The South Asia Channel

A road paved with potholes

In February 2011, Pakistan and India resumed formal peace talks, which New Delhi had broken off following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Although the peace process has sparked cautious optimism among analysts, all of the core issues between the two countries remain and several new ones may be emerging. Moreover, the wounds of Mumbai have yet to ...

PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages
PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/GettyImages

In February 2011, Pakistan and India resumed formal peace talks, which New Delhi had broken off following the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Although the peace process has sparked cautious optimism among analysts, all of the core issues between the two countries remain and several new ones may be emerging. Moreover, the wounds of Mumbai have yet to heal fully and can still infect the peace process. This was evident when India took custody of Zabiuddin Ansari, an Indian jihadist who joined Lashkar-e-Taiba and played a pivotal role in those attacks. A previous post employed his story to examine the jihadist threats facing India and the role official Pakistani support is believed to play in them. The aim here is to address the impact, if any, on India-Pakistan relations. 

Ansari was arrested by Saudi authorities in May 2011, but handed over to India only days prior to last week’s bilateral meeting between the countries’ foreign secretaries. Indian officials took pains to make clear that Ansari’s capture (specifically) and Pakistan’s failure to curb terrorism (in general) would not derail the planned meeting. The two sides did make slow progress on several economic issues and it is arguable that for some time the greatest barriers to action on that front have been internal and bureaucratic rather than geopolitical. This should be cause for cautious optimism. Read another way, however, it is emblematic of the limited expectations for this process, the enormous hurdles to be overcome, the delicate balance each side must strike in terms of how to engage, and the domestic dynamics in each country that further complicate the process.

It’s helpful to recall that previous attempts at normalizing relations focused too heavily either on engagements at the bureaucratic level or personal initiatives by political leaders. This current phase has sought to combine both approaches, initially aiming to make parallel progress on economic engagement as well as the more intractable problems of settling Kashmir, demobilizing the Siachen Glacier, or satisfying New Delhi’s demands for an end to Pakistani support for anti-India militancy. This approach of de-linking economic engagement from normalization on political and security issues in the short term has merit to the degree that the former can be used to built trust and create space for the peace camps that exist in both countries. But it is not without drawbacks, particularly in terms of the potential for mismatched timing and objectives. To date, the slow progress made has come mainly in the area of economic integration.

The Pakistan Army, which still largely controls foreign policy, remains leery of incremental talks that could enable India, the status quo power in Kashmir, to consolidate an economic relationship without budging on territorial disputes. Moreover, although the government in Pakistan is incredibly enfeebled at the moment, such integration could empower either of the main civilian political parties – the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) – in the event that one of them wins the next election, to wrest at least some power from the military. Nevertheless, given Pakistan’s struggling economy, strained relations with the United States and failure of its all-weather ally, China, to ride to the financial rescue, the Army is more prepared than in the past to endorse economic engagement with India.

Yet, various members of the Pakistani security establishment maintain that settling territorial disputes cannot take a backseat to such engagement for too long. Once the United States draws down from Afghanistan, there is likely to be a refocusing within Pakistan’s security establishment on its neighbor to the east. In the meantime, and as discussed in the previous post, the Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) appear to be attempting to restrain Lashkar-e-Taiba from launching another terrorist spectacular along the lines of Mumbai. However, there is no indication that state support for that group or the indigenous jihadist movement in India has ceased. Lashkar’s amir Hafiz Saeed continues to enjoy a public pulpit, from which he has declared the mujahideen will resume a "full-scale armed jihad" in Kashmir once the Afghan war is resolved. And on this most recent visit, Pakistan’s foreign secretary made a point of meeting with Kashmiri separatists from the Hurriyat Conference the day prior to engaging with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made no secret of his desire for a breakthrough with Pakistan or his desire to accept an invitation to make an official visit to the land of his birth. But he also has acknowledged that, "a visit to Pakistan that does not bear fruit would be of no use," meaning that an agreement on at least one core issue is perceived as necessary in order to make such a trip viable. Resolving a boundary dispute in Sir Creek, located between Singh in Pakistan and Gujarat in India, is arguably the easiest of the core issues to resolve, and the two sides were scheduled to discuss it in May. Shortly before, Pakistan cancelled the talks with no explanation, though the conventional wisdom was that it sought to force progress on Siachen Glacier first. The two sides are further apart on this issue and there is significant opposition within the Indian military, which holds the high ground, to any compromise on it. So it was no surprise when the talks dealing with Siachen in mid-June came to naught.

