The Pakistani army chief has started talks with the Indian enemy with a view to securing a possible meeting between the prime ministers of neighboring countries, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The negotiations behind the scenes are facilitated by the UAE and are aimed at defusing one of the world’s most dangerous hot spots, people said. The rapprochement steps were taken two years after a terrorist attack in India brought the two countries together on the brink of war.
General Qamar Javed Bajwa told India’s national security adviser he was ready to declare a moratorium on fighting in Kashmir, the disputed Himalayan territory which has been a battleground between Pakistan and India since decades, people said.
Any lasting peace between rivals with nuclear weapons would redefine the strategic map in Asia. Pakistan and India have fought three major conflicts since independence in 1947, with Islamabad arguing that predominantly Muslim Kashmir should be liberated from the New Delhi regime.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and India’s Narendra Modi have powerful incentives to achieve peace.
The two must revive their economies after the toll from the coronavirus pandemic as Modi faces heightened tensions along India’s border with China.
The latest initiative, which was reportedly launched by Bajwa in January and backed by Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the leader of the United Arab Emirates, and his national security adviser Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed al-Nahyan got off to a good start with a ceasefire on February 25.
Next steps include reopening border trade, pandemic cooperation and India’s participation in a counterterrorism exercise to be held in Pakistan. If successful, a meeting of prime ministers could take place within the next 12 months.
“A high-level dialogue is underway with a view to a possible meeting between Modi and Imran Khan,” said a person familiar with the back-channel’s efforts.
Several earlier attempts at peace talks have failed, sometimes due to terrorist attacks against India. Bajwa pushes for peace almost two years after Modi revoked special status granted to the state of Jammu and Kashmir under the Indian constitution which allowed the region to run its own affairs.
Pakistan did an about-face last week on the trade pledge, announcing it would allow imports of sugar and cotton from India and then backtrack, saying trade would not resume until the special status of Kashmir was restored.
Shireen Mazari, Pakistani Minister for Human Rights, said Khan had said that there would be no normalization of relations with India until situation in Kashmir returned to the “status quo” of two years ago.
The Pakistani military’s public relations branch also denied that Bajwa had promised a moratorium on hostilities. “It’s a bunch of lies,” said a spokesperson. “This is just speculation.”
India’s foreign ministry declined to comment on the talks.
However, an Indian government official said the talks were continuing and the rhetoric from the Khan government was aimed at satisfying the conservative element of its base of support. Politicians “must make these symbolic gestures,” the official said.
Analysts said Bajwa was desperate to end the costly military engagement with India and reestablish frayed ties with the United States.
Pakistani militants’ attempts to infiltrate Indian Kashmir have would have suddenly fell.
“Pakistan has a serious credibility problem and it must be addressed to move forward,” said Husain Haqqani, senior researcher at the Hudson Institute and former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States.
Khan’s government is also under pressure after failing to develop the economy and keep its promises to build an Islamic welfare state. On Monday, the former cricket captain appointed the third finance minister in his administration after restarting a $ 6 billion IMF bailout program.
“It is imperative that Pakistan be at peace with its neighbors,” said Raoof Hasan, Khan’s special assistant. “Economic security is vital.”
In the weeks that followed the cease-fire was announced, Bajwa took a conciliatory tone, saying it was time to “bury the past and move on”. He lamented that Kashmir’s potential had “remained hostage” to the dispute, clearly omitting any reference to the restoration of its special status.
India reciprocated in kind. Modi made headlines in India for wishing Khan a speedy recovery from the coronavirus on Twitter. The Indian army chief said the line of control, which separates the Indian and Pakistani-controlled parts of Kashmir, had remained “silent” for the first time in five years. He added: “It bodes really well for the future.”
But New Delhi was wary of Pakistan’s promises. General Pervez Musharraf and former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee almost signed 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 so,” said the Indian government official. “But if there is a [terrorist] attack, it will fail.