Policy Paper

India and Pakistan Resume Structured Dialogue

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There is no better place than Wagah to look for evidence of how badly India-Pakistan relations have eroded. Wagah is the only legally permissible place where, between the hours of 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, border crossings on foot can be made, with the proper visas. On a recent Sunday, I was at the only person on the Pakistani side waiting to cross when the gates opened.

Custom officials told me that perhaps fifty people make the crossing daily, except for the occasional tour bus.  Prior efforts by Pakistani and Indian governments to simplify tourism, family reunions, and trade have come to this sorry state. The Punjab was divided by partition and remains an excellent barometer of the state of Indo-Pak relations. After partition, it was a killing field. Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee traversed this blood-stained soil by bus in February 1999 attempting to normalize relations with Pakistan in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests. In another highly symbolic gesture, Vajpayee then went to the Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument erected in Lahore to commemorate Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s famous declaration in 1940 of the need to establish a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims.  There, Vajpayee, the leader of the Bharata Janata Party, declared that, “A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt about this. India sincerely whishes the people of Pakistan well.”

Pakistan’s military chiefs were not on hand to greet Vajpayee at the border. The Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf, and a very select group around him, were already deep into the Kargil misadventure. Afterward, when Musharraf had a change of heart and was ready to take big risks to normalize ties with India, New Delhi wasn’t. Good timing is not one of the prominent features of Indo-Pak dialogue. Nor is sustained progress: when the possibility that modest gains might yield more meaningful results, look for big explosions to happen.

A cross-Kashmir bus service was instituted between Srinigar and Muzaffarabad in April 2005.  Few use it. Unfulfilled pledges were also made to simplify trade across the Kashmir divide. A train service runs  between Delhi and Lahore. The “Samjhauta Express” was attacked near Panipat in February 2007, killing 68 travelers.  The Government of India has yet to identify the perpetrators, who are believed to be Hindu extremists. Forty-two Pakistanis were killed on the train.  In November 2008, Muslim extremists from the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a group that retains links to Pakistani intelligence services, attacked iconic targets in Mumbai, killing 164. The attackers were trained and equipped on Pakistani soil.

India and Pakistan have again agreed to resume what they used to call a composite dialogue at the SAARC summit in Thimpu. Neither government is strongly positioned to pursue these talks. Even so, modest confidence-building and nuclear-risk reduction measures could be agreed to, as was the case after earlier crises. The no attack pledges against nuclear facilities might be expanded to other types of installations, such as dams and world historic sites.  The pre-notification agreement for ballistic missile flight tests could be expanded to include cruise missiles, as Pakistan has previously proposed. The joint counter-terrorism mechanism, which was doomed to failure by appointing diplomats as co-chairs, can do no worse and might do better if led by intelligence officials.  An incidents at sea agreement could be finalized, as could long-delayed deals on boundary disputes over the Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek.  A SAARC-wide agreement on information exchanges related to monsoon rains, glacial melt, and early warnings of extreme weather — perhaps with the assistance of outsiders with greater access to satellite data — could help with land use and water management, as well as disaster relief.

Many analysts and NGOs have joined the Stimson Center in proposing these and other incremental steps.  Identifying useful measures is relatively easy; the hard part is encouraging government officials to pursue them energetically, rather than to explain in minute detail why prospects for success are so remote.  Change on the subcontinent comes from the top down, not from the ranks of civil servants.

If past is prelude, incremental successes may again be possible, along with big explosions. Small gains will not lead to breakthroughs unless there is a shift in the strategic culture of Pakistan’s military leaders. Distrust of Indian intentions is embedded in their DNA, and as the conventional military imbalance shifts increasingly in India’s favor, Pakistan’s military establishment grows more concerned about dictation from across the border — hence Rawalpindi’s increased reliance on nuclear weapons and its unwillingness to turn against the LeT. Even so, modest nuclear risk-reduction measures are possible, as long as these arrangements do not impinge on Rawalpindi’s perceived insurance policies.  But if the Army leadership remains convinced that India constitutes a mortal threat, the normalization process will not proceed very fast or very far, to Pakistan’s continuing misfortune.

How, then, to proceed in such inauspicious circumstances? A breakthrough, if one is remotely possible, is likely to come from the Punjab, as Prime Minister Vajpayee intuited.  India’s economy, shackled by Nehruvian dogma, was on the ropes when Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao opened up the country to market principles in 1991.  National entrepreneurship flourished, and the world is now beating a path to India’s door.  Pakistan is currently facing dire economic straits, which are compounded by the lack of trade with India, its most natural and largest market. Pakistan’s military has a very large stake in the national economy. If trade is wisely configured and could be greatly expanded across the Punjab divide, substantial benefits could accrue in both countries.

Prior efforts to expand Indo-Pak trade have failed. Figuring out why is crucial to avoid repeated failure. Perhaps prospects for success might improve if the initiative came from Chief Ministers in the Punjab, rather than from New Delhi and Islamabad.  (The same notion applies to increased trade between Sindh and Gujurat.) The appointment of highly successful and respected entrepreneurs by Chief Ministers to map out a plan for vastly increased trade that can generate economic gains and job growth is likely to have a far greater chance of success than if such matters were left in the hands of timid politicians and civil servants.

Incremental successes by means of nuclear risk-reduction measures remain valuable in their own right and symbolic of responsible nuclear stewardship. While important, these measures are not game changers. Vastly improved trade between India and Pakistan, beginning across the Punjab divide, can be a game changer.

Michael Krepon is co-founder of the Stimson Center. Variations of this essay can be found in and the Chandigarh Tribune.

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