Tuesday, March 21, 2023

When Musharraf almost struck a Kashmir deal

Former military ruler Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf will be brought back home one last time for burial in a country he had governed with absolute power — leaving behind a trail of a long eventful rule of the last military junta in Pakistan’s chequered history.

He was under treatment for a rare disease at American Hospital in Dubai and died early Sunday.

From leading the country into war and positioning Pakistan as a front-line state in the post-9/11 war on terrorism, to ushering in an era of peace talks with India and being indicted for high treason in his twilight years before he cast himself into exile, Musharraf has left behind a legacy subject to some open questions as well as some unrivalled distinctions.

However, more importantly, his reign will stand out for almost resolving long-festering issues between India and Pakistan after back-channel talks between the two countries made unprecedented major progress on the issue of Kashmir.

When on October 12, 1999, then-prime minister Nawaz Sharif removed army chief Gen Pervez Musharraf and appointed ISI Chief Lt General Zaiuddin Butt as his successor, the move was meant to try the sacked four-star general and four other high-ranked officers for the Kargil misadventure.

Musharraf was accused of initiating the Kargil operation without informing Nawaz and the misadventure was aimed at sabotaging the peace process between Pakistan and India.

Months before the Kargil war, the then-Indian premier, Atal Behari Vajpayee, had travelled to Lahore via bus in a historic visit that rekindled hopes for a new beginning in ties between the newly declared nuclear South Asian neighbours.

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But the decision to sack Musharraf backfired as his subordinate generals moved swiftly and removed Nawaz from power.

While the 1999 military coup was attributed to the months of bickering between Nawaz and Musharraf, it was differences between the civil and military leadership on the issue of India that derailed the elected government.

However, after becoming the military ruler, General Musharraf had now a bigger role and that was not just to manage the army but the entire country. This was when his worldview, particularly his approach towards India, changed.

The same Musharraf, who scuttled the promising peace process between India and Pakistan, started following the footsteps of Nawaz seeking rapprochement with New Delhi. In fact, he went a few steps further to reach out to India since being the army chief he had that luxury and control over the security establishment.

The famous Agra summit between Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee might have collapsed but it laid the foundation for future engagements between the two countries.

India, knowing that past efforts to resolve issues with Pakistan failed since the civilian governments didn’t have much say on ties with New Delhi, thought that perhaps it was the best time to bury the past when Pakistan was ruled by a military dictator, who had the final power.

The two sides then ushered into an era of peace talks both covert and overt that raised the genuine prospects of resolving the longstanding Kashmir dispute.

The peace process between 2004 to 2007 was seen as a most productive phase where tangible progress was made on several key issues including Kashmir.

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Brokered by the US, the two countries entered into a ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC), a de facto border that divides Kashmir. People-to-people contacts were encouraged. Both sides issued thousands of visas for bilateral cricket series.

The movement of Kashmiris living on both sides of LoC was made easy. Trade routes were opened in the disputed territory.

All this was supposed to culminate in a summit meeting between Gen Musharraf and then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh in early 2007.

The two countries were set to sign Sir Creek and Siachen agreements during the much-anticipated visit of the Indian Prime Minister.

More importantly, back-channel talks between the two countries made major progress on the issue of Kashmir.

The two sides were discussing an out-of-box solution with the exchange of non-papers.

There was a four-point formula that envisaged making the LoC irrelevant, joint control of the disputed territory, allowing free movement of people on both parts kf Kashmir and eventually withdrawing troops.

Former foreign minister Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri wrote in his book that both countries were close to striking a deal.

But when the visit of Manmohan Singh was being planned, Gen Musharraf unceremoniously removed Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March 2007. The sacking triggered a strong reaction from the lawyers’ community.

The movement later was joined by political parties making Musharraf highly unpopular. The lawyers’ movement caused such political instability that Manmohan’s visit never materialised. Had there been no political upheaval in Pakistan, the two countries might have reached a deal on Kashmir.

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