17 August 2001
New Delhi: The Agra Summit continues to generate controversy, though both India and Pakistan have described the outcome as a step forward. New Delhi is trying to play down the impression that it has been worsted by Islamabad in the public relations battle. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee even told mediapersons in New Delhi that if Pakistan continued with its propaganda about a division in the higher echelons of the Indian government during the Summit, this would create hurdles for the dialogue process.
Islamabad may have reasons to believe that it has scored diplomatic points after Agra. Until a month ago, Gen. Pervez Musharraf had neither political stature nor international legitimacy. After the Summit, the international community is crediting Pakistan with showing more flexibility. Even more important, especially from Pakistan's point of view, the United States indicated that it intends to play an activist role to keep the dialogue process going. Recent statements from Washington and elsewhere have also shown that the U.S. position on Kashmir remains unchanged.
Christina Rocca, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, emphasised during her brief visit to New Delhi in June that Kashmir was an issue "to be resolved between India and Pakistan taking into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people". Earlier, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the U.S. would be willing to use its good offices to settle the Kashmir issue provided India and Pakistan had no objections to the bid. And, to cap it all, President George W. Bush, in a speech to American troops stationed in Kosovo, compared Kashmir with Kosovo: "From Kosovo to Kashmir, from the Middle East to Northern Ireland, freedom and tolerance is the defining issue for our world."
Former President Bill Clinton had made similar comments at the beginning of his first term in office more than eight years ago. He had talked about American concerns about human rights violations from the "Caucasus to Kashmir". The Indian Foreign Office insists that it is unfazed by the recent pronouncement by the U.S. President. The External Affairs Ministry spokesperson said there were assurances from the U.S. that its policy on Kashmir remained unchanged.
But some Americans who are part of influential think tanks believe that the Agra talks failed because Musharraf is not really the 'military strongman' he is pretending to be. Commentators like Selig Harrison are of the opinion that Musharraf is the "front man" for hard-line Pakistani Generals linked to Islamic fundamentalist groups active in Kashmir. He supports the Indian government's contention that the talks in Agra collapsed on account of Pakistan's reluctance to commit itself openly on ending "cross-border terrorism".
Pakistan has received some flak from the U.S. in recent times for not controlling the "jehadist" factions on its territory and for providing training to militants operating in the Kashmir Valley. Pakistan, however, remains an important factor in the U.S. scheme of things, whether it is for ensuring regional security or for gaining access to the energy resources of Central Asia.
The Pakistani side insisted that Musharraf and Vajpayee were on the verge of issuing a joint statement, and blamed the Indian side for the setback. They said the possibility of a breakthrough was eliminated at the eleventh hour by "invisible hands". According to Islamabad, both Vajpayee and External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh had no problems with the first draft, which was ready by the afternoon of July 15. But the "agreed" draft was withdrawn after it was "vetoed" by certain people in the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
The first paragraph of the draft was the bone of contention, according to Islamabad. This paragraph read: "Settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue would pave the way towards normalisation of relations between the two countries." The Pakistani side felt the words could be interpreted by both sides to suit their needs and address their respective domestic constituencies. Islamabad claims the Pakistani delegation's hopes soared when "two regal chairs" were kept ready for what it thought was going to be the signing ceremony.
The contentious opening paragraph was thrashed out after intense negotiations between the two sides, and in the new draft it read: "Progress towards a settlement of the Jammu and Kashmir issue would be conducive to the normalisation of relations and would further the establishment of mutually beneficial cooperative relations." The Pakistani side thought the issue had been clinched. It waited until 9-30 p.m. before giving up, said an official.
Indian officials now admit that it was Home Minister L.K. Advani who first pointed out the lack of linkage between the "issue of Kashmir" and "cross-border" terrorism in the first draft. There was evidently a great deal of debate in the CCS, but the Indian side insisted there was complete unanimity over the decision not to issue a joint statement at Agra. The Indian side claimed the Pakistanis were a little too optimistic about the outcome.
One of the casualties of the summit "is the image of Vajpayee as a strong leader who could deliver", according to an official who observed the proceedings at close quarters. However, the Prime Minister in his speech in Parliament did mention areas where agreement could be reached.
Indian officials emphasised that cross-border terrorism was the issue which eventually undermined the Summit. They alleged that Islamabad wanted to confine the talks to the highest level in an effort to keep senior Indian officials out of the loop. There is an implicit acknowledgement that the text approved by Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh was not acceptable to the senior Indian officials who were in Agra.
Stonewalling by Indian officials will further derail the tenuous process currently on, say Pakistani officials. They allege that the Indian side made little preparations before the talks. The Indian side had reportedly sent a draft agenda for the talks to Islamabad, shortly before Musharraf was to depart for Delhi. Islamabad said that there was not enough time to prepare for structured talks at the eleventh hour.
The impression the Pakistan delegation got was that the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) was not keen on a fixed agenda for the talks, and that the PMO preferred informal interaction instead. Pakistani officials were also not impressed by the Indian moves, prior to the Summit, to send the Director-General of Military Operations to meet his counterpart in Pakistan.
Pakistani officials also do not see any connection between the escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir and the outcome of the talks. Pointing out that after the invitation was extended to Musharraf at the end of May, around 20 people were killed in Kashmir, they contended that the targeting of high-profile militants operating in the Valley by Indian forces would only lead to increased violence.
With the focus of the talks being mainly on Kashmir, issues relating to the gas pipeline project from Iran and Siachen were temporarily sidelined. Pakistani officials said they detected an air of arrogance in the Indian government's attitude to these issues. They claimed that progress on these issues would benefit India more than Pakistan. They pointed out that India spent around five times more than Pakistan for the maintenance of its troops on the icy wastes of Siachen. According to them, withdrawal from Siachen should not be seen as a concession to Pakistan.
Similarly, the gas pipeline project from Iran would be of immense benefit to India if it wanted to emerge as an industrial power in the 21st century.
The U.S. State Department is also putting its weight behind the pipeline proposal. Although, officially, Teheran is still under U.S. sanctions, U.S. officials have been interacting with their counterparts in the Iranian government at fairly high levels. The Bush administration is not averse to supporting President Mohammad Khatami, who is still facing a challenge from radical anti-American Islamists. Besides, according to informed sources, close cooperation among India, Iran and Pakistan will be in the long-term interest of the United States in the region.