Sohail Mahmood, Pakistan's new High Commissioner to India, will constantly walk a tightrope

Pakistan's new high commissioner designate to India, Sohail Mahmood, may well view his posting as one that caps a successful career. Equally, however, it could end on a high decibel note; not only due to tensions between the two neighbours, but also because of political infighting in Pakistan.

An ambassador has to always look over his shoulder before he takes a step. But when Mahmood does so, all he is likely to see is a welter of accusations and counter-accusations, as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his team trade barbs — not only with the Pakistan Army but with those of the same skin, including the ever ebullient former president, Asif Ali Zardari.

The new ambassador designate will therefore have to be ambidextrous, keeping the India-Pakistan relations on an even keel, while balancing divergent interests back home.

Apart from being one of the seniormost diplomats — he is only one year junior to Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua — Mahmood comes from a fairly successful posting in Ankara. During this tenure, he managed a Turkish presidential visit to Pakistan, and a return visit by the Pakistan prime minister to Turkey in February 2017. In fact, Turkish President Recep Erdogan's call for a "multilateral dialogue" on Kashmir on his recent visit to India may well have been the result of Mahmood's hard work.

Sohail Mahmood was Pakistan's ambassador to Turkey. Image courtesy: Twitter/@PakTurkey

Sohail Mahmood was Pakistan's ambassador to Turkey. Image courtesy: Twitter/@PakTurkey

Notably, Mahmood has also been instrumental in strengthening the China-Turkey-Pakistan relationship. Ankara has backed Pakistan's moves in Afghanistan, often at the behest of China, while Turkish investors have recently shown an interest in investing in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The weight in this relationship comes from China, however, not from the dismal bilateral trade between Pakistan and Turkey.

But an Ankara posting hardly prepares any diplomat for the hurly burly of a posting in India. The Pakistan High Commission has had to face public charges of funding separatists in Kashmir, with money routed through Rawalpindi. These charges are hardly new. In 2003, and again in 2011, the role of Pakistani officials have come under the scanner. The Charge d’affairs — who later went on to become Pakistan Foreign Secretary — was believed to have been asked to leave the country on the charge of passing on cash to the separatists.

In another case, an aide to a Kashmiri separatist leader was virtually caught red-handed with about Rs 70 lakhs. The present high commissioner, Abdul Basit, recently did a diplomatic overstretch by not only declaring support for Kashmir, but also ending with the pious hope that the struggle would succeed.

The high commission's public support for Kashmiris — with regular invites to the Hurriyat leaders — will probably take a temporary backseat in a bid to de-escalate tensions. Covert funding will continue. Looking over his shoulder, the new high commissioner will find rock solid support on support to the separatists. On this, there is little difference apparent between the civilians and the military. New Delhi knows this, and unless it decides to issue a blanket ban on the activities of the Hurriyat, nothing much is likely to change.

The tragic beheading of two Indian soldiers by Pakistan Special Forces is another matter altogether. There is little likelihood of "business as usual" here. Available evidence seems to indicate that a trap was set by Pakistani Border Action Teams (BAT) well within Indian territory, backed by artillery firing from the rear. That this beheading occurred immediately after reports of Sajjan Jindal's visit to meet the Pakistan prime minister came out, has been spoken about, the assumption being that the Pakistan Army was once again muddying the waters to prevent its elected Head of State from taking a hand in reducing tensions.

But whatever the reality, statements from Indian officials, including the chief of army staff, have promised suitable retribution for the dastardly act. Mahmood may as well sharpen his drafting skills in the eventuality that such retribution does take place. Certainly, it won't be pretty. The alternative is to use his diplomatic skills to persuade Rawalpindi to allow India access to the unfortunate Kulbushan Jadhav.

The continued detention of Jadhav comes after a Field General Court Martial — essentially a group of Pakistan Army officers who were unlikely to go against the wishes of the top brass — declared a death sentence to the alleged spy. Acting entirely against the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which Pakistan reluctantly ratified three decades after it was enacted), the Indian High Commission has been given no opportunity to contest the charge, nor been provided access to the former naval officer.

The Urdu press — sections of which usually reflect the wishes of the deep state — have been vociferous in quickly carrying out the death penalty and not "giving in to pressure" from India. Pakistan's intelligence now ascribes every other two penny terrorist with being an Indian undercover agent, the latest being the rotund Ehsanullah Ehsan, former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesperson, and now a media sensation after his allegations of support for terrorism by India.

Sections of the Pakistani Army are in a combative mode, and are unlikely to agree to suggestions of clemency by the usually pliant Foreign Office.

But here's the thing. The Foreign Office may be one of the few areas where Nawaz Sharif still holds control. The appointment of Tehmina Janjua (who is regarded by many as a diplomatic lightweight) as foreign secretary was reportedly at his insistence, and overruling seniority of the service. At present, the high commissioner in India may be Sharif's only card to play in seeking New Delhi's support in a tight situation. A tentative probe to restart dialogue cannot be entertained at this juncture when violence is at an all time high in Kashmir. All that can be sought is a decrease in support.

In this very complex game, India has to assess whether the prime minister is in a position to deliver on any of the major issues. The Joint Investigation Team on the Panama Leaks — which includes both Military Intelligence and the ISI — has started its probe. Though this is unlikely to come to a definite conclusion, it certainly reduces the space available to Sharif for the next six months.

There is also another aspect to consider. Pakistan Army's aggressiveness has also been apparent on the Afghan border, when it claimed to have destroyed five Afghan posts and killed 50. It is an unusually brave country that seeks war from both sides, unless it has strong "insurance cover". Media reports point to China playing a placating role in reducing border tensions between Kabul and Islamabad.

The new ambassador designate could well try to build upon his previous diplomatic experience to seek an action replay in New Delhi. Expect calls for "reducing tension" and "restarting dialogue" to rise steadily from various foreign capitals via Beijing. Apparently, the Belt precedes the Road.

The author is an independent analyst. She tweets @kartha_tara

Updated Date: May 09, 2017 12:21 PM

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