New Delhi: Pakistan on Wednesday confirmed that Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on foreign affairs, will be attending the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan in India in December.
The visit was also confirmed by the ministry of external affairs in New Delhi. This is the first visit from Pakistan at this level since Sharif was invited to New Delhi along with other South Asian heads of state and government for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration ceremony in May 2014.
Aziz is expected in Amritsar on 3 December for the sixth Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. The Heart of Asia process was founded in Istanbul in 2011 and provides a platform for regional cooperation on Afghanistan. It comprises 14 member countries from the region and is supported by more than 20 other countries and international organizations.
Government officials on Wednesday would not confirm or deny the possibility of a meeting between Aziz and Modi—the first such contact in almost a year—given that Aziz’s visit comes amid tensions between India and Pakistan, following the deaths of soldiers and civilians from both sides in cross-border fire, taking place in violation of a November 2003 agreement.
“There could be a call on by Aziz on the prime minister,” said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “My guess is that Aziz will meet national security adviser Ajit Doval and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar could call on him. These meetings could happen but substantive discussions are unlikely,” he said.
The circumstances around Aziz’s visit represent a far cry from the state of bilateral relations last year when Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Pakistan on 9 December for the Heart of Asia conference. Aziz and Swaraj had then announced the launch of the “comprehensive bilateral dialogue”—aimed at restarting bilateral peace talks on disputes between the two countries, including the one over Kashmir that has been stalled since early 2013.
The Swaraj-Aziz meeting in Islamabad was preceded by a meeting between Modi and Sharif in Paris on 30 November on the sidelines of a UN climate change conference. And Modi followed Swaraj’s visit with one of his own to Lahore on 25 December.
But all efforts at rapprochement came to nought when terrorists struck the Pathankot airbase in northern India on 2 January.
The dialogue suffered a further setback process and tensions began to rise in July after Pakistan described a Hizbul Mujahideen terrorist killed by Indian troops as a Kashmiri leader and mounted a global campaign to highlight what it said were Indian human rights violations in Kashmir.
Ties came under further strain when terrorists struck an Indian Army garrison in Uri on 18 September, killing 19 Indian soldiers. In response, India conducted special operations in Pakistan-administered Kashmir to destroy terrorist launch pads on 29 September.
Pakistan denied that the Indian strikes took place but there has been a surge in incidents of cross-border firing since—seen as Pakistani retaliation to India’s strikes.