Aim for Peace–or the Exit Door

Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen Former Brookings Expert

January 11, 2002

Secretary of State Colin Powell will be visiting India and Pakistan next week in the hope, first, of forestalling a potentially serious war between these two states over Kashmir and also of ensuring their continued assistance in the U.S. war on terrorism.

For the past three months, India and Pakistan have exploited American concerns over terrorism to the point where Washington has become a pawn in their rivalry. The U.S. has to make it clear to both countries that this must stop.

If India continues its unprecedented military buildup against Pakistan—risking an accident or miscalculation that could quickly escalate to a nuclear war—and if Pakistan does not act decisively to round up groups that have committed terrible atrocities in India, then Washington should walk away, leaving them to another 50 years of ruinous rivalry. This is not the message that either India or Pakistan wants to hear. They are obsessed with a regional blame game, each holding the other accountable for past, present and future bad deeds and each refusing to accept responsibility for its own misguided policies.

Pakistan remains obsessed with Kashmir. It was relatively easy for Pakistan to drop its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan, but if President Pervez Musharraf were to abandon Pakistan’s claim on Kashmir, he quickly would be overthrown.

Pakistanis also fear that any compromise on Kashmir, without reciprocal Indian actions, will simply lead to more and more Indian demands. Pakistanis do not want to become “West Bangladesh,” a militarily weak state subordinate to a hegemonic India.

As for the Indians, they are quite rightly infuriated with Pakistan over its support for separatist groups and terrorist squads operating in Kashmir and in India proper.

However, New Delhi has misgoverned Kashmir for more than 40 years, which led to a massive popular uprising in the 1980s. Further, some Indian politicians now talk of finishing Pakistan off once and for all—despite the risk of nuclear war—on the grounds that Pakistan is a “theocracy” and that Islamic Pakistan is bent on undercutting secular India.

Indian opinion seems to be deeply divided as to whether New Delhi can live with Pakistan or whether it should isolate, or even destroy, Pakistan.

Before Sept. 11, Secretary Powell’s foreign policy team rejected involvement in the India-Pakistan rivalry.

One mid-level official told me that Washington “had no dog in this fight.”

He and others valued India for its economic potential and as a possible ally in the strategic competition with a rising China. Pakistan was an afterthought, a problem country of little strategic importance.

The World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks changed that, propelling Islamabad into the front line in the U.S. war against terrorism.

What should Powell do now?

First, Powell must put on his general’s cap and point out the folly of either side pressing the current confrontation to the point of war. He has the credentials to warn them that previous India-Pakistan wars have been the result of gross miscalculation of political and military balances and that such a miscalculation this time could lead to a nuclear exchange.

In such an exchange, India would come off badly. While India is superior in terms of conventional arms, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal is not trivial, and prevailing wind patterns would dust India with deadly nuclear fallout.

Second, Powell should commit the United States to a long-term diplomatic engagement in the region. No U.S. administration has addressed the broader India-Pakistan problem, including Kashmir, since John F. Kennedy tried to broker a dialogue in 1962-63.

The goal of American engagement now should be the establishment of a South Asia peace process.

This need not mean U.S. mediation, which is opposed by New Delhi, but Washington could play a facilitating role in negotiations that are likely to last for years.

This engagement should feature a special emissary with presidential authority. Future strategic collaboration with India and Pakistan should be based on their willingness to participate in this process.

Finally, Powell should offer specific short-term proposals. One should be to Pakistan: Immediately cease support for all terrorist groups and for Kashmiri separatists.

And India should be asked to renew its cease-fire in Kashmir and to move toward free elections there later this year; Pakistan already has agreed to hold elections in its part of Kashmir in October.

These actions are feasible and timely and could be the initial steps in a peace process.

If India and Pakistan are not prepared to undertake them, then Washington must reconsider its relationship with both.