Why it's hard to get excited about Hina Rabbani Khar's peace offer

For all the gravitas that she endeavours valiantly to summon up, Pakistan's foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar is a victim of her own artfully cultivated image.  It may well be true that at least some of the attention she derives in media commentaries, which focus excessively on what some see as her smouldering good looks, is rooted in the patriarchy of the power elite. She has oftentimes been treated with the kindly indulgence reserved for the token female representative in an all-male boardroom, and her articulations on matters of public policy have been airily dismissed as the vacuous exertions of an Alice in Wonderland.

Yet, it is also an image that Khar has assiduously fed, with her designerware fashion accessories and props, which seem intended to draw attention in and of themselves long after her lips have ceased to move. To that extent, her reputation as a Weapon of Mass Distraction may have been well-earned. It also didn't help her cause that, as with many Ministerial appointees in governments across the Indian subcontinent, she owed her place not to any sterling foreign policy credentials that she brought to the job but to the fact that she hails from a family of  landed gentry that wields political influence in what still remains a feudal society.

What can Hina Rabbani Khar bring to the negotiating table beyond her Birkin handbag and her trendy sunglasses? AP

Additionally, the peculiar nature of the power dynamics in Pakistan, where the Army and the ISI have traditionally been the "power behind the throne" and wield disproportionate influence in defence matters and in the conduct of  foreign relations (particularly vis-a-vis India, for whom the two institutions share a visceral hatred), has meant that Khar's (and, in a large sense, the Pakistani civilian government's) capacity to deliver on any pledge it may make is on slippery ground.

That skepticism is reinforced more strongly than ever today, given that the fate of the civilian government hangs by a slender thread, with suspicion that the Army and the judiciary are working in tandem to engineer a "soft coup" in Pakistan, and the Army and the ISI are looking to enhance their power influence, which had been somewhat abridged over the course of the past five years (and particularly after the May 2011 midnight raid by US Navy Seals in which Osama bin Laden was killed).

All of this accounts for why it is difficult to get frightfully excited by Khar's offer, made late on Wednesday, to hold direct talks with India's External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid in order to defuse the tension along the Line of Control, where the ceasefire of the past decade has been wrecked in recent weeks by artillery fire and the beheading of an Indian soldier by the Pakistani Army.

In a statement released late on Wednesday, Khar noted that Pakistan and India, as "important countries of South Asia" , faced the imperative of demonstrating responsibility to ensure peace "by addressing all concerns through dialogue." She claimed that the Pakistani government had been "saddened and disappointed" at the "continued negative statements emanating from India" - from the media as well as "certain Indian leaders". In contrast, she claimed, Pakistan had observed " a measured and deliberate self-restraint" in its public statements "keeping in view the interest of peace in the region."

Rather than issue "belligerent statements" by the military and political leaders from across the border and "ratcheting up tension," it would be far more advisable for the two countries to discuss all matters related to the Line of Control with a view to reinforcing respect for the ceasefire. In this connection, she suggested a meeting between the two countries, perhaps at the Foreign Ministerial level, to "sort out things." Continued tension along the Line of Control, she noted, was not in the interest of peace and stability in the region.

As motherhood statements go, Khar's articulation of a desire for peace along the Line of Control is hard to contest. No useful purpose is served by keeping the armies of two nuclear-armed nations in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. To that extent, the compulsion to keep the dialogue process going rests heavily on both the countries.

Yet, it is hard to visualise what Hina Rabbani Khar will bring to the negotiating table - beyond her Birkin handbag and her trendy sunglasses. When the Pakistan Army - whose record of reckless mendacity (on everything from hosting Osama bin Laden to its culpability in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai) has been repeatedly laid bare before the world - continues to remain in total denial about the beheading of the Indian soldier, there is nothing substantive that Khar can deliver by way of commitments that will meet the barest minimum demands from the Indian side.

Worse still, even as Khar is talking the language of peace, there is compelling reason to believe that the Pakistan Army is preparing to revive its long-haul low-intensity war with India, deploying jihadi elements who serve as its proxy arm. Indian claims that the Pakistan Army has been laying landmines along the Line of Control also bode ill for any prospect of an early return to peace.

There's one aspect of the ongoing tension that has escaped the attention of Khar - and even much of the liberal media commentariat in India, which has tended to focus excessively on the admittedly shrill denuciations by some politicians. Khar claimed on Wednesday that she was disconcerted by the "war-mongering" rhetoric emanating from the Indian side - and pointed tangentially to bellicose statements from Sushma Swaraj and the Indian service chiefs (who made clear that India was not without options in responding to Pakistani provocations).

But if India is to be held guilty of "war-mongering", it is passing  strange that the Pakistan Army's sustained and ongoing conduct of a low-intensity war doesn't merit any attention. These aren't empty words: what the Pakistan Army and the ISI are running is a terror network directed at India that actually kills and maims people - in Kashmir and elsewhere in India.

Surely, the first step towards restoration of peace - such as it is - is the ending of this low-intensity war. But don't hold your breath expecting Salman Khurshid or the liberal Indian commentariat to make a big deal of this in the upcoming talks with Khar. It is a sign of the perverse times that we live in that running a terror machine - in the way that the Pakistan Army and the ISI do - is accepted as the "new normal" that won't even be challenged. What, then, are the prospects for 'peace'?

Updated Date: Jan 17, 2013 09:24 AM

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