It seems like all matters are moving along rather quickly.
In Delhi, the buzz is about talks between the Centre and the Gupkar Alliance—the grouping of political parties in Kashmir.
Several hundred miles away, Indian officials seem to have made a quiet visit to Qatar to talk to the Taliban leadership there.
On an apparently different level, there was a massive explosion outside the house of Hafeez Saeed, the numero uno of Pakistan’s terrorism effort.
All of that and more will probably influence talks scheduled at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting of National Security Advisors, to be attended by India’s Ajit Doval and his counterpart Moeed Yusuf at Dushanbe in Tajikistan.
An Eventful SCO Meet is Promised
Not that Moeed is quite the ‘counterpart’ of Doval. The latter is a seasoned intelligence man, representing his country, with the blessings of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and cabinet. It’s just not clear who Moeed represents: the Pakistan Army or Prime Minister Imran Khan. That makes rather a lot of difference.
While Yusuf has emphatically denied any separate meeting with the Indian NSA, that doesn’t mean much. If both sides desire secret talks, it will happen; without the kind of leaks that characterised negotiations over US bases in Pakistan. Quite apart from bilateral theatrics, however, the SCO meeting will discuss the most vital issue of all, which is the rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan. And on top of it all, there’s China, the alpha dog of the organisation.
Does Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Matter to India & Pakistan?
A snapshot of the organisation is revealing.
It was formed in 2001 in China, together with Russia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan stayed out—its official languages are Russian and Chinese.
The SCO Secretariat is a permanent body and is based in Beijing. Its other permanent body is the Executive Committee of the Regional Anti Terrorism Structure (RATS), which doesn’t count for much, since the SCO has virtually no opinion on Pakistan’s antics in Afghanistan.
The organisation's website carries a paean of praise for the Chinese Communist Party, and news of a conference in Wuhan—of all places—to mark the group’s 20th anniversary. The official documents use standardised language tick-boxing: ‘multipolarity’, the need for the ‘reform’ of financial institutions, a more ‘representative’ World Order, and the UN Charter.
In simple words, that means the organisation is against the US domination of the so-called World Order, and wants a piece of the pie for themselves.
This is essentially about China, getting together with a very weak former superpower—Russia to try and get a say in Asia in particular.
Other observers and ‘dialogue partners’ include Afghanistan, while Nepal and Sri Lanka were given observer status in 2015 and 2009 respectively. That’s almost all of South Asia. India and Pakistan joined in 2017, after more than a decade as observers, since the original members were reluctant to bring in the traditional ‘Indo-Pak’ fights to jam the group.
Tensions Over ‘Fictitious Map’ at the Last Meeting
Unfortunately, that’s precisely what happened at the virtual meeting in September.
The Pakistan side had a ‘map’ behind his chair, which claimed not just Kashmir, but parts of Junagadh and Sir Creek. That ended the session pretty quickly. It was unclear whether this ridiculous map had been agreed to by the then chair, Russia. China would certainly have known. After all the map showed Ladakh borders as undefined.
What was clear was the Pakistan side had raised the bar on Kashmir, that it presented this claim for the first time at an international conference, and that it therefore fully expected India to leave the meeting. In other words, it was a no-go, at SCO.
Has Anything Changed About India-Pakistan Relations Since Then?
Assuming there is a quiet meeting, its worth asking what has changed.
First, there is the landmark speech by Chief of Army Staff Gen Bajwa in March, where he spoke of letting history lie, and moving ahead on a new path based on ‘geo-economics’ rather than political brawling.
Then are the persistent reports of back-channel meetings in third countries between Ajit Doval and Moeed Yusuf, with the DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed attending. A line to General Bajwa also seems to be open. Add to that, the firing on the Line of Control has ceased almost completely, following the February agreement between both militaries.
On the flip side is the erratic behaviour of Prime Minister Imran Khan and his cabinet colleagues, including an abrupt U-turn on the imports of cotton and sugar from India, and a somersault, by stating that no dialogue was possible till the decision on Article 370 was reversed. But the worst is the escalating effort by Pakistan to bring Kashmir to international attention, including by piggybacking on the Palestinian issue, at a time when it is grabbing headlines.
So no, Pakistan’s actions against India haven’t changed. No ‘new chapter’ is apparent. But diplomacy is about talking, and talking, and then talking some more, even while both hold knives behind their backs.
A quiet meeting will see Islamabad asking for a ‘give’ on Kashmir, in return for not very much, except that it will then grab Gilgit Baltistan for itself as a full-fledged province after India presumably offers statehood after talks with the Kashmiri leaders. Something for nothing is Pakistan’s main strategy.
What are the Real Issues at the Summit?
Meanwhile, SCO members will focus on Afghanistan where matters are changing every day: the ongoing US exit, the question of bases in neighbouring countries, India’s own reaching out to the Taliban, and the triumphant onward march of the group.
All other SCO members including China are alarmed at possible terrorism flowing out of the country. And in that area, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi’s disastrous interview , where he dodged a question on his Prime Minister’s statement calling Osama Bin Laden a ‘martyr’ doesn’t really help. As before, his focus was on Indian presence in Afghanistan, and that doesn’t help either. At SCO, Islamabad will see itself as holding all the cards; but that’s not entirely true.
What Should Pakistan be Worried About?
In Cicero's tale, Damocles had one sword hanging perilously over his head. Pakistan may have several.
Namely, the threat of blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force ( FATF) which will undermine the possibility of all international funding: the International Monetary Fund may stick to its guns in not allowing Pakistan’s defence budget to increase, and perhaps even China, whose unease at Taliban rule is tightly tied to its own messy imprisonment of millions of Uighurs.
China is aware that dependence on Pakistan to ‘control’ the Taliban is not the best bet, it will want an ingress for itself. It is already present in Tajikistan, that is dependant on China for 52 per cent of its external borrowing. Kyrgyzstan’s debt to China is similar at about a quarter of its GDP. Both also depend heavily on Russia for remittances from its nationals working there.
Uzbekistan may well be the best bet, as long as it appeases Russia; China may not object. But none of these actors will want to annoy the Taliban once it is in power. That means US strikes have to be limited to those recognised as ‘terrorists’ by all concerned. That’s a bog of considerable proportions. China for instance will not see Pakistan-sponsored operations in Afghanistan as terrorist, while the US will not strike any Uighurs operating there.
What is Pakistan Eyeing?
Pakistan’s demands according to the New York Times, include control over drone strikes, which is entirely unacceptable to the US.
That leaves India, with its minimal presence in Farkhor in Tajikistan and an expanding cooperative network in the region. That airfield could be made operational if China, based a little further to the north, is also amenable to working out a trilateral arrangement to sniff out terrorists, with US drones operating quietly from a separate base. That’s a trilateral agreement that could be interesting. It could even influence the bilateral, whether it takes place quietly or not.
Don’t dismiss it. Stranger things have happened in the past, and will happen again. That’s what intelligence operations are all about. One country as an enemy on one front, and a friend on the other. That in turn could lead to Hafeez Saeed and his friends becoming genuinely anxious. Matters would then move very quickly indeed.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)