The South Asia Channel

Is There Any Hope for India-Pakistan Relations?

It’s been a rocky time for India-Pakistan relations the past few weeks. On August 18, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled scheduled talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries that were to occur in Islamabad on August 25. Modi’s decision came in response to a meeting held between Islamabad’s envoy in New Delhi and Kashmiri ...

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a rocky time for India-Pakistan relations the past few weeks. On August 18, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled scheduled talks between the two countries’ foreign secretaries that were to occur in Islamabad on August 25. Modi’s decision came in response to a meeting held between Islamabad’s envoy in New Delhi and Kashmiri separatist leader Shabir Shah earlier in the day, which he viewed as unacceptable.

The prior week, on August 12, during a speech to Indian army and air force soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir, Modi made reference to "our neighbor’s attitude" of engaging in a proxy war. Modi’s remarks prompted a quick response from Pakistan the following day, which called his comments "most unfortunate."

Meanwhile, Pakistan has been experiencing political tumult and anti-government protests, led by politician Imran Khan and cleric Tahir ul-Qadri. The protests appear to have forced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to concede to the long-held understanding that Pakistan’s civilian government is expected to share space with the military — shorthand for the military maintaining the dominant role in security policy, and consequently calling into question Sharif’s ability to press for improved ties with India.

These developments are all the more troubling given that, until recently, bilateral ties had appeared to be making considerable progress. Only three months ago, Modi’s invitation to Sharif to attend his inauguration ceremony, and Sharif’s decision to accept the invitation, were viewed as positive signs of new momentum between the two countries.

The two countries have come a long way given their troubled bilateral history. Since Partition in 1947, India and Pakistan have fought each other in three wars, and most recently, in the limited Kargil war in 1999. But despite numerous conflict-resolution efforts — including multilateral, bilateral, official, and track-two initiatives — a solution for lasting peace on the Subcontinent has proved elusive.

The most recent peace initiative is the Composite Dialogue. The idea for a "structured dialogue" to address multiple issues simultaneously — including, but not limited to, Kashmir and terrorism — originated during a discussion between Indian and Pakistani leaders in 1997. The Composite Dialogue process is structured along parallel but separate talks on eight issues, including peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir, water and border issues, terrorism, and economic cooperation.

Early attempts at a Composite Dialogue began in 1998 between the two governments and were followed by the signing of the historic Lahore Declaration by Nawaz Sharif and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1999. However, the process was derailed in 1999 by the Kargil war, and continued to flounder as tensions between the two countries increased after a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in 2001. As tensions decreased, the Composite Dialogue restarted in 2004. Several rounds of the Composite Dialogue resulted in the establishment of confidence-building measures, including a ceasefire along the Line of Control, agreement for advanced notification of ballistic missile testing, and new overland and air linkages. Unfortunately, the Mumbai terrorist attacks carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba on Nov. 26, 2008 again derailed the fledgling Composite Dialogue process.

Despite these setbacks, the new leaderships in India and Pakistan offer reasons for cautious optimism toward reviving peace efforts. Both Prime Ministers Sharif and Modi have given top billing to better relations between the two countries. Since coming to office, Modi has often spoken about regional relationships in the context of working together to promote economic development and fighting the common enemy of poverty.

Sharif came to power in 2013 with the hope of improving relations with New Delhi. Additionally, his Pakistan Muslim-League (Nawaz) (PML(N)) political party has an inherent interest in boosting ties with India. The PML(N) base includes many Punjab businessmen (Sharif’s family itself is involved in the sugar industry, among other sectors) who stand to benefit from Most Favored Nation (MFN) trade status with India, which in turn is seen as a major confidence-building measure for the bilateral relationship.

And yet there are very good reasons to be skeptical as well, and in ways that go beyond the events of the past few weeks. First, given that Modi has repeatedly advocated a position of zero tolerance against terrorism, it seems unlikely that he would show the same degree of restraint as his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, if there is a future terrorist strike committed in India and traced back to Pakistan (recall that Singh chose not to retaliate against Pakistan after the 2008 Mumbai attacks). Indeed, the possibility of such attacks is likely to increase significantly next year. With the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, many anti-India militant groups who have been operating in Afghanistan will be deprived of a target, creating incentives to redirect their attention to Kashmir and India on the whole.

Second, Pakistan’s military, which remains the country’s most powerful institution, continues to be uninterested in moving closer to India through channels other than trade and economics. It also bears mentioning that Pakistan’s armed forces derive much of their legitimacy — as well as their role in politics — from an India that remains estranged from Pakistan. In effect, so long as there is no peace with India, Pakistan’s military can argue that India poses an existential threat, thereby justifying the military’s need to be active across the Pakistani state.

Third, there is a disconnect at play with regard to each country’s desired agenda in future peace talks. Pakistan’s government has viewed a formal trade relationship with India as a possible springboard for discussions on the bigger issues, such as territorial disputes like Kashmir. By contrast, India’s government sees trade normalization as an end in itself. This latter position is rooted in New Delhi’s view that Jammu and Kashmir are an inalienable and irrevocable part of India.

So is there any hope that Modi’s grand gesture to Sharif back in May can trigger a new era in bilateral relations? In the short term, the answer is likely to be no. Historically, bilateral relations have resembled a boomerang: Efforts toward reconciliation have proceeded in fits and starts, with steps forward and hopes raised –followed by steps back and hopes dashed. Just when progress is being made, disaster strikes. In the 1950s, India was Pakistan’s largest trade partner, but by 1965, the two countries were at war. In the short term, it will be difficult for the two countries to extricate themselves from this fits-and-starts pattern, and to find new sustained patterns of relating to one another.

As for the long term, hope for better bilateral relations lies in focusing on areas that have the potential to bring shared benefits to both countries, not only in commonly discussed areas such as trade and investment, but also in other areas such as energy or water resources. This is an objective that would need to be pursued through a renewed Composite Dialogue or quiet back-channel diplomacy.

Is there something the United States can do? There was a period of time when the United States was actively involved in peacebuilding efforts between the two countries. In an excellent history of the U.S. role in the dispute over Kashmir, retired Ambassador Howard Schaffer argues that earlier American efforts largely resulted in ill will toward the United States from both countries. More recently, the United States has played a constructive role in providing good offices as a facilitator and problem-solver during periods of crisis management, such as the 2001-2002 Twin Peaks crisis and the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

In the meantime, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton perhaps summed it up best in stating that the United States "is not in a position to dictate solutions," but Washington can nonetheless "encourage India and Pakistan to resume their stalled composite dialogue" while simultaneously focusing on constructive engagement with both India and Pakistan.

Allison Berland is a visiting research fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies South Asia Studies Program. Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Michael Kugelman is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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