It is not surprising that India and Pakistan have gone through a rough stretch. When nations with deep grievances acquire nuclear weapons, cross-border tensions usually increase and crises become more nerve wracking. Now there is hope that India and Pakistan will be able to move from confrontation to cooperation across a broad front. For progress to be enduring and strong enough to over-ride setbacks, advances cannot be confined to peripheral measures. In South Asia, small steps forward are usually stymied by big explosions. Gains on big issues are needed to insulate a process of reconciliation against inevitable attempts at sabotage.
When India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapon designs in 1998, many strategic analysts offered optimistic assessments that a new era of stability would shine on the Subcontinent. These hopes were premature. One reason why crises have become more prevalent under the nuclear shadow is that some in Pakistan have sought to use unconventional warfare, backed by nuclear weapons, to leverage a more favourable outcome of the Kashmir dispute. A second reason is that India’s ill-advised policies have given ample opportunities for mischief making in Kashmir.
Decades of Pakistani diplomacy, two conventional wars, and unconventional means have failed to wrest territorial gains from New Delhi. Pakistan’s failed Kashmir policies have instead worsened social, economic, and political conditions at home, while penalising those living across the Kashmir divide. It has also pinned down and punished large numbers of Indian security forces. Perhaps India’s grief is viewed as a sufficient reward by some in Pakistan. But there are also contrary indicators that at least some of Pakistan’s leaders are seeking an honourable exit strategy from damaging policies.
The new language used by Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf regarding Kashmir constitutes trial balloons that warrant further discussion. Their particulars matter less at this early stage than the professed desire of Gen. Musharraf and his Foreign Minister to encourage creative thinking in Pakistan and India on a subject that has been straitjacketed by orthodoxy for many decades.
India’s leaders are wise to take Gen. Musharraf up on his offer. But neither country will provide a united front in the months to follow. The serious pursuit of peacemaking by Indian and Pakistani leaders will prompt political blocking strategies and trigger efforts by irreconcilables to blow up the process. A single catalytic event by jihadis, whether operating independently or under guidance, can spark the next severe crisis on the Subcontinent.
The outcome of a nuclear-tinged crisis is rarely decisive, since all parties as well as outsiders will seek to prevent a crossing of the nuclear threshold. Indeterminate outcomes have not, however, prevented adversaries from declaring victory once the crisis has passed. These assertions are then belied by subsequent actions taken on the presumption that scores still need to be settled. When unsettled accounts produce yet another crisis, the outcome cannot be confidently predicted. While efforts will again be made to keep the crisis from reaching a boiling point, or to prevent unintended escalation, these plans might fail since the unexpected becomes commonplace during crises and military campaigns.
Despite or perhaps because of the inconclusive resolution of crises, some in Pakistan and India continue to believe that gains can be secured below the nuclear threshold. How might advantage be gained when the presence of nuclear weapons militates against decisive end games? Pakistan has previously answered this question by resorting to unconventional methods. If Indian press reports are to be believed, New Delhi is now contemplating the answer of limited war. Each answer reinforces the other, and both lead to dead ends. If the means chosen to pursue advantage in the next Indo-Pakistan crisis show signs of success, they are likely to prompt escalation, and escalation might not be easily controlled. If the primary alternative to an ambiguous outcome in the next crisis is a loss of face or a loss of territory, the prospective loser will seek to change the outcome.
Another reason for the reoccurrence of crises on the Subcontinent is that the contestants learn different lessons from close calls. As long as unsatisfactory outcomes are not acknowledged and new ventures are not foreclosed, the next crisis always waits in the wings. These circumstances leave a great deal to chance.
In New Delhi, the preferred way to break this dangerous cycle would be for Pakistan to place Kashmir on the back burner. Pakistani leaders reject this stratagem, calling instead for a prompt resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Since Pakistan’s leaders are wise enough to know that any final settlement would not hand them the Valley, these statements are widely dismissed as being disingenuous. But if New Delhi reverts to the standard wait out and wear down approach to Kashmir, there will be no test of the professed Pakistani interest in a settlement, nor will there be a serious discussion of the creative approaches that Gen. Musharraf has invited. Under these circumstances, a tenuous and crisis-prone bilateral relationship is likely to be maintained.
In this environment, nuclear risk-reduction and confidence-building measures are certainly necessary, but woefully insufficient. These measures may not be relied upon during an intense crisis, and are likely to be shunted aside during conflict. Besides, Islamabad has held these measures hostage in the past to progress toward its preferred outcome on Kashmir, while New Delhi has sought to pursue these and other measures in lieu of progress on Kashmir, which it does not expect. As a consequence, dialogue between Pakistan and India on such measures has been episodic and disappointing. Even in the absence of big explosions, small steps forward have been checkmated by bureaucratic resistance and domestic political sensitivities.
Perhaps this time, vested interests that are adept in slowing down, complicating, and torpedoing progress will be overridden by top-down political impulses to succeed. There certainly seems to be more of an impetus to tackle bigger issues. For the first time in memory, serious conversations about a cross-border pipeline and about Kashmir are on the anvil.
Violent, disruptive acts can be expected whether national leaders make headway on these sensitive issues, or whether they revert to the stale choreography of imposing linkage and backsliding. Acts of violence can prompt the next crisis, and the next crisis could result in inadvertent escalation. The most effective strategy of escalation control is to press forward on matters that can make South Asia safer and more prosperous.
In this context, it is gratifying to see efforts under way to relax constraints on the ability of common folk to move and trade across the Kashmir divide. The governments of India and Pakistan both declare their interest in removing burdens from Kashmiris. They can demonstrate the sincerity of this desire in tangible ways by letting tourists and pilgrims travel, divided families meet, and traders offer their wares. It is odd that some separatists who profess to have the interests of Kashmiris uppermost in mind would continue to impose suffering by rejecting these measures. These road blockers should not be aided by bureaucrats who traffic in red tape.
An exit strategy out of the Kashmir impasse might be found through these and other measures that are expressly designed to increase the well being of those who live on both sides of the divide. Islamabad and New Delhi repeatedly say that this is a core principle, and Pakistani officials have repeated the interesting refrain than a solution that is acceptable to Kashmiris would be acceptable to them.
A joint programme of action designed around the core principle of improving the daily lives of those who live on both sides of the Kashmir divide might yield interesting outcomes. This fundamental area of agreement could usefully serve as the basis for many worthwhile initiatives, such as transforming the current ceasefire along the Line of Control into a permanent feature. Since the infiltration of militants has generated sorrow rather than well being for Kashmiris, this too needs to stop permanently, along with the human rights abuses carried out by Indian security forces.
Conventional wisdom holds that significant movement toward a Kashmir settlement is not possible, and that the Pakistani security establishment remains wedded to damaging policies. Conventional wisdom is often right, but it needs to be tested, rather than accepted. A strategy of temporising is likely to produce backsliding and another crisis, which could take unexpected turns. When, at long last, Pakistan’s leaders begin to speak in new ways about old problems, the risks involved in creative thinking pale in comparison with the dogged pursuit of orthodoxy.