Dialogue April-June, 2015, Volume 16 No. 4
Indo-Pak Track II Diplomacy: An Insider's View
1. Following the attacks on Mumbai on 26 November, 2008, there was a brief period in which anxiety spread that India’s anger could spill over into retaliation on Pakistani soil, and there would be a counter-retaliation, and so on, that the things might spin out of control, to the extent that nuclear weapons would come into play.
2. Western countries worried the most about it, and when tempers subsided, they were keen that they get a feel of what the thinking is on both sides of the Indo-Pak border. The best way to do that was through Track II diplomacy, a coin termed by an American diplomat in 1981 to refer to “non-governmental, informal and unofficial contacts and activities between private citizens or groups of individuals.” Though it contrasts with Track I diplomacy, which is governmental, it is not a substitute for it. In the absence of a Track I or a back-channel dialogue, the Track II process becomes more important. India and Pakistan have been hosting a Track II diplomatic meeting called the Neemrana Dialogue, named after the first venue, a resorted fort in Neemrana, Rajasthan, since 1992. The countries have hosted it alternatively, and gathered together retired defence services officers, retired diplomats, media persons, representatives of NGOs, etc.
3. What had started off as an India-Pakistan initiative was gradually expanded to include Afghanistan and when the process accelerated and stabilized, then someone hit on the idea of having an exclusive dialogue for the two militaries, and thus began and India-Pakistan military dialogue. Retired Lt. General Mohd Asad Durrani, who was the Director General of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate during 1990-92, suggested that if the militaries could talk to one another, then so could the intelligence services.
4. Peter Jones, a scholar at Ottawa University who was setting up this Track II initiative, thought it was a great idea floated by General Durrani and asked for India’s response. The R&AW Chief who had had successful meetings in 2002 with his ISI counterpart, and who was retired like me, C.D. Sahay, bounced the ideas off me. “I think it’s great,” I said. Hence was born a Track II meeting of retired intelligence officers from India and Pakistan almost unthinkably sponsored by the University of Ottawa which had been in the business since 2010.
5. One looked forward to those meetings not because we would produce something, but because to the inquisitive mind of an intelligence officer, going to such a meeting would bring you into touch with the other side, where you could make a few friends and hear the others viewpoint. It gives you an insight, I must say I learnt a lot.
6. The other thing is that the question that comes up in Delhi while debating bilateral relations with Pakistan, is of who’s-in-control. The Pakistanis acknowledge that ultimately when it comes to foreign policy or national security, the army’s approval is required. Within their army, the ISI is an all-powerful institution – perhaps the most powerful spy agency in the world, as far as influence on their government is concerned. So if such a Track II dialogue helps us make contacts in the establishment within the establishment that can only help India-Pakistan relations.
7. The Pakistanis have been very keen to meet. In these Track II meetings we always put down a resolution recommending meetings between the two countries’ intelligence chiefs. It makes sense, from the Pakistani point of view, if the intelligence chiefs meet, then the army chiefs could meet; and if the army chiefs meet then you could have a summit meeting. One thing follows another. General Durrani and I even wrote a joint paper on it in July 2011. In our thinking, intelligence chiefs can do so much for their governments and their leaders which can remain non-attributable. It can only help the political process.
8. We’ve had five rounds of meetings of retired intelligence chiefs. The first two were attended by future National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, as well. The Pakistani side has been better represented than our side, sadly; we find it difficult to muster five people, though last time in Istanbul in April we had a more level playing field with six each from both sides.
9. The significant thing here is that if five or six people from each country who have handled important positions can sit together and talk frankly, then why can’t the intelligence chiefs meet? An American Ambassador who attended the fourth meeting called us a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which is also the name of a film.
10. My own Track II experiences started when Amitabh Mattoo, who was then with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), invited me to participate in the Chaophraya Dialogue in Bangkok in March 2009. The initiative is named after the main river in Thailand and was organized jointly by the IPCS and the Jinnah Institute in Pakistan, but funded by the British. I had also gotten involved, thanks to the former foreign secretary Salman Haider, with the Balusa Group meeting, chaired by high-powered Pakistani-American academic Shirin Tahir-Kheli and named after two villages in Pakistani Punjab.
11. On a personal note, the Track II dialogue enabled me to visit Pakistan, blasphemous perhaps, for a former R&AW Chief and I have had the good fortune of making a number of friends. Last November, General Asad Durrani the former ISI Chief also visited Delhi though we are much more difficult with visas.
