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Promoting Peace Processes In South Asia: The Challenges | KS Subramanian

Friday 5 November 2021


by KS Subramanian

Conflict resolution and peace-building in South Asia requires attention to key political problems such as for example, India’s endemic conflict with Pakistan. Once part of the same country, the two are now divided by the Line Of control (LOC). Similarly, Pakistan is divided from Afghanistan by the Durand Line. These Lines have generated conflicts in the region. There is no love lost between India and Pakistan but the Afghans have friendly relations with Indians!

We begin with a look at the current Indo-Pak conflict scenario and then examine the obstacles to peace building in the Af-Pak relations.

India is now aligned with the US, not seen as a do-gooder in Afghanistan which affects her ability to contribute to peace building in South Asia. India can contribute to peace in the region if it successfully resolves its conflicts with China and Pakistan. This is not happening. Political will for building regional peace and cohesion is in deep deficit.

A Review of Indo-Pak Peace Process

The long-existing conflict between India and Pakistan has been a root cause of destabilisation in South Asia. The SAARC mechanism has been a non-starter in regional peace-building.

The Pakistan army chief, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, appealed recently that Pakistan and India should bury the past and move forward. In May 1998, the two countries became nuclear powers and top leaders of two countries expressed the wish to build peace. When the Taliban-dominated Afghanistan emerged the views of two eminent peace activists Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri of Pakistan and Sudheendra Kulkarni of India became relevant. Kulkarni suggested that India and Pakistan should jointly welcome the emergence of Taliban 2 in despite the atrocities by Taliban 1 in the 1990s. They should welcome development activities in Afghanistan. But Taliban 2 must i) promise not to let any terrorist group build its base in the country; ii) promise to ensure the safety, security and wellbeing of all minority groups and women; and iii) and set up an inclusive government wedded to national reconciliation and welfare.

Looking back, in May 1998, after the two countries became nuclear-armed, Prime Minister Vajpayee met his opposite number Nawaz Sharif in Lahore to forestall a possible nuclear stand-off. The Lahore Declaration of 1999 was the result. Thereafter, ‘Backchannel’ dialogue between the two countries led to the Agra Summit in July 2001, which however failed to produce an agreement because India insisted that international terrorism be prioritised while Pakistan demanded that a discussion on Kashmir be debated first. Lal Krishna Advani, India’s deputy PM did not want his PM to make any concessions to Pakistan in the talks. The resulting failure of the talks led to mutual dissatisfaction. Henry Kissinger had held that complex international negotiations must not seek complete satisfaction between the contending parties but should only attempt ‘balanced dissatisfaction’. India could have requested the Pakistani leader to stay a day longer, visit the holy Ajmer Sharif and resume talks the next day. This did not happen: a diplomatic disaster.

At the SAARC meeting in 2004, a Composite Dialogue Process began between the two countries in February 2004. Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri visited India in September 2004 and met the separatist Kashmiri leaders seen as key to Kashmir conflict resolution.

The Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service was started in April 2005. An Indian ambassador was appointed for backchannel negotiations. A joint statement declared the irreversibility of the peace process. The Kashmiri separatist leaders visited Pakistan.

The Mumbai train bombings in 2006 did not deter the peace process. A bilateral Anti-terror Mechanism met in March 2007. Meetings followed till October 2008. The Mumbai terror attacks in November 2008 did not prevent the backchannel negotiations.

The Indo-Pak leaders agreed on a four-point formula to settle the Kashmir conflict: i) Jammu & Kashmir would not be made independent; ii) borders would not be redrawn; iii) the ‘Line of Control’ would be made irrelevant; and iv) a joint mechanism would be established for management of both parts of Kashmir. Both countries found that a solution to Kashmir and other disputes was feasible.

The Indian leader Manmohan Singh could not go to Pakistan to settle the Sir Creek dispute was postponed. The Pakistani leader too faced difficulties. The backchannel negotiations remained unconsummated.

