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As Sartaj Aziz visits, what makes Pak confident?

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The mourners at the August 16 burial of former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief, Lt Gen Hamid Gul, included Pakistan's current army chief General Raheel Sharif, and his predecessor, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.

Gul has always been influential within Pakistan's security establishment. If Security Advisor (NSA) Sartaj Aziz appears to hold the trump cards going into his Sunday meeting with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval; Gul and his contemporaries can legitimately claim credit. As ISI chief from 1987-89, and a member of Pakistan's "deep state" for years thereafter, Gul was a pioneer and advocate of developing jihadi fighters as proxies to create Pakistani leverage in Afghanistan and India.

Even as western and Indian analysts highlighted the damage to Pakistan's security fabric caused by "blowback" from a plethora of jihadi groups, Gul and his ilk - many of them still in key positions of power - continued to manipulate these groups as "strategic assets", canalising their violence outwards through judicious "asset management".

Pakistani analyst, Ayesha Siddiqa, points out that Gul, like numerous Pakistani generals after him, believed that "religious militancy could be used, but kept out of cantonments and other strategic areas". This school of thought remains alive today.

Sartaj Aziz brings to New Delhi a newfound Pakistani confidence, stemming from its leverage in Afghanistan. This extends to the Taliban, other armed radical groups like the Haqqani Network and is also acknowledged by Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani.

"Both Washington and President Ghani have ceded a role to the Pakistan Army. But now, even Indian allies like Russia and Iran seem reconciled to Pakistan's growing hold over Afghanistan's future", laments a senior Indian foreign ministry official.

This hold is increasingly evident. On July 30, the Taliban announced the death of Mullah Omar, its independent-minded former chief. Mullah Akhtar Mansour, who the ISI is believed to have influence with, succeeded Omar next day. Appointed Mansour's deputy was Sirajuddin Haqqani, a key leader of the Haqqani Network, which was described in 2011, in Congressional testimony by Admiral Mike Mullen, then America's top military commander, as "a veritable arm of the ISI".

Pakistan's growing influence in Afghanistan reflects Washington's dependence on Islamabad. Indian foreign ministry officials see a new Pakistani confidence that makes it indifferent to dialogue with India. Since last August, when New Delhi cancelled talks after Pakistani High Commissioner Abdul Basit met separatist leaders from the Hurriyat Conference, Islamabad has shown no keenness to resume talks.

New Delhi is going ahead with the Aziz-Doval meeting, though Basit says a Hurriyat meeting remains on the cards. Nor has New Delhi allowed the release by a Pakistani court of a key accused in the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, derail the dialogue. Nor have a spate of cease-fire violations on the Line of Control and the international boundary been allowed to scupper talks.

In February, New Delhi abandoned its hard line, with Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar visiting Pakistan as part of a "regional familiarisation" tour, and effectively resuming contacts. In June, on Ramzan, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called up to greet his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, setting the stage for a meeting in July in Ufa, Russia, where the two were attending a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit.

At Ufa, Mr Modi accepted his counterpart's invitation to visit Pakistan in 2016 for the summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. The two prime ministers also agreed to talks on terrorism between their respective NSAs, which will take place on Sunday.

New Delhi has put a brave face on its back-pedalling. Diplomats argue that the joint statement at Ufa was an Indian triumph, with no mention of Kashmir, and with Pakistan accepting talks on terrorism, a subject it would be defensive on.

Islamabad, however, has taken the offensive, accusing New Delhi of fomenting terrorism in Baluchistan and, in cahoots with Afghan intelligence agencies, in the tribal areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which had been expected to take a firm line with Pakistan, finds itself defensive. India's equities in Afghanistan - a decade of generous humanitarian aid and a deep pool of goodwill amongst Afghans - will be manifest only over the long term. In the short term, this is overshadowed by Pakistan's hard power leverage through armed groups.

President Ghani's administration has begun protesting Pakistani violations of the Pak-Afghan border, but he remains for now in thrall of the Pakistan Army. General Raheel Sharif has already made at least four visits to Kabul.

Even so, analysts who know Afghanistan well say that Ghani's reliance on Pakistan cannot be sustained in the face of the deep-rooted distrust that most Afghans have of their larger, more powerful and historically meddlesome neighbour. According to this perspective, Ghani, like his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, will have only a short-lived honeymoon with the Pakistan Army, after which its influence will wind down fast.

New Delhi's diplomats also hope that Washington's stance will change. The US Congress' disenchanted with Pakistani duplicity has grown as the Taliban has killed hundreds of Americans, but the US State Department has condoned Pakistan's actions to "keep channels open with Islamabad". This however could change as campaigning gets under way for the US presidential election in November, and American public opinion pushes candidates to take a hard line against Pakistan.

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First Published: Fri, August 21 2015. 00:20 IST