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PAK-INDIA BACK-CHANNEL DIPLOMACY Is Peace Possible?

Back-channel diplomacy is one of the oldest forms of diplomatic interactions and its antecedents can be traced back to the time immemorial. At the outset, it signifies negotiations between states that takes place in secrecy, is removed from public examination and sometimes can even occur in the presence of front-channel negotiations.

Back-channel diplomacy, in essence, is a sort of official diplomacy despite its secrecy and it needs to be distinguished from Track-II diplomacy that is entirely unofficial consisting primarily of civil society representatives and organizations, including also retired diplomats, bureaucrats, military officials as well as seasoned academics, journalists and writers. Despite its concealed nature, it cannot be said that back-channel diplomacy is losing its appeal in international relations or it is no more relevant instead this has led to important breakthroughs between warring states and groups. A look at the historical background of back-channel diplomacy is essential to draw some conclusive arguments about its sustenance and comprehending Pak-India relations and answer the question whether back-channel diplomacy has the potential to bridge the gap that exists between the two states.

It may be argued that diplomacy is not an exogenously driven process which takes place independently of social actors, but it is necessarily constituted and driven by them. By this conceptual account, diplomacy including back-channel, front-channel, or even Track-II, and their eventual success or failure is dependent on the social actors, most importantly diplomats, who take the lead in negotiations.

This implies that back-channel diplomacy may help break the ice between warring parties but it might not necessarily lead to an outcome based on substantive peace. Thus, back-channel diplomacy, and its success, is dependent on how the diplomats and other officials, the social actors, outline ways and means to negotiate successfully on their interests so that the core interests of each side are protected. In some cases, the ‘core interest’ may be consciously delayed by the parties involved so as to make headway on other contentious issues. The ‘core interest’ cannot be successfully negotiated in the very first interaction. The ‘core interest’ for all parties has to be negotiated which means that a compromise formula must be deliberated in which a certain concession on the ‘core interest’ may be manifest, for without it, successful diplomacy and conflict resolution cannot take place.


This is most evident in back-channel diplomacy between Israel and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) which was embarked on in 1991. The ‘core interest’ for both parties involved a rejection of each other’s national identity. Hence, in order to proceed with peace, the PLO had to remove the injunction from their constitution which stipulated the rejection of the ‘State of Israel’. The acceptance of the Two-State Formula was one of the most significant concessions that served as an impetus for the Israel-PLO peace process. Here, it may also be mentioned that the relative weight of both parties carries a most important benchmark in diplomacy. As Bismarck’s dictum makes clear, every treaty has its horse and rider. An amendment to this dictum may be that every ‘peace’ has its horse and rider.

In the PLO-Israel case, the latter with its victories in the 1948, 1967 and 1973 wars was able to establish its dominance on a weak Islamic world. The peace that ensued, hence, was ridden and is still ridden with the dictates of the powerful entity i.e. Israel. Does this make peace or the pursuit of back-channel diplomacy improbable?

It is interesting to note that the bottleneck to peace in the Middle East has always been from Israelis, not the Palestinians. The Israelis blame terrorism as the major hurdle in the maintenance of peace with the Palestinians, but the real issue concerns the strong Israeli intransigence towards the creation of a Palestinian state. It is ironic that though the PLO accepts the Two-State Solution and agrees to work on it, Israel has not showed any major policy overture towards accepting a future Palestinian state.

Where does this leave India and Pakistan? Two comparative evaluations may be made in this regard.

First, like the Palestine-Israel case, the dispute between India and Pakistan is the ‘Kashmir’ territory that is a ‘core interest’ for both the states. Second, unlike the case in the Middle East, India and Pakistan cannot be evaluated according to Bismarck’s dictum despite the relatively lesser population and territory of Pakistan because it is a nuclear power and maintains a strategic balance with India. This fact has not, however, pleased the concerns of some that the relative weight and power of India means that it is the Indian ‘core interest’ which will be protected and the Pakistan would have to concede, most importantly, on the issue of the application of UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir. This was most evident in General Pervez Musharraf’s 4-point formula which he presented in 2006. This formula called for:

1.     phased withdrawal of troops from the LoC;
2.     self-governance for Kashmiris;
3.     no changes in the borders of Kashmir;
4.     joint supervision mechanism involving Pakistan, India and Kashmir.

When asked whether he was prepared to give up Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir, General Musharraf stated, ‘We will have to, yes, if this solution comes up.’
At present, Pakistan finds itself in a peril with a deteriorating security situation, a recession in the economy, corruption in the state bureaucracy and the energy crisis in form of electricity cuts coupled with fuel and gas shortages. The new government has prioritized the solution of these issues. In addition, peace with India through back-channel diplomacy has been restored with a strong resolve and belief that it will produce the desired results. It did prove fruitful in 2003 when back-channel diplomacy led to the Ceasefire Agreement across the Line of Control (LoC). For Pakistan, this was imperative not only for the pursuit of regional peace but also a strategic necessity since the War on Terror directed Pakistan’s priorities onto its Western borders leaving the Eastern borders vulnerable.

 India and Pakistan cannot be evaluated according to Bismarck’s dictum despite the relatively lesser population and territory of Pakistan because it is a nuclear power and maintains a strategic balance with India.
 Nevertheless, this is still a negative purview to broach the idea of peace. Peace, in essence, should not be based on negative notions (this is what we have to do for the time being so that we may be able to do something else) but on a more positive tone (this is what we have to do because peace brings development and prosperity to states and peoples). In this regard, the back-channel diplomacy being pursued, one may conjecture a positive tone. The outcome is still awaited but one hopes that peace will be consolidated and the conspiratorial politics and events, recurrent in recent news, are minimized. As soon as the recent peace overtures were announced by the Sharif government, hostilities between India and Pakistan on the LoC started afresh. No rocket science is needed to conclude that a serious rift exists between the peace and war constituencies within both India and Pakistan and the warmongers are bound to sabotage any peace initiatives.
Furthermore in the recent phase of back-channel diplomacy, it is evident that the main dynamic determining it is the ‘economic’ imperative. In his televised address to the nation, Nawaz Sharif identified poverty, hunger and backwardness as common enemies of India and Pakistan. It may be believed that the Kashmir Issue will not dominate the agenda instead terrorism will be the major focus. The latter is a concern for both the states. It will still take some time for the core issue of Kashmir (which remains suspended due to the conscious policy of the Pakistan’s ruling elite to not internationalizing it, as was the case traditionally) to be settled amicably. Till then, one hopes, as Nawaz Sharif highlighted in his speech, that both Pakistan and India can come together ‘to fight poverty and illiteracy.’

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