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'We’d Come To Semicolons': Steve Coll On The 'Back Channel'

Steve Coll's much talked about piece, “The Back Channel”, in the current New Yorker (March 2, 2009, p. 38) which is available on the newyorker.com only to its registered users is available in full at The New America Foundation. While much of what it says has been talked about in Delhi's journo circles, this is perhaps the first detailed published account in public domain of the Back Channel and how close India-Pakistan came to reach an agreement on Jammu & Kashmir:

By early 2007, the back-channel talks on Kashmir had become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons,” Kasuri recalled. A senior Indian official who was involved agreed. “It was huge--I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” he told me. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.” Aziz and Lambah were negotiating the details for a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister during which, they hoped, the principles underlying the Kashmir agreement would be announced and talks aimed at implementation would be inaugurated. One quarrel, over a waterway known as Sir Creek, would be formally settled.

Neither government, however, had done much to prepare its public for a breakthrough. In the spring of 2007, a military aide in Musharraf ’s office contacted a senior civilian official to ask how politicians, the media, and the public might react. “We think we’re close to a deal,” Musharraf ’s aide said, as this official recalled it. “Do you think we can sell it?”

Regrettably, the time did not look ripe, this official recalled answering. In early March, Musharraf had invoked his near-dictatorial powers to fire the chief justice of the country’s highest court. That decision set off rock-tossing protests by lawyers and political activists. The General’s popularity seemed to be eroding by the day; he had seized power in a coup in 1999, and had enjoyed public support for several years, but now he was approaching “the point where he couldn’t sell himself,” the official remembers saying, never mind a surprise peace agreement with India.

Kasuri was among the Musharraf advisers who felt that the Pakistanis should postpone the summit--that they “should not waste” the negotiated draft agreements by revealing them when Musharraf might not be able to forge a national consensus. Even if it became necessary to hold off for months or years, Kasuri believed, “We had done so much work that it will not be lost.”

Pakistan’s government sent a message to India: Manmohan Singh’s visit should be delayed so that Musharraf could regain his political balance. India, too, was facing domestic complications, in the form of regional elections. In New Delhi, the word in national-security circles had been that “any day we’re going to have an agreement on Kashmir,” Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired Indian brigadier, recalled. “But Musharraf lost his constituencies.”

Steve Coll's much talked about piece, “The Back Channel”, in the current New Yorker (March 2, 2009, p. 38) which is available on the newyorker.com only to its registered users is available in full at The New America Foundation. While much of what it says has been talked about in Delhi's journo circles, this is perhaps the first detailed published account in public domain of the Back Channel and how close India-Pakistan came to reach an agreement on Jammu & Kashmir:

By early 2007, the back-channel talks on Kashmir had become “so advanced that we’d come to semicolons,” Kasuri recalled. A senior Indian official who was involved agreed. “It was huge--I think it would have changed the basic nature of the problem,” he told me. “You would have then had the freedom to remake Indo-Pakistani relations.” Aziz and Lambah were negotiating the details for a visit to Pakistan by the Indian Prime Minister during which, they hoped, the principles underlying the Kashmir agreement would be announced and talks aimed at implementation would be inaugurated. One quarrel, over a waterway known as Sir Creek, would be formally settled.

Neither government, however, had done much to prepare its public for a breakthrough. In the spring of 2007, a military aide in Musharraf ’s office contacted a senior civilian official to ask how politicians, the media, and the public might react. “We think we’re close to a deal,” Musharraf ’s aide said, as this official recalled it. “Do you think we can sell it?”

Regrettably, the time did not look ripe, this official recalled answering. In early March, Musharraf had invoked his near-dictatorial powers to fire the chief justice of the country’s highest court. That decision set off rock-tossing protests by lawyers and political activists. The General’s popularity seemed to be eroding by the day; he had seized power in a coup in 1999, and had enjoyed public support for several years, but now he was approaching “the point where he couldn’t sell himself,” the official remembers saying, never mind a surprise peace agreement with India.

