Pakistan PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi plans to work with rival India for peace

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi speaks during an interview in Karachi, on Aug 26, 2017.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi speaks during an interview in Karachi, on Aug 26, 2017. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KARACHI (BLOOMBERG) - Pakistan's new Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has set himself a possibly insurmountable challenge: He intends to work with arch-rival India to achieve peace across South Asia.

It is likely to be a tall order for Mr Abbasi, considering that the two nuclear-armed nations have not had high-level dialogue for almost two years and given the institutional opposition of Pakistan's military against reconciliation with India, which has fought three wars with its larger neighbour since independence from British colonial rule in 1947.

Tensions have remained high since January last year when Pakistan-based insurgents attacked an Indian air base near the border, derailing scheduled talks between the two countries.

A second raid by militants on an army camp in Kashmir last year prompted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to order an offensive on the Pakistan-controlled part of the disputed region and destroy camps it said were hosting terrorists.

Pakistan denied the cross-border raid took place, though firing across the so-called "Line of Control" is frequent.

"We intend to work with them to achieve stability in the region," Mr Abbasi, who took top office three weeks ago when his predecessor Nawaz Sharif was ousted in July after a corruption investigation, said in an interview in Karachi.

"We will try to work with India, but they have not reciprocated as they should have."

Mr Abbasi denied that militants are allowed to operate in the country and Pakistan said it only provides moral support to people in Muslim-majority Kashmir, which is claimed in totality by both nations.

"We have never had an appeasement policy towards India," Mr Abbasi said during the interview in the former home of Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah. "Pakistan is going to deal with India on a bilateral basis and on equal footing."

Previous detentes have not lasted. Mr Modi invited former premier Mr Sharif to his inauguration in May 2014 and visited him on his birthday the following year, only for the 2016 attacks to kill any rapprochement.

With Pakistanis heading to the ballot box next year, Mr Abbasi's comments are not "really likely to be taken seriously in Delhi, because Modi isn't going to expend political capital with Pakistan when we don't know who will be in power after the election," said Mr Pratyush Rao, a senior Singapore-based analyst at consultancy Control Risks.

Mr Imran Khan, the leader of Pakistan's second-largest opposition party, also said in an interview this month (August) that better ties with India are unlikely while Hindu-nationalist Mr Modi is in office, even though increased trading between the two nations could reduce poverty.

Along with border flare ups, US President Donald Trump's talk last week of getting India more involved in Afghanistan plays on one of the great fears of Pakistan's military establishment: that the neighbours to the east and west will gang up against South Asia's second-largest economy. 

While the rivals are wary of a full-blown conflict, Pakistan has been accused of arming Kashmiri groups that attack Indian targets, while denying responsibility. Likewise, India has been said to foment separatist elements in Pakistan.

India also realises that there can be no talks without the nod from Pakistan's armed forces, which have ruled the nation of more than 200 million people for much of its 70 years and controls the nation's key foreign policy decisions, according to Mr Rao.

Mr Trump's encouragement to India is "a huge red flag" for Pakistan's military, because the generals already believe India's foreign intelligence agency is using Afghan territory to encourage long-held separatist unrest in Pakistan's southwestern province of Balochistan, he said.

India's Foreign Ministry declined to comment, though the government has previously said it will not hold talks until Pakistan stops its policy of supporting groups that launch cross-border attacks.

Afghanistan's government welcomes any attempt by Pakistan to mend relations with India so both countries can work together for geopolitical stability and deeper economic integration, even if the process takes time, said Mujib Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

"We in Afghanistan are impacted negatively by the rivalries," Dr Rahimi said in an interview. "The tensions are there, the troubles are there, and they won't be resolved in a few days or a few months. But there is no option but to remain optimistic."

Yet despite Mr Trump's request, India - which has spent billions assisting Afghanistan with development assistance and infrastructure projects - does not actually have the capacity to do more for Kabul, Mr Rao said. "There's really been no effort to reach a strategic consensus on Afghanistan. It's really still a zero-sum game on both sides."