US President Joe Biden’s South Asia policy could be one reason that spurred the nuclear-armed rivals to talk peace.
Pakistan’s top leadership this week indicated that it is willing to start talks to normalise ties with India, prompting some observers to wonder what has caused a sudden change of heart.
Already fraught relations between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours hit rock bottom in August 2019 when New Delhi unilaterally stripped the nominal autonomy of the disputed territory of Kashmir - the only Muslim-majority state in India.
Islamabad has all along maintained that resolution of the Kashmir issue must be at the heart of any future dialogue.
Even now Prime Minister Imran Khan and the powerful army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, preconditioned talks to peace in the Himalyan region, part of which is under Pakistan's control. What’s missing is the usually fiery rhetoric. In a January speech, Khan likened Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to the “Nazis”.
Speaking at a security forum in Islamabad on Wednesday, Pakistani’s Prime Minister Imran Khan said Kashmir was the “lone irritant” hampering economic integration of the region. A day later, Bajawa echoed similar sentiment, saying it was time to “bury the past and move forward.”
“Forget all this, we must learn to see through these statements,” says Zafar Hilaly, a former Pakistani diplomat and political analyst, adding that Islamabad is probably trying to appease US President Joe Biden.
“Biden is completely, utterly, totally with India. He pretends that he’s concerned about India’s (deteriorating) human rights record but he’s arming India to the teeth.”
Modi was among the leaders alongside Japanese and Australian prime ministers who attended the Quad summit last week - the first such official meeting Biden hosted since taking office.
On Friday, the US Defense Secretary Llyod Austin arrived in New Delhi on a three-day trip, which includes a meeting with his Indian counterpart and discussions on China and Afghanistan. This is Austin’s first foreign tour, signifying the importance the Biden administration attaches to cementing ties with the South Asian country.
Hilaly says there’s little hope for lasting peace as Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to pursue anti-Muslim policies.
Until a bomb goes off
Some Indian analysts say that Islamabad’s eagerness is to counter India’s efforts to lobby other countries into imposing sanctions on Pakistan for its alleged role in financing militant groups.
“There is increasing pressure from FATF,” says Ajit Singh, a South Asia analyst at the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, referring to the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based multilateral organisation that oversees what steps states have taken to curb money laundering.
Pakistan is among the countries, including Albania and Morocco, which are part of an FATF grey list. These countries have been asked to improve financial compliance and introduce relevant laws to avoid sanctions.
“It is very difficult for Pakistan to stop supporting Kashmir-centric terror groups. But if the Pakistan leadership provides lip service (towards peace), at least it will help take off some of the international pressure and maybe even help them get out of the grey list,” says Singh.
But there’s reason to believe that the two sides are concurrently working towards some sort of rapprochement. And maybe it’s India that took the first step.
“India has made deliberate attempts since 2015 (after Modi came to power) to sideline Pakistan internationally and not talk to it. So I think the main switch has to come from the India side,” Dr Gareth Price, a South Asia expert at the Chatham House.
“I think there has probably been some backchannel communication to see if they can start engaging.”
In a surprise move, top Indian and Pakistani military officers agreed last month to a ceasefire along the heavily guarded border. While that’s nothing unusual and from time to time the two militaries have taken a break in launching projectiles at one another, it came at a time of heightened tension.
The two neighbours have fought three wars and came to the verge of another in early 2019 after dozens of Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack, which India blamed on Pakistan.
Price says New Delhi’s desire to have a say in the affairs of a war-torn Afghanistan could also be one of the reasons behind the detente.
“Certainly Pakistan can not be isolated because whatever happens in Afghanistan, it is going to have a role in it,” he says.
The US has pulled out most of its troops from Afghanistan where the government of President Ashraf Ghani - who has close ties with India - is feeling pressure from the Pakistan-aligned Taliban.
The economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic could have played a part in bringing the two sides closer, says Price.
“Both countries are perfectly capable of talking to each other. A lot of the tension along the border is for show. This cycle of talks has gone on since the 1980s.
“But it often happens that when they start negotiations, a bomb goes off, killing Indian soldiers, India blames Pakistan and the talks are called off.”