Ajit Doval led secret back-channels talks with Pakistan for months before DGMO pact, claims Indian media

NEW DELHI, Feb 26 (SABAH): The joint statement issued on Thursday by India and Pakistan on the ceasefire agreement between their top military commanders comes months after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and his counterpart in Islamabad initiated back-channel conversations to ensure peace along the borders, people aware of the matter said.

Indian media claimed that Ajit Doval and Dr. Moeed Wasim Yusuf, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on National Security Division and Strategic Policy Planning, have been in touch directly and via interlocutors from the intelligence community, a person familiar with the negotiations said.

Moeed Yusuf initially appeared to confirm that the two countries had been making efforts behind the scenes at a diplomatic level. Later in a tweet, he, however, insisted that this was being handled by the DGMO and not him.

India and Pakistan on Thursday announced that they have agreed to strictly observe all agreements on ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir and other sectors.

The joint statement is the first outcome of these conversations that included at least one face-to-face meeting in a third country, the person cited above said. He added that only a small group of top government leaders including Union home minister Amit Shah, defence minister Rajnath Singh and external affairs minister S Jaishankar were aware of the details of the talks.

Thursday’s joint statement, issued in New Delhi by the defence ministry, said the director generals of military operations (DGMO) of the two armies had agreed to “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control” from Wednesday midnight.

The two top commanders also “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have a propensity to disturb the peace and lead to violence”.

To be sure, this is not the first time that the two top army officers have agreed to hold peace along the border. They signed off on a similar pact in 2018 when they pledged to strictly adhere to the terms of the ceasefire understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit.

Officials said Thursday’s joint statement could be the first of the many steps that the two countries may take over the next few months to normalise relations, one step at a time.

National security planners said there were five developments over the last month or so that indicated a nuanced shift.

The first sign that the back-channel conversations were on track came earlier this month. Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, in sharp contrast to his strident pitch against India after the Balakot air strike in 2019, on February 2 spoke of Islamabad’s commitment to what he called the ideal of mutual respect and peaceful co-existence and said: “it is time to extend a hand of peace in all directions”.

The next was the toned-down statements that emerged from Islamabad three days later, on February 5 which is observed by the Pakistani establishment as Kashmir Solidarity Day. “I found it unusual,” said a counter-terror official who wasn’t in the loop on the secret talks.

Simultaneously, the official said there was a decline in the ceasefire violations along the border in Jammu and Kashmir in recent weeks.

A top government functionary said General Bajwa’s much-publicised peace proposal, a decline in ceasefire violations and Pakistan’s toned-down rhetoric were linked to the quiet conversations that had been taking place.

The fourth sign of a possible thaw in the relations was Pakistan steering clear of the Kashmir issue at last week’s SAARC meeting convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr. Faisal Sultan, Special Assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Health, restricted himself to the issue at hand, a sharp contrast to Pakistan’s previous attempt to raise the Kashmir issue at the SAARC meeting held in March last year.

The fifth indicator, an official said, was New Delhi’s gesture to allow Imran Khan’s special aircraft to use the Indian airspace en route to Sri Lanka on Tuesday. PM Khan’s Pakistan Air Force jet flew along India’s coastline and over the Lakshadweep archipelago before landing in Colombo.

The decision to allow the special flight to use its airspace was in marked contrast to Pakistan’s action in 2019, when Islamabad denied permission for the use of Pakistani airspace by three Indian VVIP flights.

In September 2019, Pakistan didn’t permit the use of its airspace by a special flight carrying President Ram Nath Kovind to Europe, and another flight in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi traveled to US to attend the UN General Assembly session. Pakistani also didn’t allow the use of its airspace by another VVIP flight during Modi’s visit to Saudi Arabia in October 2019.

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