Pakistan army holds out an olive branch; reaches out to India for talks

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Concerned about Pakistan’s international isolation and faltering economy, the country's powerful military has quietly reached out to its archrival India about resuming peace talks, but the response was tepid, according to Western diplomats and a senior Pakistani official.

The outreach, initiated by the army’s top commander, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, began months before Pakistan’s national elections. Pakistan offered to resume on-and-off talks with India over their border dispute in the Kashmir region, which stalled in 2015 as violence flared up there.

A key objective for Pakistan in reaching out to India is to open barriers to trade between the countries, which would give Pakistan more access to regional markets. Any eventual peace talks over Kashmir are likely to involve an increase in bilateral trade as a confidence-building measure.

Increasingly, Pakistan’s military sees the country’s battered economy as a security threat, because it aggravates the insurgencies that plague the country. Pakistan is expected to ask the International Monetary Fund for $9 billion in the coming weeks, after receiving several billions of dollars in loans from China this year to pay its bills.

The army is Pakistan’s most powerful institution, but India’s military is much weaker and could not agree to a peace deal without the civilian government’s approval. Diplomats in New Delhi say Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is preoccupied with elections expected early next year and does not want talks before then, fearing that if talks collapse — as they have many times before — it could cost them at the polls.

“Till the Indian elections, there cannot be an immediate betterment in bilateral relations,” Mr. Chaudhry said. India’s military and its foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

The new Pakistani government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan has been sending strong signals in favor of talks, though it is the military that ultimately controls foreign and defence policy. “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward,” Mr. Khan said in his victory speech, addressing India. “We need to move ahead.”

With Mr. Khan in office, talks may have a better chance because he is seen as the army’s man, diplomats in both Islamabad and New Delhi say. India sees Mr. Khan’s outreach as sanctioned by the military and believes he will clearly present General Bajwa’s demands and red lines.

That the military would initiate such a major foreign policy decision unilaterally, and before the elections, suggests it was confident that its preferred candidate, Mr. Khan, would win. Mr. Khan was sworn in as prime minister last month, in the wake of accusations that the army had intervened to back his candidacy.

Diplomats in Islamabad say Pakistan’s outreach may also be driven in part by the country’s Chinese allies. Beijing has prodded Pakistan to stabilize its border with India, hoping for greater stability as it pursues its regional economic ambitions. China is investing some $62 billion in Pakistan, mostly in large infrastructure projects through what is being called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, part of China’s global Belt and Road initiative.

The plan would give Beijing more direct access to important Western markets by building a series of highways through Pakistan, connecting China’s western border to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port on the Arabian Sea. If Pakistani troops are freed up along the border with India, the thinking goes, they could be diverted to secure the country’s western flank, where China’s trade routes would be.

Chinese Muslim insurgents who oppose Beijing’s rule have been active in Afghanistan and western Pakistan, and other Pakistani insurgents, including Baloch separatists, have opposed the Chinese infrastructure projects. Last month, a Baloch separatist group attacked a bus carrying Chinese workers, wounding five.

Pakistan may also be realizing that it can no longer withstand its growing international isolation and its worsening ties with the United States, which was once its closest Western ally. The United States cut more than $1 billion of aid to Pakistan in January for not doing enough to curb terror groups, which it accuses the army of support.

Tensions with Washington were further aggravated this week when the American military said it would withhold $300 million in aid to Pakistan, just days before the Trump administration’s first meeting with Mr. Khan’s new government. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to meet Mr. Khan on Wednesday in Islamabad, and Pakistani lawmakers enraged over the aid cut have been calling for Mr. Khan to scrap the meeting.

In the past, military and government officials in Pakistan have said they could withstand American aid cuts, pointing to their growing ties with China. But Pakistan was stunned this year when China went along with putting Islamabad on a terror-financing watch list, which will make it harder and more expensive for Pakistan to raise badly needed funding on international debt markets.