The great rings of Operation Uranus closed around Germany’sSixth Army on November 19, 1942, the armies of General Georgi Zhukov encircling the flower of the Wehrmacht in the epic battle that doomed Third Reich. Four weeks later, the German diplomat Peter Keist welcomed a visitor into his room at the Strand Hotel in downtown Stockholm. Ernst Clauss — a German-Baltic businessman of uncertain nationality and even less-clear business — had arrived with a message from the Soviet Union’s secret police: the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin wanted to discuss peace.
Even in the midst of a war for existential survival, which claimed the lives of millions of people, the adversaries had sought to keep their options open — just as generations of diplomats had done from the times of Genghis Khan’s conquest of Khwarazmia to the Cold War.
New Delhi could do worse than draw some lessons from this history for its Pakistan policy, and keep implements other than the hammer in its strategic toolbox.
For weeks now, rumours have proliferated in New Delhi’s diplomatic and policy communities on the existence of a secret India-Pakistan diplomatic channel on Kashmir. The more colourful variants of the story place National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on secret flights to Islamabad; the more mundane ones involve negotiations involving high officials in London and Washington. From the fate of Kashmir, the future of Afghanistan, and to the trial of Kulbhushan Jadhav, incarcerated in Pakistan on espionage charges—everything is claimed to have been discussed.
There is — not surprisingly — not the slightest shred of evidence that such a channel in fact exists, but the persistence of the rumours tells us something important: the cul-de-sac India-Pakistan relations have reached is causing real concern. Faced with a crisis along the Line of Actual Control with China, the argument goes, there’s good reason for India to quietly explore if it can ensure the borders with Pakistan stay quiet.
Ever since he ordered cross-Line of Control military strikes in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pursued what might be called a strategy of deterrence-through-uncertainty.
The prime minister’s strategy
The strategy has had significant dividends: There hasn’t been a single significant jihadist attack in India, outside of Jammu and Kashmir, since 2016, even though it’s clear that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate retains the capacity to stage them through its proxies. Indeed, Afghanistan’s intelligence services claim that the ISI was even running a cell in Nangarhar, led by Kashmiri jihad commander Abdul Gani Dar, to train Indian jihadists.
Yet, the strategy also has its limitations. Following the 2018 bombing of a Jaish-e-Muhammad facility in Balakote, Pakistan hit back, bombing Indian military targets in Rajouri. The apparent Pakistani willingness to escalate surprised many in New Delhi, who believed Islamabad would react, as in 2016, by doing nothing.
For every Diwali teen-patti player, the strategic dilemma Prime Minister Modi is confronted with will be evident: He has no way to know, for certain, whether the other side is bluffing about the cards it holds when it raises the stakes, and must beware the potential costs if they aren’t.
Add to this dilemma the so-called Commitment Trap. Having responded to past terrorist attacks with force, Prime Minister Modi’s supporters expect similar muscular action in the future, too. The prime minister, though, knows all military action involves risks. Every attack across the Line of Control involves rolling the dice, and misjudgments, miscalculations or even pure bad luck could lead events in a dark direction.
Talking, as the historian Vojtech Mastny pointed out and generations of Indian diplomats dealing with Pakistan have learned the hard way, doesn’t guarantee good outcomes either. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s much-hailed bus journey to Pakistan in 1998 ended, to his embarrassment, in Kargil. But negotiation can be one of several tools to manage risk — and that, in the final analysis, is what statecraft is all about.
In the event New Delhi and Islamabad do decide to talk — or are already talking —a map to guide the path already exists. At a May 27, 2014, meeting, outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh gave Prime Minister Modi a set of unsigned notes, containing records of secret negotiations to seal a Kashmir deal with Pakistan’s former military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. In essence, the deal involved autonomy for Kashmir — in return for the Line of Control becoming a permanent border.
New Delhi remains sceptical
New Delhi might not be willing to countenance autonomy for Kashmir today — but it’s possible Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, might be willing to discuss options. Among the ideas floated during these negotiations was hiving off Gilgit — a region Islamabad has long claimed sovereignty over, arguing it seceded from undivided Kashmir prior to independence — from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. India, in turn, was to closely integrate Ladakh.
Events in both countries have resulted in exactly that outcome: Ladakh became a Union Territory last year, and Gilgit is in the midst of a political process that could lead it to become the fifth province of Pakistan.
In meetings with British diplomats, General Bajwa is also believed to have asserted his commitment to peace, noting that Islamabad had not escalated support to jihadists after India rolled-back Kashmir’s special status last year.
New Delhi is more than entitled to be sceptical of these promises; similar professions, after all, were made just before the Kargil war and 26/11. The fact is, however, that Kashmiri jihadists are under-trained and grossly under-equipped. This suggests the ISI has gone at least some way in turning-off the terror pipeline.
Prime Minister Singh’s hand-picked envoy, Ambassador Satinder Lambah, and General Musharraf’s interlocutors, Ambassadors Riaz Muhammad Khan and Tariq Aziz, held over 200 hours of discussions on the draft agreement, during 30 meetings held in Dubai and Kathmandu. Lambah was also flown to Rawalpindi on a Research and Analysis Wing jet as negotiations reached an advanced stage, travelling without a passport or visa to ensure the meetings remained secret.
For Prime Minister Modi, the risks of authorising such an enterprise will be evident. His expansive investment in the relationship with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, after all, brought no real dividends, and ended with the Pakistan Army organising an informal coup d’état against his negotiating partner. There are, however, clear incentives to take a chance.
In Kashmir, violence persists at levels not dissimilar to those seen in every year since 2014 — levels not intense enough to threaten India seriously, but adequate to bog down the administration and political system. Troops along the Line of Control continue to trade fire on a near-daily basis, an expensive exercise which history demonstrates has done little to deter cross-border terrorism. Neither New Delhi nor Islamabad is any closer, today, to a decisive victory in Kashmir, than they were in 2014.
Will talking work? If past history is a guide, probably not — but probably is not certainly. “Although the passions aroused during the savage struggle ruled out genuine reconciliation”, the historian Vojtech Mastny has written of Stalin’s secret outreach to Nazi Germany, “the enormous exertion of both belligerents was conducive to comparing the assets of imperfect peace with the liabilities of elusive victory”.
The time has come for such a dispassionate analysis to begin in both New Delhi and Islamabad.