Prime Minister Modi’s Approach

PM Modi in 2014 largely ignored the backchannel mechanism preferring perhaps a more direct approach. The Pulwama terrorist attack in Kashmir on 14 February 2019; and the Balakot strike on 26 February 2019 were followed by a military clash.

PM Modi on May 30 2019, again took a strong line approach though the endemic conflict between the two countries needed backchannel negotiations (Kasuri, p, 353). The need for regional cooperation remained unexplored. In August 2019 the ruling BJP undid Articles 370 and 35A of the Indian Constitution further affecting the peace talks.

Amarjit Singh Dulat, senior policy advisor to former Prime Minister Vajpayee made a critical assessment of India’s diplomatic setbacks in dealing with Pakistan. PM Vajpayee admitted as much in his speech in Parliament. The diplomatic disasters could have been avoided.

AF-PAK Tensions

The emergence of the Taliban as a leading political power in Afghanistan in August 2021 was looked upon with caution. An eminent former Pakistani diplomat explained the context and noted that most of the leading lights of the new Taliban government in Afghanistan have had a contested reputation. There was no woman in the proposed Taliban interim cabinet.

Pakistan has had close relations with the Taliban. The wider region faces challenges: China, Russia, Iran, the central Asian republics and Pakistan have different stakes in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda is based along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border; the Isis-K, or Daesh, “remains active and dangerous”. Other groups are the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM); and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has declared “war against Pakistan’s security forces”. China perceives a threat from ETIM. Central Asia feels threatened by IMU; and Russia by the activities of Daesh. Iran worries about Afghanistan’s Shia population, which had suffered under Taliban rule. India has perceived a threat from the Taliban. All regional states want to secure from the Taliban a commitment not to allow terrorist groups to function in the state. Afghanistan’s ‘forever’ wars have exposed Pakistan to security threats, costing heavily in lives with social and economic consequences. It has to contend with conflict and foreign interventions: militancy, extremist violence, narcotics and a “Kalashnikov culture”. It is burdened with over three million refugees. Four decades of violence in Afghanistan has cost Pakistan heavily and collective action is needed. The Extended Troika, comprising the US, China, Russia and Pakistan, needs to exert pressure on Taliban to establish an inclusive government, respect human and women’s rights and not allow terrorist groups to flourish.

A recent webinar at the India International Centre, New Delhi, took up a discussion on ‘The Fall of Kabul’ under the moderation of General Ashok K Mehta. Three experts from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India spoke: i) the Afghan ambassador to the UN, Mahmud Saikal; ii) the Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, Chair of the China-Pakistan Institute, Islamabad; and iii) the Indian civil servant Dr. Shakti Sinha, a former UN Advisor.

Ambassador Saikal said that though the Taliban (‘students’) had their origins in in Afghanistan, their institutionalisation in Pakistan had led to corruption, criminality, and politicisation; Pakistani leaders admitted that the Taliban had been used for counter-terrorism against India; they were unfit to govern even villages. Afghans already had a proper and legally constituted and still functioning governance system. Taliban needed to have proper election and other such democratic agencies. Senator Mushahid Hussain Syed Chairman of the Pakistan Senate Defence Committee drew attention to the US misdeeds and cautioned that the ‘military industrial complex’ of the US was responsible for conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and was now conducting a new ‘cold war’ with China. He said India should to join the opposition to the US.

Ambassador Saikal wanted two commissions to be set up: i) on disputed issues between Pakistan and Afghanistan; ii) disputed issues among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Link to the discussion is :

In a recent Indian TV debate, the serving Pakistani national security advisor charged that India, by using its intelligence services in the last twenty years, had made Afghanistan a sanctuary for terrorist agencies.

Finally, a recent discussion among regional leaders (excluding India) at Dushanbe, Tajikistan, brought out the need for India to diplomatically engage Taliban.


• Kasuri, Khurshid Mahmud, 2015, “Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account of Pakistan’s Foreign Policy” (Penguin/Viking), chapters 3 and 4.
• Dulat, Amarjit Singh, 2005, Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years, Harper Collins, New Delhi.
(KS Subramanian is an author and former DG of Police in Northeast India)

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