LoC Ceasefire Deal is The First Step in High-Stakes Secret Diplomatic Gamble Between Delhi, Islamabad

Praveen Swami
·8-min read

From inside the bowels of the Truman Building in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighbourhood, spy-turned-diplomat Robert Komer glumly observed events unfolding half-way across the world. “Everybody from [Field-Marshall] Ayub [Khan] down is on a new hate-India jag,” he observed in a terse October 22, 1963, missive to President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy. The Pakistanis, he noted, “appear to be deliberately building up tensions over Kashmir”.

From December, 1962 to March, 1963, foreign ministers Swaran Singh and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had been locked in talks on Kashmir, which optimists had thought were a hair’s breadth from success. Then, the talks deadlocked and the Field-Marshall began making new plans.

“I cite this not because I lack sympathy for the Paks,” Komer wrote, “but because until we do give them a cold shoulder on this sort of business we’ll continue to have all sorts of problems.” No-one listened.

Also read: Thaw in Relations? India, Pakistan Agree to Ceasefire on LoC from Midnight of Feb 24

Less than two years later, Major-General Akhtar Hussain Malik, commander of Pakistan’s 12 Division, issued a terse message to his troops, massed on the Tangdhar ranges in a secret formation code-named the Khilji Force. “You will infiltrate across CFL [the Cease Fire Line] to op [operate] behind en [enemy] disposn [disposition]”, his August 29, 1965 message reads. “Cause max damage and disperse.”

The Directors-Generals of Military Operations of the Indian Army and Pakistan Army agreed, on Thursday, to initiate “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and ceasefires along the Line of Control and all other sectors”. The agreement, coming on the eve of the anniversary of the 2019 Balakot airstrike, seeks to end two years of savage artillery exchanges and reduce the risks of war between the two countries.

Even though the ceasefire agreement could end a low-yield, high-cost confrontation that has served neither country’s strategic aims, it is just the first step in a high-stakes secret diplomatic negotiation between New Delhi and Islamabad.

For months now, rumours have circulated on the existence of discreet India-Pakistan negotiations led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval—first reported in August by News18’s sister publication MoneyControl. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s advisor on national security, Moeed Yusuf, has now admitted that Thursday’s agreement was the result of “behind the scenes” contacts and promised “more roads will open” in the future.

Little detail has emerged on these negotiations, but it is no secret that the United States has been nudging New Delhi to the table.

Little detail has emerged on these negotiations, but it is no secret that the United States has been nudging New Delhi to the table. Former President Donald Trump had repeatedly offered to mediate on Kashmir, even revealing he and Prime Minister Khan were “working together on some borders”.

The election of President Joseph Biden hasn’t altered the strategic considerations behind America’s push. The United States needs Pakistan to pressure its old client, the Taliban, to ease off on violence targeting the Afghan government—thus paving the way for the withdrawal of its troops from the war-torn country. To win Pakistan’s backing, it needs to address Pakistan’s concerns on Kashmir.

A stable Afghanistan, President Biden’s advisors argue, will also be good for India, since jihadist groups like al-Qaeda, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad will be denied safe-havens.

New Delhi has long believed that the real answer to these problems lies in Washington mounting pressure on Pakistan end its relationship with its jihadist clients. However, the United States worries that too much pressure will only push Islamabad closer to Beijing—something they argue isn’t in India’s interests, either.

In remarks made in Islamabad on Thursday, hours before the Line of Control announcement, Pakistan Army public-relations chief Major-General Babar Iftekhar vowed Pakistan would not allow “Kabul to be recaptured by the Taliban”. “We must make sure a void is not left in Afghanistan’, he explained, “as the country is not living in the 1990s anymore and its state structure cannot collapse”.

Thursday’s agreement seems just part of a much larger regional-wide effort. To make that effort work, the United States believes, India-Pakistan détente on Kashmir is key.

