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Indo-Pak Foreign Secretaries’ Talks

Mrs.NirupamaRao, India’s Foreign Secretary, and her Pakistani counterpart Mr.Salman Bashir are to meet at Islamabad on June 23 and 24,2011. The meeting is expected to review the results of the meetings between the Home/Interior, Commerce and Defence Secretaries of the two countries held since the two Foreign Secretaries met at Thimphu in the margins of a SAARC meeting in February last.It would also discuss issues that are generally dealt with at the FS level such as matters relating to Jammu & Kashmir, peace and security, confidence-building measures and terrorism.

2. The two Foreign Secretaries will be meeting three months after Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Mr.YousefRazaGilani met at Mohali in Punjab on March 30, at the time of the India-Pakistan cricket semi-final in the World Cup tournament.

3. After the Mohali meeting there was speculation that one or more friendly cricket matches between the teams of the two countries could be played in Pakistan and that Dr.Manmohan Singh could avail of this opportunity to visit Pakistan to witness one of the matches and hold talks with Mr.Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari. There has been no further development in relation to this speculation, but there are indications that the Indian Prime Minister would not like the Mohali meeting to remain a one-shot affair without follow-up. It is, therefore, likely that the next step in the Mohali process would come up for discussion at the meeting of the two Foreign Secretaries.

4. India’s expectations regarding time-bound action by Pakistan to have the Pakistan-based co-conspirators of the 26/11 terrorist strikes in Mumbai tried and sentenced have been belied so far. The trial of those arrested is being adjourned repeatedly indicating a continuing lack of sincerity on Pakistan’s part in acting against them. Moreover, the recent trial in Chicago of TahawurHussainRana of the Chicago Cell of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) has brought out a wealth of additional evidence that the real masterminds of the 26/11 terrorist strikes have not yet been arrested by the Pakistani authorities.

5. Though the US Justice Department failed to have Rana convicted by the jury on a charge of involvement in the 26/11 strikes, his admission and the evidence given by David Coleman Headley, also of Chicago, who helped the LET by collecting operational information from Mumbai to facilitate the terrorist strikes, have clearly assisted in the reconstruction of the 26/11 strikes and the role of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the LET in them.

6. Till now, the Pakistani authorities have questioned the veracity of the evidence of Rana and Headley and have shown no inclination to arrest and prosecute Sajjid Mir of the LET and others who had masterminded the terrorist strikes. The Pakistani authorities have also shown no willingness to arrest Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed, the leader of the LET, who continues to indulge in high profile anti-Indian rhetoric without being checked by the Pakistani authorities. Nor have they acted against his terrorist infrastructure based in Pakistan.

7. However, while the anti-India rhetoric  by the LET from its safehaven in Pakistan continues, one notices a decline in its anti-India actions in Indian territory outside J&K. There has been no major terrorist strike in Indian territory outside J&K after the Pune explosion of February 2010. There have been no reports of the detection of any new sleeper cells of the LET of a worrisome nature.

8. The reported death (if true) of Ilyas Kashmiri, the head of the so-called 313 Brigade of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), in a recent Drone (unmanned plane) strike of the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in South Waziristan has brought an end to the career of a dreaded terrorist who had acted as a mentor to the LET and the HUJI and had closely interacted with Headley in an attempt to use him for a terrorist strike in Copenhagen which did not materialise. He had also threatened to organise further terrorist strikes in India and had developed a close association with Al Qaeda.

9. The absence of any major terrorist strike in Indian territory outside J&K since February 2010, the non-discovery of any worrisome ISI-trained sleeper cells infiltrated into India and the death of Ilyas indicate a qualitative change in the terrorist situation on the ground. The  threat of fresh 26/11 style terrorist strikes remains, but there has been a non-materialisation of the threat. This could be attributed to the ISI and the terrorist organisations sponsored by it choosing to lie low till the memories of the 26/11 strikes and the ISI’s role in it fade before attempting any major new terrorist strike in Indian territory. The pressure exercised by the US on Pakistan to keep the anti-India jihadi elements under leash, even if they are not eliminated, has worked so far.

10. Under these circumstances, the Indian strategy at the FS-level talks has to be to keep up the pressure on Pakistan to act against the conspirators of the 26/11 strikes and to let the US and other members of the international community remain aware of the continuing threats faced by India from Pakistan without relaxing whatever little pressure they have been exercising on Pakistan.

11. A heightened focus on Pakistan’s foot-dragging in relation to terrorism would be necessary without over-doing it in a manner that might come in the way of the continuation of the  Mohali process to which the Indian Prime Minister attaches importance.

12. The tentative engagement at the political level the beginning of which was seen at Mohali has to be made more substantive without letting Pakistan form a wrong impression that the pressure on it in respect of the ISI’s continued sponsorship of terrorism is now a matter of the past. Achieving this nuanced objective will be one of the tasks of the Indian FS.

13. There has been a talk forsome time of encouraging an interface with the Pakistani Army and the ISI at the professional level in the hope of diluting their anti-India mindset and making them more amenable to ideas of co-operation and wean them away from their compulsive itch towards confrontation. Ideas as to  whether it would be worthwhile attempting this and, if so, how to go about it have been under discussion for over a year without any forward movement. Hopes of a forward movement during the FS-level talks on peace and security are slim as at present, but one should note that such ideas are still under in-house discussion in New Delhi. They have not yet come out of the in-house stage despite discreet nudgings by the US from time to time.

14 The avoidable tensions and war of words between the naval authorities of the two countries in recent days in connection with action against Somali pirates who had captured an Egyptian vessel (MV Suez) commanded by a Pakistani mercantile marine officer and having among its crew six Indian seamen have drawn attention to the lack of confidence-building measures between the two navies and a mechanism for co-operation against the Somali pirates who are becoming more and more active and more and more daring.

15. A basket of naval confidence-building measures was under discussion between the authorities of the two countries before the 26/11 terrorist strikes, but these discussions came to a screeching halt after 26/11. There has been no attempt to re-start the engine of naval confidence-building. The pre-26/11 discussions mainly related to conventional confidence-building to prevent or avert possible misunderstandings or mishaps during naval exercises by the navies of the two countries. An exercise to revive these discussions and to expand their scope to co-ordinated action against the Somali pirates is likely to be among the new subjects to be broached by the two FSs. This would be in addition to a review of the existing nuclear confidence-building measures.

16. The need to strengthen nuclear confidence-building has assumed additional importance after last month’s commando-style raid by a group of terrorists into the headquarters of the Pakistani naval air arm (PNS Mehran) at Karachi during which they destroyed two Orion maritime surveillance aircraft given by the US to Pakistan. The ease with which the terrorists penetrated a supposedly heavily-guarded set-up of the Pakistan Navy has added to fears in the international community, including India, about the dangers of a similar penetration in a Pakistani nuclear set-up. It is doubtful whether the Pakistanis would be inclined to discuss this sensitive topic with their Indian counterparts. Despite this, India should discreetly flag its concerns in the matter so that, if not now, at least later, a greater political maturity on both sides would facilitate a discussion on such touch-me-not issues.

17. The Pakistani authorities would want a more than marginal discussion on matters relating to J&K to convince their public and military opinion that this continues to be an important issue in the basket handled by the two Foreign Secretaries. In this context, a review of the confidence-building measures agreed to in the past in order to strengthen and expand them is likely. India would be interested in a discussion on reports of large-scale presence of Chinese military and non-military engineers in the Gilgit-Baltistan area of Kashmir presently under Pakistani occupation, but it is doubtful whether this would figure in any meaningful way. (20-6-11)

( The writer Mr B Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: Twitter: @SORBONNE75)

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