India-Pakistan: Small steps, but long road ahead

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Risk takers can make big messes or big successes, especially when they lead nuclear-armed rivals and when they have little in common except their fondness for bold maneuvers and impatience with diplomacy.

Think of Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, two men of utterly different temperament and background. When these ambitious risk takers met, the outcome was usually in doubt. Bilateral ties during their tenure lurched forward like a roller coaster ride.

High expectations were followed by deep dips. This ride had a happy ending, however. By dispensing with conventional wisdom and risking failure, Reagan and Gorbachev broke the back of the nuclear arms race.

The oddest nuclear bedfellows today are India’s Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. One writes poetry, the other has been trained as a commando. But they share the same propensity for risk-taking. Vajpayee defiantly tested nuclear weapons against world opinion.

Musharraf disposed of a popularly elected government and surreptitiously seized Indian territory across the Kashmir divide, initiating a brief border war in 1999. Then, Vajpayee invited Musharraf to an unscripted summit in Agra. So far, they have interacted badly. Can they, too, engineer a happy ending?

Bilateral talks are likely to resume after a two-year freeze, following an attack on the Indian Parliament by militant groups with home bases in Pakistan. This is the third time that Vajpayee has offered to normalize ties, despite strenuous opposition from his Hindu nationalist political base. Religious extremists who back a holy war in divided Kashmir have also gained ground in Pakistan, where successive governments over the past decade have clung to unrealistic hopes for a settlement.

There is much ground for pessimism about a resumption of talks between India and Pakistan. Positive initiatives in South Asia are notoriously tenuous and reversible. Vajpayee has not energetically followed through with his initiatives, and it is an article of faith among Pakistan watchers that its Army leadership is incapable of accepting a realistic Kashmir settlement.

Most South Asia hands would be content with small steps in the right direction and the absence of another nuclear crisis. But if the domestic trend lines in both India and Pakistan are as worrisome as these observers maintain, then sustainable progress this time around will require more ambitious objectives.

Conventional wisdom in Islamabad, New Delhi and Washington suggests that the Kashmir issue is simply too intractable to be addressed in any serious or successful fashion. In this view, small, positive steps toward normal ties might well be the best achievable outcome.

Small, positive steps are certainly welcome—the more the better, since pursuing one step at a time simplifies blocking strategies. The big problem with thinking small, however, is that modest steps don’t lead to a safe destination. As in the Israeli-Palestinian case, building blocks for peace can easily collapse after large explosions.

Nor have small steps in South Asia led to nuclear stabilization, since Pakistan’s military leaders have previously linked progress on this front to positive developments in Kashmir, and since India’s political leaders have previously refused to talk while infiltration facilitated by Pakistan continued.

For a peace process to be durable, small steps need to taken, but the big issues of terrorism, Kashmir and nuclear security also have to be tackled. Talks between India and Pakistan hit a dead end when there is no choreography between small steps and big problems. Finding the right structure to cover these bases isn’t the problem.

The problem is that when professional diplomats talk about highly sensitive issues, they usually say nothing that could generate progress—and trouble—back home. Governments have found the conventional wisdom to be safer than a peace process.

Many alternatives to a diplomatic settlement have been tried, all without success. Lately, India and Pakistan have both engaged in brinksmanship over Kashmir, including the mobilization of both armies for war during much of 2002.

These gambits have failed, while inviting unwanted escalation. Before the advent of nuclear weapons, India fought and won conventional wars with Pakistan, but gained little satisfaction on Kashmir. New Delhi has also tried to put Kashmir on the back burner, but old wounds haven’t healed. It has also tried and failed to isolate Pakistan.

Islamabad’s track record is no better. It has failed to win Kashmiri Muslims over by example, by force of arms, or by diplomacy. Its entreaties at the United Nations fall on deaf ears. Over the past decade, Pakistan’s Kashmir policy has relied heavily on militancy to punish India and to leverage favorable outcomes. This approach has failed to gain traction, while weakening Pakistan at home and tarnishing its image abroad.

Why not, then, explore privately the contours of a diplomatic settlement this time around? Skeptics of ambitious diplomacy in South Asia may be right in concluding that the Pakistan Army is unalterably wedded to a failed Kashmir policy, and that Vajpayee does not have the stamina to follow through with his initiatives. But these widely held assumptions have not been properly tested. Musharraf might mean what he says when he calls for a dignified resolution to the Kashmir tragedy. We won’t know unless the conversation over Kashmir gets beyond well-rehearsed public statements.

It is certainly curious that senior Pakistani officials continue to call for US engagement on Kashmir when Washington’s ‘‘facilitation’’ will not give Islamabad the outcome it hopes for. Perhaps this is a reflection of wishful thinking in Islamabad, or the confidence Pakistan’s leaders have in New Delhi’s veto of a more pro-active US role.

Another possibility is that Musharraf understands that Pakistan’s future depends on finding a dignified exit strategy over Kashmir—one that is acceptable to most Kashmiris. We’ll never know what lies behind Pakistan’s public diplomacy unless conventional wisdom is tested.

True, the track record of interactions between Vajpayee and Musharraf hardly inspires confidence, and powerful domestic constituencies are poised to oppose progress on Kashmir. But risk-taking leaders are capable of making surprisingly wise as well as bad decisions.

Reagan and Gorbachev started badly, but ended famously. If Vajpayee and Musharraf cannot rise to the occasion, it is unlikely that their successors will do better.


This piece was originally published in the Indian Express.

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