The South Asia Channel

Down But Not Out: Kerry’s Diplomatic Opportunity in South Asia

Can John Kerry make long-standing tensions yield diplomatic results?

US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) and Pakistan's National Security Advisor Sartaj Aziz smile during a joint press conference at the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on January 13, 2015. The US and Pakistan pledged on January 13 to work together to wipe out the scourge of terrorism after a massacre at a school in Peshawar, amid reports top diplomat John Kerry will visit the troubled tribal region. AFP PHOTO/ Aamir QURESHI (Photo credit should read AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images)

This week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to India and Pakistan. Although there is little he can do to resolve long-standing tensions between these nuclear-armed neighbors, Kerry should take advantage of a recent development in Pakistan to reduce the near-term likelihood of war on the subcontinent.

American diplomacy has never yielded much success in addressing the underlying disputes between India and Pakistan. That said the United States has repeatedly played a central role in averting full-scale war when Indo-Pakistani tensions spike. This was true in 2001 when Pakistan-based terrorists attacked India’s parliament, and in 2008 when Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) commandos rampaged through Mumbai, directed by Pakistani handlers through satellite phones.

Unfortunately, the threat of another Mumbai-style attack on India is very real. India’s defenses have improved since 2008 but remain far from perfect. Long borders and coastlines, inadequate intelligence sharing, relatively limited numbers of well-trained security personnel, and an open society make it forever vulnerable. Pakistan’s terrorists also show no sign of giving up the fight. LeT, in particular, maintains a high profile. In early December, its outspoken leader, Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, drew thousands of followers to a two-day public rally in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s largest province.

If Pakistan-based terrorists strike India again, there are new reasons to fear war. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, assumed office last May and has already displayed hawkish tendencies in diplomatic spats and cross-border exchanges with Pakistan. It would seem that, compared to his predecessor — the owlish Manmohan Singh — Modi wants to play tough with Islamabad. And because Pakistan’s military is already stretched thin by its war against homegrown Taliban insurgents based along the Afghan border, its generals would probably be more inclined to depend on its growing arsenal of nuclear warheads — first as a deterrent, but if necessary as tools of war — in the event of an Indian invasion.

For its part, the United States faces new obstacles to reassuring and restraining the two sides. Washington’s relations with Islamabad are worse now than in 2008 or 2001-2002, having suffered through a near-rupture in ties over the course of 2011-12, and neither side has a deep well of trust for the other. In the midst of a fast-developing crisis, that could prove disastrous.

Washington’s negotiating position with New Delhi is even more disconcerting. In the past, U.S. officials promised Indian leaders that they would place enormous pressure on Pakistan to rein-in their anti-Indian terrorist organizations like LeT. That promise, combined with India’s own recognition that it had no low-cost military solution to the problem posed by Pakistan’s terrorists, held off Indian reprisal attacks.

Unfortunately, such promises by the United States have lost credibility with India because of past failures. Washington’s use of various legal and diplomatic tools against LeT, such as sanctioning it and its affiliated organizations and offering a $10 million reward for information that would bring Saeed to justice, have had no practical consequence. Last month, the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, was nearly set free on bail after six inconclusive years of Pakistani judicial proceedings.

Because of the failure of the United States to live up to its past promises to force a real Pakistani crackdown on terrorists personally responsible for attacks on Indian soil (much less to eliminate these groups outright), Indian leaders are less likely to trust U.S. officials the next time terrorists strike, and more likely to resort to unilateral military moves of their own. That increases the potential for cross-border violence maybe even including nuclear war.

The United States has high stakes in the Indo-Pakistani relationship. Given the enormous populations of the region, the human costs of another war would be staggering even if it never crosses the nuclear threshold. An Indo-Pakistani crisis would distract Pakistan’s attention from its fight against the Taliban. It would send debilitating shockwaves through India’s economy and undermine its near-term prospects for becoming a major U.S. strategic partner in Asia, a vision shared by the past three American presidents.

For all of these reasons, Secretary Kerry should seek ways to reduce the chances of a future Indo-Pakistani crisis and to restore U.S. credibility as a negotiating partner in the event that one unfolds.

Fortunately, Pakistan has just taken steps that could help. In response to December’s horrific school massacre in Peshawar, the Pakistani parliament passed a constitutional amendment to transfer authority for the nation’s anti-terrorism courts to the military. The move is intended to expedite justice against suspected terrorists who have too often managed to tie civilian judicial proceedings in knots through intimidation, delays, and bribery. U.S. officials will rightly have concerns about what the militarization of Pakistan’s courts will mean for the country’s democratic development, but the step has already been taken.

The most pertinent question now is whether Pakistan’s military will use these courts to prosecute Pakistan’s fight against all terrorists on its soil. In the past, Pakistan has distinguished between “good” and “bad” terrorist outfits, fighting some and using others to advance its purposes in India and Afghanistan. LeT has clearly fallen in the “good” category, despite its unmistakably extreme ideology and the risk that its attacks on India could easily embroil all of Pakistan in a devastating conflict.

The Lakhvi case is a litmus test of the new anti-terror tribunals. If a military court delivers swift justice to a perpetrator of terrorism against India, it would send an extraordinary and welcome message to New Delhi, Washington, and to Pakistan’s own people, who all crave clarity about where Islamabad really stands in the fight against violent extremists.

We should hope that Secretary Kerry pressed this specific point during in his recent meetings in Islamabad, laying the groundwork for future conversations about how Pakistan intends to make use of its military tribunals. In any event, the move would be a smart way to sharpen Washington’s routine exhortations for Pakistan to “do more” against terrorism. If the United States can convince Pakistan to expedite its prosecution of Lakhvi, Kerry would gain valuable diplomatic capital with Modi. And that, in turn, would reduce the chances of the next Indo-Pakistani crisis turning into a war.


Daniel Markey is a senior research professor of international relations and academic director of the global policy program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. His website:

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