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Karachi, Pakistan – Pakistan’s foreign minister has thrown down the gauntlet to India to restart direct dialogue between the two countries, saying the “onus lies on [them]” to reverse steps in the disputed region of Kashmir and end alleged rights abuses there before the two countries can come to the table.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in a wide-ranging exclusive interview, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi accused the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of adopting “aggressive rhetoric” and “acting irresponsibly”.
“Who vitiated the climate? Obviously the Indians. Now if things have to improve, the onus lies on India,” he said, referring to steps taken by Modi’s government to revoke a special constitutional status for Indian-administered Kashmir in August 2019 and a subsequent security crackdown in the region, which lasted several months.
Pakistan and India have fought two of their three full-scale wars since gaining independence from the British in 1947 over Kashmir, and the Himalayan territory remains at the heart of continuing tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours.
Bilateral relations between the two rivals stalled around September 2016 after India said its military conducted a “surgical strike” on Pakistani territory. Islamabad rejected the claim although it said at the time that two soldiers had been killed in “cross border” fire by Indian forces.
In July 2018, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan attempted to restart dialogue after he won the election.
Qureshi said there were currently “no formal or informal parleys going on” between the two countries, including meetings between former officials that are commonly referred to as “Track II dialogues”.
In February 2019, India conducted air raids on Pakistani territory following an attack on Indian security forces in Pulwama in Kashmir that killed more than 40 people.
India blamed Jaish-e-Muhammad, a Pakistan-based armed group, for the attack and said its air attacks targeted a “training camp” near the northern Pakistani town of Balakot.
The air raids brought the two countries to the brink of another war, with Pakistan shooting down an Indian fighter jet in the ensuing standoff and capturing an Indian Air Force pilot, who was released two days later as a “goodwill gesture” by Islamabad.
‘Accidental war could be horrific’
In December, Pakistan warned the international community that it had intelligence that India was preparing another attack on Pakistani territory, and that Pakistan’s military would respond “a notch above” if required.
At the time, Qureshi had said India had sought “tacit approval” from world powers for the possible attacks.
The Pakistani foreign minister told Al Jazeera he believed the international community had stepped in to reduce tensions between the two countries, although he did not have “first-hand information” of any such communications.
“Past practice has been that international players have played a role in defusing tensions because they are aware that South Asia is a nuclear environment and if things go wrong, even an accidental war … could be horrific and would have consequences that go beyond the region,” he said.
In November, Pakistan announced it had prepared a dossier with specific intelligence, including intercepted phone conversations and documentary proof, showing that India’s intelligence services, with the knowledge of Prime Minister Modi, were sponsoring armed groups that target Pakistan.
Such allegations are common between the two neighbours, with both sides routinely denying the accusations.
November’s dossier, however, was unusual for the specificity of the information, with the Pakistani Foreign Office making available audio recordings and some documents to journalists.
In a statement, India denied the allegations, saying “the so-called claims of ‘proof’ against India enjoy no credibility, are fabricated and represent figments of imagination”.
Qureshi reiterated the allegations to Al Jazeera, and claimed the international community with which the dossier had been shared was “certainly viewing things very carefully and they are looking at what we have presented very seriously”.
Islamabad-based diplomats for three countries with whom the intelligence had been shared told Al Jazeera the dossier was still being evaluated and that no action had been taken regarding the accusations.
Afghan peace process
Since 2019, Pakistan has also facilitated the ongoing peace process in neighbouring Afghanistan, with which it has had a tense relationship.
Qureshi stressed on the need for the intra-Afghan negotiations, currently continuing in the Qatari capital Doha, to focus on moving forward.
“Pakistan is playing the role of a facilitator,” he said. “The ultimate responsibility … is with the Afghan leadership. It’s their country, it’s their future.”
Last month, a delegation from the Afghan Taliban’s Political Commission (TPC) met Qureshi and other top Pakistani officials in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
“I have had a number of meetings [with them], and I have been telling them … and convincing them, please come into the mainstream,” said Qureshi.
“You have come to the table, and by coming to the table you have earned respectability to a large extent in the international community.”
Qureshi said he had urged TPC chief Abdul Ghani Baradar, who had previously spent years in Pakistani custody, to “accept the change” in Afghanistan.
“Accept this new reality, and accept this change. You cannot turn the clock back. Understand what has happened, live with it and see what can be done.”
On talks with Afghan government counterparts, Qureshi said Pakistan had been urging Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government to accept the “ground reality” of the Taliban’s support amongst some Afghans.
“The Taliban and people who are sympathetic to them, they are a reality,” he said. “Who are they? They are Afghans. Talk to them, tell them, convince them that they should give up violence and shift from the bullet to ballot.”
Qureshi said Pakistan aimed to have broad-ranging ties with Afghanistan, and that its ultimate goal was regional connectivity after peace was established in its northwestern neighbour.
“It is not going to be an easy ride. It is going to be difficult, the road is going to be bumpy and it’s going to be time-consuming, one has to understand all of that,” he said.
“And yet there are opportunities, we should not miss those opportunities.”
Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s digital correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.