The recent development in terms of strategic security in the Indian subcontinent grabbed many eyeballs. The 5th Ministerial Conference of the Heart of Asia Istanbul Process was underway in December 8-9 in Islamabad. It was devoted to the themes of security and connectivity, wherein the friends of Afghanistan from its immediate and extended neighbourhood as well as supporting countries and international organisations convened to promote political consultations and regional cooperation for a united, democratic, independent, strong and prosperous Afghanistan. In terms of the power vacuum in place in the region, the conclave assumes relevance as it provided India an important opportunity on a vital regional platform for political consultations and regional cooperation to reiterate India’s commitment to Afghanistan’s stability and development and our faith in its future.

Currently India is contemplating a ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ with Pakistan with the objective of “removing hurdles in the path of a constructive engagement” by addressing issues of concern. It is being pitted as a new beginning for peace and development in the whole region. There is a need to explore and establish cooperative ties, by including initiatives on trade and connectivity, people-to-people exchanges and humanitarian issues to contribute to the welfare of the entire region. These situations however warrant a better understanding and mutual trust between the countries.

In a candid conversation with Ms Christine Fair, associate professor at the Center for Peace and Security Studies (CPASS), within Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service few insights on these developments were drawn. Ms Fair, specialises in political and military affairs in the Indian Subcontinent, and her acumen on whether the new Dialogue will mark a new beginning for peace and development in the whole region follows the excerpts of the conversation.

In the opinion of Ms Fair, the foreign diplomacy underlying India- Pakistan relations had come to a standstill at times when Pakistan tries to maintain the status quo. More often it becomes clearer how Pakistan does not want to have peace.  Ms Fair added that when India succumbs to the pressure from the USA, and engages with Pakistan regarding the Kashmir dispute, it lends legitimacy to the flawed narrative that Pakistan has been running over the decades about its claim to Kashmir over which it has no claim whatsoever.

History has proved time and again of the erroneous consequences of Pak interference in the internal affairs of Kabul. Ever since the Soviet invasion, Pakistan has failed to learn from this mistake. In all likelihood, it will be blunder again if Pakistan tries to have a say in the internal politics in Afghanistan. If a stable political development fails to materialize in war weary Afghanistan, the South Asian region will have to pay a heavy price for the ensuing power vacuum. The possibility of ISIS proliferation in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot be ignored either. In such a hypothetical scenario, the Afghans might flip towards the ISIS as they are exhausted of an ISI controlled Taliban.

Fair said, “If Pakistan wants peace, it can have peace”. While talking about India’s strategic approach to the whole problem, she said that India should follow an offensive strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan. India did face brickbats for its peace process initiatives. The Pak machinations in this regard cannot be forgotten easily. Whilst Vajpayee’s bus yatra was followed up with Kargil war(1999), Former Pak President Asif Ali Zardari’s  efforts to discuss all contentious issues stalling the peace between the countries ( rather than restricting talks to Kashmir alone) was ensued up with the 26/11 terrorist attacks.

Whilst not being offensive, India in the opinion of Ms Fair is making itself susceptible to cross border terrorism from Pakistan. She also added that India must ask USA to ‘mind its own business’ when it came to Pakistan. Needless to say, USA has not gained anything from its intervention in Pakistan.

Regarding USA’s strategy to counter ISIS in Syria and Iraq, she said that USA had none and it has not been acting because of the implications any US action would have on the Presidential elections. She was of the opinion that if USA acted in the summer of 2015 when the militants in Iraq and Syria were conducting military exercises the whole of ISIS could have been washed away through air strikes.  The strategic approach to be followed for countering ISIS, will be that of destabilising the ISIS economy. In the opinion of Ms Fair, geographical containment and bombardment of the region as opposed to planting troops on the ground to combat the ISIS or training the locals to fight against the ISIS will earn dividends. The hawkish attitude of this analysis came to fore when justifying civilian causalities as collateral damage. The miscalculated strategies by the Obama administration on the Assad regime in Syria and its covert support to the moderate opposition groups will be paid with a heavy price.

The USA would want India to be a strategic competitor to China in Asia and that India’s strategic relationship with the USA should include sharing of intelligence between the countries. Such a cooperation should happen at the bottom level of law enforcement and not just at the top most level. Only then can it have any tangible impact. Ms Fair was pragmatic in her analysis of recent stints in Indian foreign policy as well. The shift in the global perception of India owing to a vibrant approach towards renewing India’s foreign policy under Modi, cannot be taken at face value. Such visits will be futile if it fails to lead to any deliverables.

*Fair has served as a senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation, political officer to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in Kabul, and as senior research associate at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace.

She has authored, co-authored and co-edited several books including Treading Softly on Sacred Ground: Counterinsurgency Operations on Sacred Space (2008); The Madrassah Challenge: Militancy and Religious Education in Pakistan ( 2008), Fortifying Pakistan: The Role of U.S. Internal Security Assistance ( 2006); The Fighters of Lashkar-e-Taiba: Recruitment, Training, Deployment and Death(2013); Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War,(2014) among others and specialised on a range of security issues in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. She is a member of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also a senior fellow with the Counter Terrorism Center at West Point.

* Note: This interaction was held before PM Modi’s visit to Lahore.

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