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A Secret ISI-RAW Channel, Talks Since 2018: What Led to India-Pakistan LoC Ceasefire

Image for representation

Image for representation

Polo-playing Pakistani General and dour Indian spy laid foundations for Line of Control ceasefire in London hotel.

Foundations for last month’s ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) were laid during a series of one-on-one secret meetings between senior intelligence officers at a London hotel in 2018, government sources have told News18. The meetings, the sources said, were authorised by Pakistan’s chief of army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Ajit Doval.

Involving a polo-playing General from an aristocratic family, and an ethnic Tamil career intelligence officer responsible for espionage operations targeting Pakistan, the talks began months after Prime Minister Imran Khan took office in 2018, the sources said.

The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) channel was shut down in 2019, sources said, after a terrorist attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama brought India and Pakistan to the edge of war. Inside months, however, both countries agreed to revive the secret talks, as leaders in the two capitals explored means to minimise the risk of a full-scale war.

Even though both officers have since retired from service, and have been replaced with new representatives, News18 is withholding their names to protect their security. The Indian officer did not respond to a request seeking comment.

The revelation of the secret India-Pakistan channel comes amidst reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) helped facilitate the dialogue that led up to the ceasefire beginning February 25. “Lots of foreign capitals have encouraged India-Pakistan peace,” a source familiar with the process told News18, “but the process has been led by the two countries, not external actors.”

General Bajwa’s October 2018 visit to London, where he met with the United Kingdom’s chief of defence staff, General Nicholson Carter, and National Security Advisor, Mark Sedwill, appears to have crystallised the idea to reduce the risk that nuclear-armed India and Pakistan might enter a crisis through missteps or miscalculations.

“The Pakistan Army had been reaching out to the United Kingdom since at least 2017, seeking its support to improve the country’s relationship with the United States and with India,” said London-based scholar Ayesha Siddiqa.

“General Bajwa argued that peace with India was needed to support his efforts to cut defence spending, and permanently shut down jihadist groups.”

Late that month, intelligence sources said, ISI had reached out to India, saying it had been authorised by the Pakistan Army chief of staff to seek negotiation. Following this first contact, intelligence sources said, ISI and RAW officials met at least three times, discussing concerns over terrorism and risk-reduction measures.

Ending firing at LoC —thus re-instituting a ceasefire that was agreed on in 2002 but had slowly unravelled — was among the ideas the General representing ISI pushed for, the sources said.

“At the time, the United Kingdom was the only western country showing any interest in serious engagement with Pakistan,” Siddiqa said.

General Bajwa, interestingly, also has personal links to the United Kingdom, which is home to his sister-in-law, Asma Bajwa, and brothers Tariq Bajwa and Javaid Bajwa.

Few in New Delhi believed the secret channel would make progress, even though it had the direct support of Pakistan’s Army. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had made considerable efforts to push forward the peace process, even making a surprise visit to Lahore in December 2015 to attend the wedding of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter. The effort had, however, imploded in the face of resistance from Pakistan’s Army.

Early in 2016, after terrorists targeted an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Prime Minister Sharif proved unable to deliver on promises to act against its perpetrators, the Jaish-e-Muhammad. Later that year, India reacted to another terrorist attack, this time in Uri, by hitting back across LoC.

Late in 2017, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor, Lieutenant-General Nasser Khan Janjua, secretly met with Doval in Bangkok, hoping to avert a further deterioration in the relationship. The last-ditch effort failed.

Following the February 2019 terrorist bombing in Pulwama—which led to Indian Air Force strikes against a Jaish seminary in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s Balakot, and retaliatory bombing across LoC by Pakistan—the London dialogue came to an end. “There just didn’t seem any point in continuing the negotiations,” an intelligence officer said.

The Pakistan Army, though, soon moved to try to reopen the door. Late in the summer, it shared warnings on terrorist attacks through the Central Intelligence Agency, and acted against the leadership of several jihadist groups.

Alarmed by the risk of war, moreover, several countries with good relationships with India began nudging New Delhi towards talks. Last year, the UAE’s ambassador to New Delhi said that while the Emirate did not seek to mediate between India and Pakistan, it had offered “words of wisdom” on the need for peaceful relations.

General Bajwa, Islamabad-based sources said, used another visit to London in June 2019 to ask interlocutors in the United Kingdom to persuade New Delhi to reopen the secret channel.

Even though politicians in Pakistan unleashed a barrage of hostile polemic against India following the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019, jihadist groups across LoC were continued to be muzzled, and violence remained in decline. “This alone gave enough reason to reopen the secret dialogue,” an officer familiar with the negotiations said. “Even though the scepticism remained, it was also clear there was nothing much to be lost.”

Islamabad’s decision to demonstrate military restraint during the recent crisis along the Line of Actual Control with China, government sources said, was a decisive factor in pushing India towards agreeing towards a ceasefire. “The fact that there was no hostile troop movement by the Pakistan Army deepened confidence in General Bajwa’s message,” one official told News18.

RAW-ISI secret channels, interestingly, played a key role in bringing about the original ceasefire along LoC, brokered by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf.

In the wake of the 2002 India-Pakistan near-war, then RAW chief CD Sahai, and his ISI counterpart, Lieutenant-General Ehsan-ul-Haq, met regularly to stitch up a ceasefire on LoC. Sahai is reputed to have also passed on intelligence, gathered by Indian communications intelligence, of a plot to assassinate General Musharraf by a faction of the Jaish —a warning ISI ignored, to its cost.

Earlier Prime Ministers also relied on RAW to conduct secret diplomacy on their behalf. In 1987, for example, RAW chief AN Verma and ISI Director-General Hamid Gul met to discuss Khalistan terror, in talks brokered by Jordan.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf also operated a secret channel, using diplomats Satinder Lambah and Tariq Aziz, to craft an arrangement that would institutionalise LoC as a border, but make it irrelevant, like the one that divides the two sides of Ireland.

“The eventual outcome of the negotiations RAW has conducted are far from clear,” an official noted, “and there’s still a pretty wide gulf between what New Delhi is willing to do on Kashmir and what Islamabad would be willing to live with.” “The next steps might be a normalisation in the diplomatic relationship, and perhaps some sporting events. There’s no desire in either capital, though, to rush things.”

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