Turning down the heat between India and Pakistan

By Saurabh Todi | January 25, 2017

One noteworthy casualty of the colorful post-election news in the United States is coverage of the tension brewing in South Asia between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. There have been two notable terrorist attacks on Indian army bases in Kashmir: the Uri attack in September and the Nagrota attack in November. India responded to the September incident with so-called “surgical strikes” in Pakistan, a response that demonstrated growing impatience with attacks by militants that India says are coming from Pakistan.

The new US administration should support India’s efforts to address provocations by terrorists operating from within Pakistan, and also pressure Pakistan to dial down tensions. Relations between the United States and India have grown steadily through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Former US President Barack Obama believed that America can be “India’s best partner,” and Indian Prime Minter Narendra Modi has called the United States “an indispensable partner.”

There are many areas of engagement between the two countries: In terms of defense, India became the second largest importer of US arms in 2015; Indian students in US universities contributed $5 billion to the US economy in 2015; and bilateral trade between the two countries has increased several fold in last decade to reach the current level of more than $100 billion annually, with enormous room to grow further. Lockheed Martin has even proposed shifting an entire assembly line of its F-16 fighter jets from Texas to India (though given Trump’s emphasis on keeping manufacturing jobs in the United States, that proposal may die on the vine). This booming bilateral relationship needs a stable subcontinent to realize its potential. Recent events in the region, however, do not paint a very encouraging picture.

The Uri attack. On September 18, terrorists attacked an Indian army base in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, killing 17 Indian soldiers and causing more military casualties than any other terrorist strike on the subcontinent in decades. India claims that the militants were part of a group called Jaish-e-Mohammad, and that the Pakistani army provided cover to help them infiltrate the Line of Control (the de facto border between two nations). India responded to the attack by conducting covert operations—described as surgical strikes—on the Pakistani side of the line, reportedly inflicting heavy casualties and destroying terrorist training camps.

The surgical strikes were a surprising departure from India’s previous policy of “strategic restraint.” India’s self-control is well-entrenched: Even after the 2008 Mumbai attacks, India resisted responding militarily. But after the Uri attack, the Indian government, for the first time, officially acknowledged a cross-border operation into the Pakistani side of Kashmir, describing the strikes as operations that were “aimed at neutralizing the terrorists.” This is a deviation from the usual denial of such operations in the past.

India’s more combative posture arose after futile efforts to foster peace with Pakistan. Since his election in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Modi has taken steps to improve relations with Pakistan by inviting his counterpart, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his inauguration ceremony, and making a surprise visit to Lahore on Sharif’s birthday in 2015. However, immediately following these efforts towards rapprochement, there was a major terrorist attack on an Indian Air Force base in January 2016, and several small-scale attacks in the following months in Indian Kashmir.

These developments indicated to the international community that Pakistan was not responding constructively to India’s attempts at positive engagement. Western governments seem to have recognized that it is unfair to press India for normalization in the face of a non-cooperative Pakistan. As a result, India felt comfortable responding strongly to the terrorist attack at Uri. Rather than the usual push by foreign governments for India to engage in a bilateral dialogue with Pakistan, major Western democracies including the United States and the European Union refrained from condemning India’s response and instead pushed Pakistan to rein in militants operating on its territory.

Recent developments in Pakistan also raise concerns about the stability of its decision-making structure. Sharif is embroiled in a corruption probe and is fending off opposition demands for him to step down. Additionally, the Pakistani army continues to undermine him in matters of national security and foreign policy. Frustrations in the civilian government regarding interference by the army are not uncommon in Pakistan, though they are seldom acknowledged publicly. (After a Pakistani newspaper reported on these tensions, the reporter who wrote the piece faced travel restrictions.) This constant friction between the civilian government and the army in Pakistan is derailing normalization efforts between India and Pakistan.

After the strikes. Immediately after the Uri attack in September and the subsequent Indian response, both India and Pakistan appeared to understand the costs of a potential war and demonstrated a willingness to de-escalate. For example, Pakistan denied that the surgical strikes ever took place, and India did not counter Pakistan’s denial. India further tried to contain the situation by targeting only terrorist camps and not military facilities, and communicated the same to the Pakistani army before going public. These steps helped Pakistan resist domestic pressure to retaliate. The immediate risk of war in the region may have subsided, but tensions continue to simmer, with no sign of cooling down anytime soon.

Since the surgical strikes, there have been more than 280 ceasefire violations by Pakistan, resulting in dozens of civilian and military casualties on both sides. Recently, Pakistani commandos allegedly beheaded two Indian soldiers in violation of international protocols and treaties, further escalating tensions. The attack on an Indian Army base in Nagrota in Kashmir, on November 29, claimed the lives of seven defense personnel. Several smaller-scale militant attacks have also been reported in recent months: on October 2October 12November 25, and December 18 of last year.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic spat between India and Pakistan continues: After India declared a staffer in Pakistan’s embassy persona non grata on grounds that he was a spy, Pakistan expelled an Indian diplomat, citing no specific reason. Both countries have since pulled additional personnel from their respective missions.

The international community should step in to diffuse the tensions. It would be naive to expect Pakistan to change its state policy solely in response to mere  allegations that it supports terrorism. Destabilizing both Afghanistan and India has long served Pakistan’s strategic interests, and this is unlikely to change unless Pakistan starts to get shamed for its behavior, both regionally and globally.

The shaming option. There have been some promising signals from the West in this regard. Peter Lavoy, an Obama White House official on South Asia, disagreed with the proposition—put forth by Pakistani representatives—linking stability in Afghanistan with the situation in Kashmir. Also, Pakistan had to call off a regional South Asian summit, scheduled to take place in Islamabad in November, after several member nations stated their inability to attend, primarily due to Pakistani support of terrorism in the neighborhood.

Shaming Pakistan for its failure to control terrorists seems to be the only option available at this juncture. A conventional war is not an option, as neither country wants to be blamed for the devastation that would ensue. Moreover, efforts at trying to engage with Pakistan diplomatically, and exercising restraint after numerous provocations, have also turned out to be futile.

A role for the Trump administration. The new US administration can play a constructive role in this sphere. But President Donald J. Trump’s intentions are not yet clear. Instead, a congratulatory call a few weeks ago between Trump and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed to signal something that India was not expecting. Sharif’s statement on the conversation reported that Trump called Pakistan a “fantastic country” with “fantastic people.” (Trump’s statement simply called it a “productive conversation.”) Such bonhomie between the leaders of the United States and Pakistan, at a time when the latter is suspected of supporting terrorist groups targeted at Afghanistan and India, is unwelcome in India.

Since becoming president, though, Trump has told India’s Prime Minister Modi that Washington considers India a “true friend and partner in addressing challenges around the world.”

The United States needs to continue emphasizing its partnership with India; it is in the United States’ self-interest to prevent further escalation of tensions on the subcontinent. With changing power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States will have a friend in India to stabilize the region. US-India relations are growing significantly in every sphere from trade to defense and cyber security, so it is imperative for the new US administration to turn the heat down in the subcontinent. Putting more pressure on Pakistan is the only available option.


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