Kasuri was among the Musharraf advisers who felt that the Pakistanis should postpone the summit--that they “should not waste” the negotiated draft agreements by revealing them when Musharraf might not be able to forge a national consensus. Even if it became necessary to hold off for months or years, Kasuri believed, “We had done so much work that it will not be lost.”

Pakistan’s government sent a message to India: Manmohan Singh’s visit should be delayed so that Musharraf could regain his political balance. India, too, was facing domestic complications, in the form of regional elections. In New Delhi, the word in national-security circles had been that “any day we’re going to have an agreement on Kashmir,” Gurmeet Kanwal, a retired Indian brigadier, recalled. “But Musharraf lost his constituencies.”

Indeed, but what exactly was the deal? Which semicolons had been put? Which full stops remained? The article does not specify beyond the sort of loud thinking General Musharraf did in many of his press-interactions and trial baloons he himself floated many a time: No, Pakistan could not accept the Line of Control as the international border between India and Pakistan. No, India would never renegotiate its borders or the Line of Control. And, yes, let's remind ourselves of what Manmohan Singh had said in July 2007 -- and not for the first time:

Our dialogue with Pakistan seeks to end the bitter legacy of the last 60 years, and begin a new chapter in our bilateral relations. I hope and believe that Jammu and Kashmir can, one day, become a symbol of India-Pakistan cooperation rather than of conflict. As I have stated earlier, borders cannot be changed, but they can be made irrelevant. There can be no question of divisions or partitions, but the Line of Control can become a line of peace with a freer flow of ideas, goods, services and people.

The natural resources of the state of Jammu and Kashmir could then be used for the benefit of all its people. They need no longer be points of contention or a source of conflict. We could, for example, use the land and water resources of the region jointly for the benefit of all the people living on both sides of the Line of Control. Similarly, there are vast opportunities to jointly work together for the mutual benefit of our people. It goes without saying that this can only happen once terrorism and violence end permanently

Musharraf seems like ancient history already, and the Kabul and Mumbai terror attakcs have set back the "peace-process" so much that it is sobering to be reminded by Coll of some of the specific details in the nonpaper as recently as 2007:

The most recent version of the nonpaper, drafted in early 2007, laid out several principles for a settlement, according to people who have seen the draft or have participated in the discussions about it. Kashmiris would be given special rights to move and trade freely on both sides of the Line of Control. Each of the former princely state’s distinct regions would receive a measure of autonomy-- details would be negotiated later. Providing that violence declined, each side would gradually withdraw its troops from the region. At some point, the Line of Control might be acknowledged by both governments as an international border. It is not clear how firm a commitment on a final border the negotiators were prepared to make, or how long it would all take; one person involved suggested a time line of about ten to fifteen years.

One of the most difficult issues involved a plan to establish a joint body, made up of local Kashmiri leaders, Indians, and Pakistanis, to oversee issues that affected populations on both sides of the Line of Control, such as water rights. Pakistan sought something close to shared governance, with the Kashmiris taking a leading role; India, fearing a loss of sovereignty, wanted much less power-sharing. The envoys wrestled intensively over what language to use to describe the scope of this new body; the last draft termed it a “joint mechanism.”

Manmohan Singh’s government feared that successor Pakistani regimes would repudiate any Kashmir bargain forged by Musharraf, who had, after all, come to power in a coup. The Indians were not sure that a provisional peace deal could be protected “from the men of violence--on both sides,” the senior Indian official who was involved recalled. And they wondered whether the Pakistan Army had really embraced the nonpaper framework or merely saw the talks as a ploy to buy time and win favor in Washington while continuing to support the jihadis. “I remember asking Tariq Aziz, ‘Is the Army on board? Right now?’ ” the senior official recalled. “As long as Musharraf was the chief, had the uniform, I think he had a valid answer. He said, ‘Yes, the chief is doing this.’ ”

Read the article in full at The New America Foundation 

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