a meeting between the prime ministers could happen in the next 12 months.
“There is a senior-level dialogue going on in preparation for a potential meeting between Modi and Imran Khan,” said a person with knowledge of the back-channel efforts.
Multiple previous attempts at peace talks have unravelled, sometimes because of terrorist attacks against India. Bajwa is pushing for peace almost two years after Modi revoked the special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under India’s constitution that allowed the region to govern its own affairs.
Pakistan flip-flopped last week on the trade commitment, announcing it would allow sugar and cotton imports from India, then backtracking, saying trade would only resume once Kashmir’s special status was restored.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistan minister for human rights, said Khan had declared there would be no normalisation of relations with India until the situation in Kashmir returned to the “status quo” of two years ago.
Pakistan military’s public relations arm also denied that Bajwa had pledged a moratorium on hostilities. “It's a pack of lies,” said a spokesman. “It is all speculation.”
India’s external affairs ministry declined to comment on the talks.
However, an Indian government official said the talks were still going ahead and that the rhetoric from Khan’s government was intended to satisfy the conservative element in his support base. Politicians “have to make these symbolic gestures”, the official said.
Analysts said Bajwa was desperate to end the costly military engagement with India and reset frayed ties with the US.
Infiltration attempts by Pakistani militants into Indian Kashmir have reportedly fallen sharply.
“Pakistan has a serious credibility problem and they have to address it to move forward,” said Husain Haqqani, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistan ambassador to the US.
Khan’s government is also under pressure after failing to expand the economy and fulfil promises to build an Islamic welfare state. On Monday, the former cricket captain appointed the third finance minister of his administration after restarting a $6bn IMF bailout programme.
“It is imperative that Pakistan is at peace with its neighbours,” said Raoof Hasan, special assistant to Khan. “Economic security is vital.”
In the weeks since the ceasefire was announced, Bajwa has struck a conciliatory tone, saying it was time to “bury the past and move forward”. He lamented that the potential of Kashmir has “remained hostage” to the dispute, conspicuously omitting any reference to restoring its special status.
India has reciprocated in kind. Modi made headlines in India for wishing Khan a speedy recovery from coronavirus on Twitter. India’s army chief said the line of control, which separates Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir, had been “silent” for the first time in five years. He added: “This really bodes well for the future.”
But New Delhi was circumspect about Pakistan’s promises. General Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee came tantalisingly close to signing a deal in the early 2000s before talks broke down.
“They want to keep Kashmir on the back burner, this is the first time Pakistan is keen to do it,” said the Indian government official. “But if there is an [terrorist] attack, this will fail.”
Additional reporting by Simeon Kerr in Dubai
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