Op-Ed

Opening the Door to Peace in South Asia

Stephen P. Cohen and Moeed Yusuf

The imminent threat to American interests posed by a resurgent Al Qaeda and Pakistan’s toleration of the Taliban have relegated the issue of India-Pakistan relations to the back burner. This is unfortunate since Pakistan’s military effectiveness on the Afghan border depends on a truce between India and Pakistan. Further, the ultimate strategic balance in South Asia will likely be determined by Pakistan’s relations with India, not its historically strained ties with Afghanistan.

President Musharraf’s cooperation in curbing the activities of radical, violent Islamists has been notoriously uneven. However, in dealing with India, a relationship that resides at the core of Pakistan’s very identity-Musharraf has traveled farther than any of his predecessors. When he leaves power, this will be considered one of his major accomplishments.

States tend to make fundamental policy changes when the status quo becomes untenable. The current India-Pakistan peace process is no different. The “composite dialogue,” as it is euphemistically and officially termed, was initiated not out of a change of heart, but because of compulsions on both sides. Indian officials want to resolve the Kashmir problem and move on to a grander stage as a leading Asian power. Pakistan, newly confident that nuclear weapons make another major war with India impossible, is looking for, in the words of a senior army general, “face saving” arrangements that will allow it to devote more of its energies to domestic reform and — a critically important link to western interests-the growing internal threat from militant, violent Islamists.

Yet, both Pakistani and Indian leaders retain fallback positions that would permit a relatively easy exit should the process falter or become politically embarrassing. This is not to suggest a lack of sincerity on their part. Rather, it simply points to a profound absence of confidence in the intentions of the other side. The end result is that the process still remains fragile, and a few adverse developments, such as an assassination or a series of terrorist attacks, could easily lead to another armed confrontation.

The complementary interests of these two South Asian nuclear weapons states still remain strong. However, in the four years that have passed since the peace process began, the theoretically attractive complementarities have not materialized. The leadership on both sides has realized how difficult it is to reach concrete agreement in a charged environment laden with mistrust. In fact, talk of normalization now seems to mean merely an absence of conflict. The hype about a solution to Kashmir has evaporated. Each side publicly accuses the other of creating bottlenecks, while privately asking interlocutors about the possibility of real peace.

The weakest link in the peace process is the fact that it is a creation of leaders, not people, and the apparent popular support for a dialogue is to some degree engineered by the two states’ propaganda machines. Unless the process develops wider and deeper support it will remain the property of a handful of diplomats and strategists, and vulnerable to attacks by extremists on both sides. Already, the fickleness of the process has been demonstrated at least once by a three-month long lull in negotiations following Indian allegations of Pakistani involvement in last year’s train bombings in Mumbai.

Looking ahead, support for engagement is not likely to remain static. The situation can turn into a slippery slope, where despite the presence of strong complementarities, political compulsions could end up forcing both sides to end the dialogue.

While some old-line Hindu nationalist leaders of the BJP, such as Jaswant Singh, L.K. Advani, and Atal Behari Vajpayee, have come to accept the idea of Pakistan, the leadership of the party has passed to others, whose views towards Pakistan are not known. In Pakistan the religious political parties will certainly oppose normalization with India, and some retain ties to militants who have operated in India and divided Kashmir.

Alternatively, a wave of terrorist attacks within India– whether linked to Pakistan or not-carries the potential of escalation to crisis levels, as it did in 2001-02. Pakistan could grow increasingly impatient with the lack of Indian flexibility in response to Pakistani proposals on Kashmir and political pressure may force Islamabad to reinitiate diplomatic brinkmanship. Finally, and illustrative of the linkages that Western observers usually ignore, New Delhi’s efforts to increase its already substantial presence in Afghanistan could lead Islamabad to once again look the other way with regard to infiltration into Kashmir. Already, India alleges that infiltration from the Pakistani side of Kashmir is on the rise.

The current situation presents a limited window of opportunity. While the extremist threat emanating from Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Pakistan is of immediate concern, the US must not overlook the magnitude of problems that would stem from a deterioration of India-Pakistan relations. If the US wishes to play a constructive role in the still-important India-Pakistan relationship, there are four elements it needs to add to it’s “to do” list:

  • Avoid a formal, grandiose public declaration of interest in “solving” the Kashmir problem. Doing so would only irritate India and make the Pakistanis more distrustful.”
  • Urge both sides to broaden the process by creating constituencies for normalization. Students, the media, businessmen, and even religious leaders are key stakeholders. People are already eager to go across the border; it is the governments’ constipated visa policies that need to be scrapped and brought in line with boarder human rights policies that both sides, in theory, adhere to.
  • Stand ready to provide technical and political support to negotiations; these should accommodate the interests of Kashmiris, and at a later stage it would be wise to include them directly.
  • Consult with those states that seek the stabilization of Pakistan and Afghanistan; this includes China, Saudi Arabia, even Iran, and certainly India.

The US can not impose peace on India and Pakistan. However, it certainly can do more to move these states to a normalcy that is important in its own right, and would help both an old ally-Pakistan- and a new friend, India.