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Will Pakistan grab this last opportunity for peace with India?

The question is whether Pakistan is ready for a grand bargain and move forward on the path of peace and progress, or will it miss the opportunity yet again?

By  N C Bipindra

In the ‘blow hot-blow cold’ relations between India and Pakistan, unpredictability leaves one gasping for breath. Very often, when it seemed that the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours were finally getting all set to normalise their relations, something goes wrong and returns the ties back to its deep freeze state. Many a times, when it seems there is no turning back in the hostilities and the two nations are on the edge of falling into a bottomless abyss, the two nations pull themselves up and begin to re-engage.

On other occasions, there is so much bitterness and hostility between the in their public posturing, the hands of the two nations’ leaders are tied by public opinion. Yet again, out of nowhere, the two governments decide they need to cool things down, and the same hostile public changes its mood virtually overnight.

This unpredictability was on full display last week, just when it appeared there is absolutely no possibility of any kind of engagement, the neighbours have pulled a surprise.

When none expected it, the armies of the two nations issued a joint statement reiterating their commitment to the 2003 ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control between the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied J&K.

The real motivations or reasons behind the ceasefire is less important than the opportunity it offers to both the countries, especially Pakistan, to step back from the unsustainable, unachievable, and unrealistic wish-list it had put forward for re-engaging with India.

The maximalist stand taken by Pakistan has always remained a diplomatic dead-end, and the ceasefire offers it a way out. If anything, it is yet again an opportunity for Pakistan to revisit and reverse its policies vis-a-vis India — State-sponsored terror, fanning Kashmir insurgency, and a host of other issues.

Pakistan has extremely limited options and even these are lost to it because of the strident policy, posturing, and grandstanding it does against India. In the process, Pakistan harms itself more than it harms India.

Over the last seven decades, Pakistan has tried various options, and come a cropper. Most of those options are no longer available. Even those which might still be available yield diminishing returns.

Pakistan has tried open wars in the past. Not only did that option fail spectacularly, but it also damaged Pakistan so badly that it never recovered from those setbacks.

For instance, the 1965 war ended the economic boom and since that fateful war, Pakistan’s economy has steadily lost steam, and is today the sick man of South Asia.

The 1971 war ended up leaving a rump Pakistan. The 1999 Kargil conflict, although a limited war, destroyed Pakistan’s image and credibility completely.

Pakistan is seen as a dangerous and an adventurous country that was not only using terrorists as strategic assets but also taking the region to the brink of nuclear catastrophe.

Since then, war, even a limited one, is no option at all, certainly not in a nuclearised environment. Plus, even if a war does not turn nuclear, it entails costs that will completely devastate Pakistan’s already ailing economy. Wars simply cannot be waged on an empty treasury.

Even proxy war (read terrorism) is no longer a sustainable option. When Pakistan unleashed Jihadist terror on India, it was supposed to be a low-cost high-yield operation.

But nearly three decades later, it is too costly and poor return on investment for Pakistan, and as such has run its course. Persisting with it will only yield even further diminishing returns.

Over the last 30 years, the terrorism infrastructure Pakistan built to hurt India has imposed an immeasurably high cost on Pakistan in terms of loss of image, reputational damage, the uncertainty caused to business and investment climate, the wave of extremism and domestic terrorism it unleashed.

Since 1990, when Pakistan started exporting terrorism to India, the trajectories of the two economies have been poles apart. While India has managed to achieve high growth, Pakistan has been languishing, caught in a low growth trap.

The economic differential between the two countries has widened to a point where in some years merely the increase in India’s defence budget was greater than Pakistan’s entire defence budget.

Cut to the chase, terrorism might have bloodied India, but it hurt Pakistan in unimaginable ways, not just economically, but also socially, culturally, and politically.

Using the same option now would only enhance the social, political, diplomatic, and economic costs exponentially. The Islamabad establishment’s efforts to politically mainstream radical Islamic parties, such as Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) has returned to haunt it.

The TLP has sought to dictate foreign relations in the wake of the controversy over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammad and demanded the expulsion of the French Ambassador. This has sounded a wake-up call in Paris on the level of the Islamic radicalisation in Pakistan.

If not handled deftly by Islamabad, the situation could lead to serious diplomatic repercussions. Above all, terrorism offers India an excellent handle to beat Pakistan, internally, bilaterally and internationally. Simply put, this option is no longer available, unless Pakistan is unable to see the writing on the wall, especially in view of the “Grey Listing” by the Financial Action Task Force.

A third option before Pakistan is to not indulge in any conventional or sub-conventional kinetic action, but to focus on non-kinetic means to target India. This means launching a massive diplomatic and propaganda offensive against India to try and bring unbearable international pressure to resolve issues like Kashmir.

But other than extracting a huge economic cost from Pakistan, the yield of this option is negligible at best. Frankly, if Pakistan’s strategy now depends on getting reports and articles published in the New York Times, Washington Post or Guardian, the strategy is inadequate.

If anything, Pakistan needs to learn from its own experience to evaluate the utility of a campaign that seeks to paint India in lurid colours and hopes to invite international intervention.

Since 9/11, Pakistan has had terrible press. Virtually every media organisation — be it mainstream like the print, electronic, online media or the social media — has called out Pakistan’s perfidious role in the War on Terror, especially in Afghanistan.

Did this bad press change Pakistan’s strategic behaviour? Did it alter Pakistan’s policy in pursuit of what it perceived as being its national interest, or even strategic core interest? The answer is a resounding NO. Then why does Pakistan think that it will change India’s policy on issues of its core national and security interests?

Pakistan faced enormous pressure from the United States to sever its links with the Taliban, responsible not just for the death of more than 2,000 American soldiers, but also for the defeat that the US is staring at in Afghanistan.

If despite all that the US could not change Pakistan’s strategic behaviour, how can it change India’s, especially on issues that lies at the core of India’s national security interests.

Pakistan’s best option now lies in pursuing a peace deal with India. And this option has opened for Pakistan because of the ceasefire agreement.

Pakistan also needs to take advantage of the opportunity that Narendra Modi as Prime Minister offers. In his first term, Modi went out of his way to try for an enduring peace deal with Pakistan.

Between 2014 and 2016, he took at least half a dozen initiatives to put relations back on the rails, despite sabotage by those within the Pakistani establishment to derail them time and time again through their Jihadi proxies.

After five years, now in his second term, Modi has offered yet another chance to Pakistan. If a peace deal doesn’t involve any compromise on India’s unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity, and Pakistan’s actions are sincere, credible and sustained, New Delhi would be ready to smoke the peace pipe with Islamabad.

The question is whether Pakistan is ready for a grand bargain and move forward on the path of peace and progress, or will it miss the opportunity yet again?

(The writer is Chairman of New Delhi-headquartered Law and Society Alliance, and Editor of Defence.Capital magazine)