12. There have been a number of Indo-Pak Track II meetings in the last five years, sponsored mainly by the West. The Americans have been the most keen observers. At a Pugwash Conference in Berlin in 2012 which was more broadbased there were participants (including retired intelligence officers) from not only India and Pakistan but the US, Russia, China, Iran and even Afghanistan (including the former forever prominent Talib, Mullah Zaeef). There were Pakistani observers as well but none from our side because of our Ostrich-like attitude. We neither recognize nor approve of Track II. How can one not be interested in listening in when people from all over the world are there? Nevertheless, the Indo-Pak dialogue has had virtually the who’s who of retired diplomats, militarymen, media, academicians and a sprinkling of intelligence officers.
13. Personally, I can say one learns a great deal. For instance at our last meeting we learnt from the Pakistanis of China’s deep interest in Afghanistan, that it was even willing to play the honest broker in a deal with the Taliban. Are we not losing out somewhere?
14. The Track II of retired intelligence officers is a unique experiment. A major achievement is that a certain bonhomie has been created where issues are discussed frankly. These frequent interactions have helped in understanding each other better, also ridding us of the ‘howaa’ (monster) of the ISI that we create here. All of this has resulted in recommendations being made for the two countries to institutionalize an intelligence-sharing regime in a phased manner. Such a possibility was hitherto inconceivable.
15. These interactions have led to a recommendation that the two sides cooperate to address new emerging threats to the sub-continent, such as the ISIS, and then, in a step-by-step manner, move in the direction of declaring station chiefs to each other. Given the level and quality of participation, the recommendations would hopefully be looked at seriously by the policy makers on both sides. And if that happens, this project could eventually lead to more meaningful intelligence driven CBM’s. There is, at the moment, no platform for the intelligence agencies of the two countries to interact with each other and this helps in filling some portion of that vacuum though in a not entirely satisfactory manner. Even if there are no concrete results, the very fact that Indian and Pakistani retired intelligence personnel are meeting each other is in itself a major plus. This could prove to be a forum for conveying ideas and thoughts.
16. It will need to be a gradual process and frequent interactions will lead to new ideas. There are new threats to the region and a need to create great awareness. For example, the current body combines considerable expertise which is not available in any other forum. This body could be used to create this awareness, using either the media or through confidential notes written jointly, excluding any contentious issue, for the attention of the policy makers in the two countries. There is some slow movement in the bilateral arena and the task would be to create confidence in each other. This forum could help in meeting that need in a smaller but crucial arena.
17. There has been a lot learned from the professionalism of some of the Pakistani representatives, their analysis of certain issues has included nuances, we were hitherto not aware of. These nuances should help us understand not only each other but the region as well. After all, for instance, the Pakistanis know and understand Afghanistan much better than we do. A huge chunk of the Afghan population resides in Pakistan apart from the leadership of the Taliban without which there can be no solution in Afghanistan. And the Pakis are not averse to cooperating with us even in Afghanistan; at least they have said so on numerous occasions, which surely needs checking out.
18. In the future, the Group could also study and share information regarding terrorism including use of electronic and social media to spread disinformation aimed at creating social disorder and communal disharmony in another country. This could be the terrorist weapon of the future and it would be helpful to both sides to understand its propensities and arrive at measures to counter it. Similarly, it would be helpful to both sides to study the process of radicalization of individuals and what security and Intelligence agencies could do to firstly prevent such radicalization and secondly to contain such individuals and the impact of their actions.
19. The members of the group are retired officers. The extent of success in taking forward the ideas generated by the group would depend on their continuing access and contacts with serving officials, think tanks and other forums where such ideas could be shared with the current administrations and political structures. Ways and means to do this could perhaps be discussed at future meetings to chart out courses of action.
20. A more important revelation is that both sides seem to belong to similar social and cultural strata in their respective societies. This commonality of belonging to similar social backgrounds could be built upon towards furthering the ends of the initiative.
21. Since Track II is held in a more relaxed and informal atmosphere it enables a degree of comfort and cordiality in which discussion is held in a free and frank manner, conviviality outside business hours has often shocked our western sponsors but contributes substantially to the objectives of the initiative.
22. Any relationship requires not only imagination and hard work but trust and an element of risk as well. George Tenet, the former CIA Chief, told me after meeting Musharraf in the summer of 2000 that the General was going to be around for a while and he felt they could do business with him. His advice to us was to ‘check out’ Musharraf for ourselves. We kept dilly dallying and only after he left did we start saying that he was the best man to do business with in Pakistan. Thus was squandered the window of opportunity between 2004-2007. Dr. Manmohan Singh conceded in his last press interview as Prime Minister that the deal on Kashmir was almost done with Pakistan; one of many missed opportunities. And if now we do not think it necessary to engage with Pakistan then we need to think through its implications; to talk or not to talk and why.
23. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s ‘Kaptaan Sahib’ before he turned politician, once said, there was nothing between India and Pakistan that he and Sunil Gavaskar could not sort out over a glass of beer.
*Shri A.S. Dulat is former secretary in Cabinet Sectt., Director R&AW and an expert on Indo-Pak affairs and Kashmir.