Pakistan Reader# 165, 15 March 2021
After the abrogation of article 370, Pakistan adopted an offensive diplomatic strategy trying to gather international support against the Indian move. Imran Khan had also gone ahead to declare that the restoration of article 370 remains the pre-condition for any dialogue between the two countries. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask, why has Pakistan agreed to the ceasefire?Rishabh Yadav
On 25 February, the DGMOs of India and Pakistan released a joint statement agreeing to the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) and International border (Baqir Sajjad Syed, "Pak, India agree on LoC ceasefire," Dawn, 26 February 2021). With bilateral ties at an all-time low and no formal dialogue mechanism in place, the agreement was a pleasant surprise. While the statement was released by the respective DGMOs, various press reports have hinted at a presence of backchannel diplomacy and a possibility of further easing of ties in the coming months ("New Delhi may let Islamabad hold Saarc summit," The News International, 26 February 2021)
After the abrogation of article 370, Pakistan adopted an offensive diplomatic strategy trying to gather international support against the Indian move. Imran Khan had also gone ahead to declare that the restoration of article 370 remains the pre-condition for any dialogue between the two countries. Therefore, it is pertinent to ask, why has Pakistan agreed to the ceasefire?
First, the structure of the joint statement reveals that it goes beyond the ceasefire agreement. The statement refers that both the "DGMOs agreed to address each other's core issues and concerns which have propensity to disturb the peace and lead to violence" (Ministry of Defence, "Joint Statement," Press Bureau of India, 25 February 2021). The core issue for Pakistan remains Kashmir, and for India, terrorism emanating from Pakistan. While these pre-conditions have remained a non-starter, their concerns and anxieties are reflected in the joint statement. It remains unclear the nature and structure of the discussion on the 'core issues'. However, agreeing to a ceasefire does provide a way to get out of the pre-conditions deadlock.
Second, agreeing to the ceasefire remains consistent with Imran Khan's India policy. Since coming to power, he has frequently requested for the resumption of talks between the two countries (Devirupa Mitra, "Election Victory in Hand, Imran Khan Offers to Hold talks with India," The Wire, 26 July 2018; "PM Imran writes to Narendra Modi, offers dialogue for regional stability," The News International, 7 June 2019 ). In September 2018, he sought dialogue between the foreign ministers of both the countries on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session (Sachin Parashar, "Imran Khan to PM Modi, calls for resumption of peace dialogues," Times of India, 20 September 2018). Post-Balakot, his conciliatory speech and release of captured Indian pilot was again a signal to de-escalation and an invitation for dialogue (Syed Irfan Raza, "Indian pilot to be freed today as peace gesture: PM," Dawn, 1 March 2019). Notwithstanding the diplomatic offensive that the current government has engaged in after the abrogation of article 370, which no Pakistani Prime Minister could have accepted, the agreement for holding ceasefire and further dialogue is consistent with his initial policy.
Third, the agreement is also consistent with Gen Bajwa's approach towards India and Kashmir. There is a wide belief that the military was the main actor in the backchannel diplomacy. The Indian press in retrospect has pointed out Gen Bajwa's 2nd February speech as a departure from his harsh critique against India, signalling the presence of ongoing backchannel talks (Shishir Gupta, "Behind India-Pak breakthrough, months of secret backchannel talks led by Doval," Hindustan Times, 26 February 2021). Addressing the graduation ceremony at Pakistan Air-force Academy, he said that "it is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions." However, his speech was neither inconsistent with his views on India before the abrogation of article 370 nor a departure. In April 2018, addressing the passing out parade at Pakistan Military Academy, he said that "the route to a peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes, including core issues of Kashmir ran through comprehensive and meaningful dialogue" ("Route to peaceful resolution of Pak-India disputes runs through meaningful dialogue: COAS," The News International, 15 April 2018). Similarly, in the same year, just before the elections in Pakistan, he initiated an outreach offering to resume the dialogue (Maria Abi-Habib, "Pakistan's Military has quietly reached out to India for Talks," New York Times, 4 September 2018). Though his 2nd February speech with a conciliatory tone is first after the Pulwama-Balakot incident, it is in no way inconsistent with his earlier peace overtures. In the same speech, he further noted that the issue of Jammu and Kashmir must be resolved in a dignified manner as per the aspirations of the people of Jammu and Kashmir ("It's time to extend hand of peace in all directions: Bajwa," Dawn, 3 February 2021). A similar stance on support for Kashmir struggle for the right to self-determination in accordance with the relevant UNSC resolutions was reiterated at Kashmir Solidarity day and 239th Corps Corps Commanders' Conference ("Time to end human tragedy, resolve Kashmir issue: COAS," The News International, 6 February 2021). Therefore, agreeing to resume dialogue with India is consistent with his earlier peace overtures and stance on Kashmir.
Fourth, the eastern front's calm situation helps Pakistan concentrate on other strategic and economic issues. As India has a dilemma of two front wars, Pakistan too has two 'hot' fronts. The state's writ along the western border has been constantly challenged by the non-state actors. The increase in violence along the erstwhile region of FATA, regrouping various TTP factions in Afghanistan, reviewing of US-Taliban withdrawal deal by Biden administration, and not much headway in intra-Afghan peace talks are only going to make the western border 'hotter' in the coming months. Therefore, to ease things along the eastern border to concentrate on the evolving situation in Afghanistan could have been one of the factors in agreeing to the ceasefire agreement.
Fifth, the humanitarian effects of the ceasefire. A calm border safeguards the civilian residing alongside the border, which in Pakistan side are much closer. This also helps Pakistan to create a discourse of goodwill among the Kashmiri's residing on the Indian side of LoC.
Prime Minister Imran Khan and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, while welcoming the peace initiative, emphasised that the onus of creating enabling environment lies with India (Baqir Sajjad Syed, "Pakistan ready to take peace process with India forward: PM," Dawn, 28 February 2021; Nadeem Shah, "Modi govt destroyed peace in the region: Qureshi," The News International, 28 February 2021). Their statements reflect the widely held narrative in Pakistan that with the Balakot offensive and abrogation of article 370, India has destroyed the semblance of normalcy in the region. At the same time, Pakistan was able to not only deter India but could also de-escalate the situation by returning the captured pilot. However, this gesture was peace was never reciprocated.
Imran Khan's and Gen Bajwa's early peace overtures were not picked by India due to multiple factors relating to the trust deficit, gap in talk and action, and BJP's domestic political compulsions. The recent agreement is a welcome development to ease tensions and improve bilateral ties. However, a ceasefire can only sustain itself when followed by a broader political dialogue. Pakistan's agreement is also based on the understanding that an acceptable solution can be reached for the Kashmir dispute, which Gen Bajwa calls an 'honourable peace' (or could be read as an honourable exit).
About the author
Rishabh Yadav is currently enrolled in Contemporary Pakistan Course at NIAS, Bengaluru. He has completed his MA in politics (International and Area Studies) from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.