The Indian city of Amritsar in the Punjab province close to the Pakistani border, witnessed on December 3-4 the sixth ministerial meeting of the “Istanbul Process” (initiated in 2011) consisting of several countries making special efforts to ensure regional security and cooperation following the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan.
“The Istanbul Process” had earlier been conducted in Kabul, Beijing, Islamabad and Almaty. There are fourteen member countries in the Process in addition to the US, China and Russia.
The Amritsar Conference was hosted by India and was jointly inaugurated by the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pakistan, a key neighbor of both countries was represented by Sartaj Aziz, advisor to the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign policy and national security. The prevailing tensions between India and Pakistan two nuclear armed neighbors, provided an additional context to the conference.
Though the discussions were focused on Afghanistan, the intense Indo-Pak tensions over terrorism and Kashmir led many to expect that the two countries would utilize the opportunity of the Conference to discuss on its sidelines, their differences.
Sartaj Aziz of Pakistan indicated his readiness to revive the interrupted dialogue process between the two countries but India was not willing.
Political instability following the general election of 2014 has impacted the foreign and security policies of conflict-torn Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s security depends on Pakistan and its links to Taliban, whose leaders are expected to return to Afghanistan. Pakistan has been resentful of India’s role in Afghanistan while China, India and Russia seem to be concerned over the role of the US in the Istanbul Process.
Interestingly, the US had formulated Six Steps to Confidence Building in Afghanistan in 2013. In 2016, the Indo-US Statement on Strategic and Commercial Dialogue also envisaged a Trilateral Dialogue with Afghanistan.
The Amritsar Ministerial Conference, 2016 issued a Declaration (December 4) calling for action on the terror networks undermining the Afghan peace process and the need to eradicate them to help out the war-ravaged country.
During the discussions, the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, using strong language, stated that the Afghan Taliban was sustained by the sanctuary provided to it by neighboring Pakistan, which has historically backed Afghan Taliban as a hedge against the influence wielded in that country by its hostile neighbor India, which had waged three wars with it since the end of colonial rule in 1947.
Afghanistan also witnessed sectarian violence by the terrorist Islamic State targeting the minority Shiite community in his country, said President Ashraf Ghani. The UN had estimated that 30 terrorist groups were trying to establish bases in Afghanistan.
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s representative at the conference stated that his country itself was a victim of terrorism on a large scale and had lost over 60,000 lives in the battle against terrorism in his country. He added that fighters of Tehrik-i-Pakistan, one of the main groups carrying out attacks inside his country, were operating from Afghanistan.
In 2016, the UN had reported that conflict-induced displacement from Afghanistan in Pakistan had been the highest figure since 2008 according to Sartaj Aziz.
The Indian Prime Minister referring indirectly to Pakistan called for action against all those who provided shelter and support to terrorists who carried out cross-border attacks in his country.
The Indian Prime Minister had a separate meeting with the Afghan President to enhance regional cooperation between the two countries including the setting up of air-cargo link between the two countries bypassing Pakistan. .
India’s efforts to diplomatically isolate Pakistan as a terrorist country did not succeed during the recent BRICS summit in Goa. China pointed out that Pakistan, like India, had been a victim of terrorism as well and had made huge sacrifices in fighting terrorism.
Russia, another participant at the BRICS summit, did not support India’s move to isolate Pakistan but on the contrary had conducted unprecedented military exercises with that country in addition to providing it with military supplies.
Unlike his predecessor Prime Ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014), who had conducted back channel negotiations with Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue and had evolved a four-point formula, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has adopted the position that Kashmir is an integral part of India and that there was no need for any dialogue with Pakistan. The achievements of his predecessors were ignored and the internal security scenario in the Kashmir valley was allowed to get out of hand leading to a mass upsurge. The upsurge was put down at huge human cost but the situation in the valley remains highly disturbed.
Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistan government’s foreign policy and national security advisor who participated at the Ministerial Conference at Amritsar, made clear that it would be wrong to blame one country for the problems in India or Afghanistan and a holistic approach was called for.
Aziz further indicated Pakistan’s openness for discussions with Indian leaders on terrorism and the Kashmir issues on the sidelines of the Amritsar Conference. It was a useful opportunity for India to have taken advantage of this offer to initiate a dialogue process with Pakistan on the side lines of the Amritsar discussion.
Incidentally, the Indian dialogue process with Pakistan had been agreed upon prior to the 2015 the Heart of Asia Conference. It was not followed up because of the terrorist attack on the Pathankot airbase in January 2016, which was followed by another terrorist attack on the Uri military camp in September 2016. India responded by undertaking ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, which led to xenophobia in the country. This, however, did not deter terrorist elements across the border from carrying out a third terrorist attack in 2016 on the Nagrota army camp in Jammu and Kashmir.
India has not yer responded to the terrorist attack on the army camp at Nagrota.
Pakistani civilian authorities do not seem to be in full control of the activities of the ‘Deep State’ which appears to be functioning autonomously in carrying out terrorist attacks on India by utilising the several Islamist terrorist outfits in the country.
India would be well advised to boost the peace-building efforts of the civilian government in Pakistan by opting for dialogue rather than a military response given the danger of nuclear escalation.
It seems that ‘surgical strikes’ are not an answer to terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based militants. Dialogue seems unavoidable between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
India’s failure to take advantage the offer made by Sartaj Aziz at Amritsar was a setback for the country.