In lieu of progress on any territorial issues and without much expectation that the Pakistani security establishment will make a significant attempt to dismantle the militant infrastructure, New Delhi is happy to pursue "progress" on issues such as economic integration. As several Indian officials and diplomats sought to make clear to the author, this is not the same as normalization, which they claim can only occur if Pakistan ends its support for jihadist militants who target India. To that end, while pursuing "progress," India also has sought to exert maximum pressure on Pakistan vis-à-vis terrorism.

This approach demands a delicate balance and it is sometimes difficult to determine the degree to which it is carefully calibrated or the result of differing views within the Indian government. Thus, while the Indian external affairs minister was trying to play down the impact of Pakistani inaction against the Mumbai planners and promising the issue would not hold the dialogue hostage, the home minister was holding a press conference in which he proclaimed Ansari’s allegations proved Mumbai could not have happened without state support. A month earlier, the Indian home minister, P Chidambaram, declined a Pakistani request to travel to Islamabad to sign a much-awaited liberalized visa agreement as a way of sending the message that Pakistan needed to take action against all of those involved in the Mumbai attacks.

Ansari has not provided any major new insights into those attacks, but he nevertheless provides India with additional means to pressure Pakistan because of his intimate involvement in planning Mumbai and presence in the control room during the operation. He has reaffirmed much of what was suspected, including the involvement of the same two officers believed to belong to the ISI that David Headley, who conducted reconnaissance for the attacks, identified in his testimony to Indian investigators.

Despite these revelations, Islamabad still insists New Delhi has not provided usable information. Yet, plausible deniability only works as a policy if the denials are in fact plausible. Pakistan’s increasingly are not, and its failure to commit fully to prosecuting all of the alleged perpetrators is becoming another major stumbling block to normalizing relations. A conviction of the seven Lashkar members currently on trial is far from certain, and even were it to occur, India has shown no indication that this alone would be an acceptable outcome. New Delhi has said publicly that Pakistani action against all of those involved in the Mumbai attacks – especially Hafiz Saeed and the two aforementioned ISI officers – would be the "biggest confidence-building measure of all." Privately, Indian diplomats go further and assert that this has become a de facto litmus test regarding the Pakistani security establishment’s willingness to end its support for Lashkar.

New Delhi has already won its case in the court of public opinion. Unlike in the 1990s, when Washington and New Delhi held politically disparate positions regarding Pakistani support for militancy, today they are united both on their acceptance of the problem and their inability to find a solution to it. Ultimately, two things must happen for Pakistan’s behavior to change. First, the real costs – direct and indirect – of supporting groups like Lashkar must be understood to outweigh the (mis)perceived utility they provide geopolitically and domestically. Second, those who already recognize this is the case must take control of the country’s security policy.

Bilateral progress between India and Pakistan, even short of a normalization of relations, is an essential component in this regard. It has the potential to bring real economic benefits to people on both sides of the border and in doing so to begin reshaping the environment. But it will remain a slow process and one beset by numerous challenges – foreign and domestic, political and bureaucratic. On its own, Ansari’s deportation to India prior to the foreign secretaries meeting was a bump in the road, and the information he provided in the days that followed is unlikely to have taken any of the key players on either side by surprise. This in and of itself, however, is a symptom of just how far the two countries have to go and the way in which new issues, like Mumbai, can make overcoming those that are already difficult to surmount all the more difficult. In the meantime, containing the threat from Pakistani militants will require the type of international coordination, described in the next post, that led to Ansari’s capture and deportation.

Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and a non-resident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recently returned from an extended research trip to South Asia examining internal security issues and is spending the summer at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars as a public policy scholar.

Stephen Tankel is an associate professor at American University, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and a former senior advisor at the U.S. Defense Department. Twitter: @StephenTankel

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