Back-channel, not Track-II

18th July 2015
by Javed Jabbar

The text of the brief Pakistan-India joint statement released after the meeting of the two Prime Ministers at the SCO Summit on 10th July unfortunately omits specific reference to Kashmir. About 16 years ago after the Vajpayee visit to Lahore in February 1999, the Kashmir dispute was replaced with the term "the Kashmir issue". One hopes that the 2015 omission is only tactical and transient, not strategic and permanent.

During his press conference on 13th July, Mr. Sartaj Aziz, the Prime Minister's Adviser on Foreign Affairs and National Security clarified that, notwithstanding the absence of a specific reference to Kashmir, the subject ---- as a dispute, or as an issue ! ---- would certainly be part of any future dialogue. This is re-assuring. Whenever such discussion on Kashmir takes place Pakistan will hopefully ensure that the name of the UN-recognized disputed territory is part of any joint statement.

Meanwhile, with regard to another omission from the statement --- i.e. Track-II Dialogue --- but one which has been specifically mentioned by the Adviser in his press conference, also requires clarification, if not correction. The Adviser, himself an individual with vast experience in Foreign Affairs, Economics and Development may have, only inadvertently, used the term "Track-II Dialogue" to refer to the mechanism that both sides intend to use in implementation of the joint statement. Fortunately, subsequently on 14th July, the Adviser has clarified that the reference was meant to be to "Back-channel" , not to "Track-II Dialogue".

The latter term, in its origins in 1981, when it was first used, and in the 35 years since then, applies to a dialogue conducted by groups of non-officials acting either on their own initiative, or with the sanction of their respective governments, to help exchange ideas and opinions on issues of mutual concern to help reduce or resolve conflicts and to provide the official Track-I level i.e. the formal diplomatic level, with options for new policies or approaches.

Track-II may or may not be publicly reported. In the case of Pakistan and India, most are publicly reported : one is not. For instance, whereas there are several commendable projects through which civil society forums in both countries periodically conduct exchanges and use media publicity to mobilize public opinion in favour of improved relations, there is another process which, by design and choice, remains non-media-reported. This is the India-Pakistan Neemrana Initiative (IPNI) launched in late 1991 which has remained active till 2013 and with which this writer, along with nine other Pakistanis is associated. Officially approved non-official Track-II Dialogues can help prepare the ground for the eventual official, diplomatic level, public or confidential.

The process that is intended to be pursued by both countries post-Ufa 2015, is the Back-channel Dialogue. Unlike conventional Track-II Dialogues, publicly reported or not reported, which are almost always conducted between groups of persons from the two countries, the Back-channel Dialogue is normally conducted by two single individuals, each representing --- with the complete confidence of, and direct access to --- the respective Head of Government.

An essential feature of Back-channel Dialogue is secrecy. A classic example of secrecy, excluding not only media but almost all other parts of Government is the case involving US President Nixon's authorization of his Assistant on National Security Henry Kissinger's visit to Moscow in April 1972 without reportedly informing in advance even the US Ambassador to Moscow. There was also the secret Back-channel Kissinger visit to Beijing via Rawalpindi in July 1971 which helped transform US-China relations.

Back-channel diplomacy requires strict confidentiality: the dates and venues of talks are neither disclosed in advance nor during the Dialogue. Perhaps most importantly, the identity of the particular individual authorized by the Head of Government is not announced in advance, nor during the pendency of the Dialogue. Only after ( preferably) a successful outcome has been agreed in the Back-channel process and the official Track-I level adopts or declares the prior understanding reached in the Back-channel, does media disclosure take place. The very nature of Back-channel Dialogue --- dealing with possible changes in fundamentally hyper-sensitive issues --- requires that the exchange should not be subject to speculation, preconception and hysteria, normally projected by news media.

The announcement in 2013 about the designation of veteran diplomat Mr. Shehryar Khan as the official Track-II representative of the Government of Pakistan was surprising, inappropriate and possibly unprecedented because he was surely meant to conduct Back-channel diplomacy in a quiet manner, and not in the blaze of publicity. One hopes that, in following up the limited, disappointing yet modestly encouraging Ufa meeting, the maxim will be enforced that sometimes "silence is golden" : till there is something that is worth disclosure.

As published on the op.ed.page of The News, Pakistan on 18th July 2015.