India-Pak dialogue: 'Sush!' is the word on usual suspect

India-Pak dialogue: 'Sush!' is the word on usual suspect

By: || Updated: 10 Dec 2015 08:01 AM
New Delhi: India has for the first time dropped even oblique references to Pakistan-sourced terrorism in Afghanistan in a speech by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj at a conference on the Central Asian nation, coinciding with the Prime Minister's dramatic new overture to Islamabad.

Both the previous UPA government and the Narendra Modi administration in its first year in office had in each of the past four ministerial meetings of the Heart of Asia conference since 2011 blamed Pakistan for the instability and violence in Afghanistan.

The charges, fuelled by a series of attacks allegedly by Pakistan-backed terror groups on Indian diplomatic missions, have formed a central pillar of India's argument that Afghanistan's security is linked to Islamabad's approach to terrorism.

But Sushma broke with the past, and kept quiet on the role of "external actors" or terrorism emanating from "beyond Afghanistan's borders" - references her predecessors had used in the past - while speaking at the fifth ministerial meet of the Heart of Asia conference in Islamabad.

Instead, the foreign minister who is in Pakistan as Prime Minister Modi's latest peace envoy with Islamabad, referred in carefully drafted language to the "collective" duty of Afghanistan's neighbours to prevent terrorists from finding safe havens.

"It is also the collective duty of all of us to ensure that the forces of terrorism and extremism do not find sanctuaries and safe havens in any name, form or manifestation," Sushma said. "We, in Afghanistan's proximity, have a particular responsibility in this regard."

Her predecessors representing India at the conclave - former foreign ministers S.M. Krishna and Salman Khurshid, and Sushma's deputy V.K. Singh last year - had each referred to terrorism from Pakistan as the biggest security challenge before Afghanistan, transcripts of their speeches show.

However, following the Prime Minister's outreach to Pakistan, the tone appears to have changed.

The Prime Ministers of the two nations had met on November 30 in Paris, before the national security advisers and foreign secretaries met in Bangkok on December 6. Sushma - the first Modi government minister to visit Pakistan - met her counterpart Sartaj Aziz and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif today.

Strong criticism of Pakistan over Afghanistan's security could upset any chances of progress in peace talks with Islamabad, officials said. Niceties towards the host of the conference were also a factor, an official said.

India was not in any way compromising on its commitment to Afghanistan's security, the officials added, pointing to Sushma's assertion in her speech that New Delhi is willing to work with Kabul to strengthen its defensive capabilities. Sushma also met Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on the margins of the Heart of Asia summit today.

But the link between the change in India's position at the conference, and Modi's plans to visit Islamabad next year for the South Asian Association for regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit - which Sushma announced today - appear impossible to ignore, some analysts said.

"From India's perspective, the Prime Minister appears to have decided he wants to visit Islamabad next year for the Saarc meet, and this is preparatory work being done for that," Rakesh Sood, the former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan who headed India's mission there from 2005 to 2008, told The Telegraph . "That's what appears to be driving this."

Sushma's pointed silence on India's traditional allegations against Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan could be understandable, Sood said, if Kabul itself was coy about blaming Islamabad for its problems at the summit today.

Ghani, while insisting he did not want to engage in a "blame game" with Sharif, added there had been "considerable uncertainty whether Pakistan would truly acknowledge a sovereign Afghan state with its legitimate government and constitution".

"If the Afghans were being as careful about naming Pakistan, then it wouldn't make sense for India to go out of its way to attack Islamabad," Sood said. "But that (Ghani's comment) is a pretty strong statement."

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