Context: Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s visit to India is bound to generate much media interest but will make little dent in the indifferent relations between the two countries. Any meaningful change in bilateral relations must necessarily wait until Pakistan has a domestic consensus on foreign policy. The vocal opposition in Islamabad to Bilawal’s visit the first by its foreign minister to India in more than a decade underlines Pakistan’s sharp internal divisions about its external relations at a critical juncture in world politics.
Domestic Politics and Pakistan’s Foreign Policy
- The lack of agreement on India is only one part of Pakistan’s foreign policy problem. The bigger tussle has been on finding a sustainable approach to Pakistan’s engagement with the major powers that are at odds with each other—US, China, and Russia.
- Pakistan is also facing new challenges in Afghanistan and is struggling to cope with the shifting geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East.
- Further there has been latest attacks on the former chief, General Qamar Jawed Bajwa ( Army- the second state). Media has accused Bajwa of making major “compromises” with India on Kashmir; they also alleged that he was claiming that the Pakistan army is in “no position to fight” India.
- Army in the past has made endless meddling in domestic politics. Army helped install Imran Khan as the PM in 2018 and chose to pull him down in 2022. It also unseated Nawaz Sharif on flimsy grounds in 2017 and allowed the Sharif family to come back into the mainstream in 2022.
- Though the impact of Army on domestic politics needs continuous evaluation, it did during the last regime tried to reorient Pakistan’s foreign policy and made a major effort to improve ties with India. The testimony of this approach was announcement of a ceasefire agreement in February 2021 which came after heightened tensions following the Pulwama terror attack and Balakot bombing by India’s Air Force and the Pakistani riposte in February 2019
It has been highlighted that the ceasefire agreement was a product of back-channel talks between the Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and Bajwa. The ceasefire was to be followed by several confidence-building measures to relax tensions between the two countries.
- Army move (under Bajwa) to reduce tensions with India were part of a broader effort to rejig Pakistan’s foreign policy. It was a recognition that current policies are accelerating Pakistan’s relative decline in the region.
- Army’s call to discard Pakistan’s obsession with geopolitics and focus on national development, geoeconomics, and good neighbourly relations underlined the case for Pakistan’s urgent strategic course correction.
- At the same time Government (the first state) had an anti-American posturing saw the deterioration of ties with Washington. The government enthusiasm to be seen in Moscow on the day Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine outraged Europe and the US. Imran also sought to align with Turkey as it sought to wrest the leadership of the Islamic world from Saudi Arabia and picked quarrels with the United Arab Emirates. This in turn undermined the traditional goodwill for Pakistan in the Arab Gulf
Pakistan will need a lot of time and space to get its domestic act together and rebuild a foreign policy consensus. The first priority for India must be to sustain the valuable backchannel to the army leadership in Rawalpindi. Weakened though it is, the Pakistan Army remains the only credible interlocutor for India in the near term.
India and Pakistan have engaged with each other via backchannel from December 2020 till April 2021. However, these talks are at a standstill because of the lack of willingness shown by the two countries to change their stands on the various existing issues.
While Pakistan has welcomed the reports of third-party mediation, India has maintained silence as it goes against its traditional position on diplomacy with Pakistan. India maintains officially that issues with Pakistan are of a bilateral nature that has no space for third party mediation or intervention.
What is Back-Channel diplomacy?
- Back-channel talks are used to talk to each other through non-official channels to discuss and resolve the problems facing the countries.
- It is conducted through foreign diplomats or neutral Governments trusted by both sides desirous of change in status quo.
- It is also a means of restoring the status quo ante in case of difficulties.
- It is also conducted by respected figures in public lives who are known for integrity, accuracy, who are capable of clarity, caution and patience and deep knowledge of the issue.
What are the benefits of such a diplomacy?
- It enables would-be dealmakers to test the waters—to determine whether the other party is capable of negotiating in good faith—before exploring real commitments.
- They can be particularly appealing to high-level leaders who are fearful of a public failure if their efforts to reach a deal collapse.
Backchannel Diplomacy DIPLOMACY IN THE PAST
- Such talks had been initiated by General Zia-ul-Haq and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi through Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan.
- During the Kargil War, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee chose an unorthodox back-channel interlocutor, R.K. Mishra.
- In 2016, six former Pakistani High Commissioners also travelled to Delhi for a Track-II consultation with nine former Indian High Commissioners, where they met NSA Doval and senior MEA officials
Why backchannel now?
- Front door diplomacy is not possible because of a complex past.
- Pakistan’s dire economic condition and the mounting pressure from the Financial Action Task Force to shut down all terrorist safe havens or face severe sanctions is clearly one imperative for Islamabad’s willingness to engage via the backchannel even after India’s decision on J&K.
- To avoid the possible two Front war. UAE’s geostrategic role as a peace broker: In recent years, the UAE has shifted its attention away from military projection to diplomacy, investment and other forms of soft power.
- Abu Dhabi was prime mover in last year’s Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab states.
- UAE played a key role alongside their Saudi counterparts in mediating the 2018 peace deal between Ethiopia & Eritrea.
- The UAE has reduced its footprint in Yemen and drawn down its forces in the Horn of Africa. It is looking to scale back in Libya, where it provided both air cover and material support for the rebel forces of Khalifa Haftar; the Emiratis are now backing a political solution to the civil war.
- UAE has also sought to reduce tensions with Iran and is leading Arab efforts to reengage with the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, having concluded that the war there has effectively ended and that the only way to advance Emirati interests is through political, diplomatic and commercial means.
- UAE’s strong trade & commercial ties to India and Pakistan, and as it is home to millions of Indian and Pakistani expatriate workers makes it uniquely qualified to mediate between the two countries.
- UAE is hoping restoration of trade links between two countries.
- More ambitious still, it is aiming to secure a viable understanding on Kashmir, which has been flashpoint for several wars since their 1947 partition upon independence from British rule.
- South Asian initiative also plays into the UAE’s pursuit of other important foreign-policy objectives. It helps to deepen the partnership with USA by paralleling American efforts to resolve the conflict in neighbouring Afghanistan, where India and Pakistan have competing economic and security interests.
What are the risks?
- Back-channel negotiating may foster costly delays and perpetuate impasse they are designed to overcome.
- They provide only temporary protection from deal spoilers and public scrutiny.
- Such secret negotiations can facilitate early breakthrough agreements but yield diminishing returns when relied on too frequently.