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Pak military has quietly reached out to India: NYT

Islamabad, Sep 4: 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, The New York Times, attributing to Western diplomats and a senior Pakistani official, wrote on Tuesday.

The outreach, as per The Times report, was initiated by the Pakistan Army’s top commander, Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, months before Pakistan’s national elections.

“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,” the report read.

It claimed that 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 earlier this year to pay its bills.

“We want to move forward and we are trying our best to have good ties with all our neighbors, including India,” Pakistan’s Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry was quoted saying.

“As General Bajwa says, regions prosper, countries don’t. India cannot prosper by weakening Pakistan.”

General Bajwa linked Pakistan’s economy to the region’s security in a hallmark speech last October, and the idea that the two are inseparable has since become known as the Bajwa doctrine. The army chief is also seen as more moderate than his predecessors were on India, which has been Pakistan’s bitter rival since the bloody partition that came with independence in 1947.

The Pakistani general and his Indian counterpart, Gen. Bipin Rawat, served together in a United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo about a decade ago and get along well, diplomats say. Earlier this year, General Bajwa said the only way to solve the two countries’ conflict was through dialogue, a rare statement from the military.

Diplomats say General Bajwa has tried to reach out to General Rawat to initiate talks. But the effort has been stymied by what one diplomat called a “system mismatch.”

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,” 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 defense policy. “If you take one step forward, we will take two steps forward,” Khan said in his victory speech, addressing India. “We need to move ahead.”

With 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 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, Khan, would win. 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.