ISLAMABAD - Pakistan finally blinked in what some observers called an absurd game of diplomatic chicken with its rival India. The two countries were to hold National Security Adviser-level talks in New Delhi on Sunday and Monday and had wavered on the meeting for days before Pakistan called them off Saturday night.
At issue was the agenda of what the NSAs would discuss. India was adamant that the talks would be about terrorism and terrorism alone. Pakistan wanted a broader agenda that included a territorial dispute over Kashmir.
Each side blamed the other for trying to re-interpret an understanding made in Ufa, Russia last month when India and Pakistan's prime ministers met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit.
But that meeting, and the joint communiqué based on it were “ill conceived” and bound to be “disastrous,” according to Mani Shankar Ayer, an Indian politician and former diplomat who has served in Pakistan.
“The two prime ministers met on highly sensitive matters with no prior preparation,” he said. That, he added, led to the confusion and the different interpretations of what had been concluded.
Why Meet at Ufa?
Multiple explanations were floating around in both India and Pakistan on why the premiers met in the first place.
Some chalked it to the pressure of Russia and China, the two dominant powers in SCO. Others saw U.S. insistence as the motivator.
Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, called the meeting a “spectacle.”
“This is a government that has shown a tremendous proclivity to just orchestrating events—and Ufa was an event,” he said.
But Dr. Walter Anderson, a former U.S. diplomat and current director of the South Asia Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, thought the meeting in Ufa and the communiqué resulting from it were more spontaneous than that.
“I don’t think either side went to Ufa with plans of doing it. It just sort of came up,” Anderson said.
There are those, on both sides, who believe the meeting in Ufa was a genuine effort to revive a dialogue between two neighbors that have seen an escalation in tensions and realized that they needed to calm things down.
The question remains whether, after the meeting, it was wise to issue a joint communiqué without both sides fully comprehending its implications.
“It's much better not to have a statement than to have a statement of that nature,” Khurshid Kusuri, former Pakistani foreign minister said.
The Kashmir Issue
He thought Pakistan made a “foolish decision” in agreeing not to mention Kashmir in the formal announcement.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was strongly criticized at home on this issue. His foreign office had to repeatedly explain that the mention of “all outstanding issues” in the statement implied the inclusion of Kashmir.
The Indian administration, on the other hand, was able to sell this as a diplomatic victory. A dialogue with Pakistan “with a focus on terrorism,” was considered “a very good result,” according to G. Parthasarthi, a former Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan.
In particular, one item that India latched on to -- which eventually led to the cancellation of the NSA-level talks -- spelled out what India said was the agreed agenda: “a meeting in New Delhi between the two NSAs to discuss all issues connected to terrorism.”
Ayer, a strong critic of Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi, said that it was impossible for Islamabad to sell the talks with India to the Pakistani public without Kashmir on the agenda.
Another possible cause of the failure to hold talks may have been attacks on a police station in the Indian Punjab and on a Border Security Force convoy in Indian-administered Kashmir that Indian authorities blamed on cross-border infiltrators.
Indian authorities say one of the attackers was arrested and belongs to Lashkar e Taiba, a Pakistan-based group that has been declared a terrorist outfit by both the U.S. and the U.N.
Rising Pressure From Within
The Modi administration has since come under pressure to harden its stance against Pakistan.
Pakistan’s prime minister, on the other hand, was already under pressure to be tough on India. Pakistan’s military, which is widely believed to be in control of the country’s foreign policy, was not happy with Sharif’s pro-India outlook, according to Anderson.
Prime Minister Modi's remarks in Bangladesh in June glorifying India's role in the cessation of Bangladesh from Pakistan sparked media outrage in Pakistan.
Then, during his recent UAE trip, Modi made what Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper called “veiled but unmistakable references to Pakistan” in the context of terrorism in the region. The pressure on Sharif increased.
That, coupled with flak from the Ufa statement, made it harder for Sharif to agree to a terrorism-only agenda.
One year ago, the Modi administration had drawn what critics like Ayer called “a fresh red line.” They had cancelled foreign secretary level talks because Pakistan’s high commissioner in New Delhi met with separatist leaders from the Indian administered Kashmir. Pakistani officials had been regularly meeting with these leaders for more than 15 years.
This deadlock, Ayer said, was not addressed at Ufa. So when Pakistan invited Kashmiri leaders to a reception to meet Pakistani NSA Aziz a day before his crucial meeting with his Indian counterpart, India balked.
Even though the NSA meeting is off, and despite the blame game, both sides have left the door open for future negotiations. As Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj put it during her press conference Saturday: “In diplomacy, there’s never a full stop, only commas or semi-colons.”