From its genesis, the agreement to end violence on the Line of Control was intended to be part of a larger political process. As a result of negotiations which began in 2003, General Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh firmed up the contours of a secret deal on Kashmir. In essence, the agreement they planned would have made the Line of Control an international border, and given a high degree of autonomy to the Pakistan-administered region of Azad Kashmir and to the Kashmir valley in India.

General Musharraf, though, was eased out by the Pakistan Army—precisely, some analysts believe, because of the deal he was planning. His successor, General Ashfaq Kayani engineered a slow uptick in violence.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, he sought to side-step the Pakistan army’s chokehold on the peace process, by working with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Modi was handed Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama by the Generals.

Ending the fighting on the Line of Control signals that New Delhi is willing to lift its finger away from the trigger of the gun it’s had pointed at Pakistan since then. Following the Uri attack in 2016, the Indian Army struck at jihad launchpads across the Line of Control. Islamabad learned then that New Delhi was willing to risk war to punish terrorist attacks. The strikes provided compelling incentives for Islamabad to rein in jihadists groups: there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack outside Kashmir since.

Three learnings, however, may have led New Delhi to give negotiation another chance.

First, artillery exchanges on the Line of Control in themselves do little to deter Pakistan. In the early 1990s, as ever-growing numbers of jihadists began crossing the Line of Control into Kashmir, the Pakistan Army began using artillery to shell Indian positions-thus, making it hard for India to interdict or ambush infiltrators. In turn, India bombarded the Neelam valley, the site of road feeding Pakistani infrastructure along the northern stretches of the Line of Control. Levels of violence, though, rose steadily until 1996.

After 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, New Delhi became increasingly aggressive along the the Line of Control. Violence inside Kashmir, though, crept steadily up. Shells, simply, yielded no gains.

The second learning is that the costs of coercion are high, and the yields unpredictable. In 2019, the Indian Air Force strike on Balakot led to retaliatory action by the Pakistan Air Force, raising the prospect of a full-blown war neither side wished for. Economically strained, and still mired in a face-off with People’s Liberation Army in Ladakh, New Delhi is more constrained by circumstance than in 2019.

Finally, despite dramatic changes in Kashmir’s constitutional structure, the Government understands it has secured a stalemate, not a durable peace. Levels of violence, though diminished since the rebellion of 2016, remain at levels similar to similar to the first half of the last decade. Engaging Pakistan may, potentially, avert crisis of the kind which led to the eviction of the Indian state from swathes of southern Kashmir at the time.

There are some signs the 2003 peace proposals, or at least some parts of them—could be revived. For example, Pakistan has shown signs it is considering integrating the region of Gilgit-Baltistan into its federal fold, much like India has done with Ladakh—one of the elements of the 2003 plan.

Each past effort at India-Pakistan normalisation collapsed because the Pakistan Army proved unwilling sacrifice its privileged position as the country’s Praetorian Guard—an outcome that would, necessarily, follow peace with India. There is no particular reason to believe that Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Bajwa, or Prime Minister Khan, have either the desire or political capital to risk such a course.

Prime Minister Modi has little faith Pakistan’s Generals are going to turn away from their strategic aims. Even a little peace, however short-lived, serves his ends better than no peace, allowing India time to consolidate the new order in Kashmir.

Instead, Pakistan’s leadership is likely seeking time to address more pressing problems, like the insurgency in Balochistan and the crisis in Afghanistan. It will seek to use this time to rebuild its battered networks of proxies in Kashmir, knowing India’s coercive options are restrained by participation in an American-backed dialogue.

New Delhi isn’t naive, either. Prime Minister Modi has little faith Pakistan’s Generals are going to turn away from their strategic aims. Even a little peace, however short-lived, serves his ends better than no peace, allowing India time to consolidate the new order in Kashmir.

Komer’s 1963 letter, though, makes clear the road to peace in Kashmir has an unhappy way of leading to the battlefield, instead. New Delhi must beware the mines and booby-traps lining the path ahead.