When the US was drawing down troops from Afghanistan in December 2014, there were widespread speculations about the possible implications of this development on the South Asian security landscape, especially the India-Pakistan rivalry.
The era following the US intervention in Afghanistan witnessed relative stabilisation between India and Pakistan. On its part, the US made sure that the regional animosity between the two South Asian countries did not undermine its mission in Afghanistan. Washington used its diplomatic clout and other means to keep the trouble-prone Indo-Pak ties on the course of normalisation.
The analyses and opinions of policymakers diverged widely on the possible impact of the US drawdown on South Asia. One school of thought argued that the decade-and-a-half-long US presence fundamentally altered the realities of the region. During this period, the role of the US as a mediator between India and Pakistan, introduction of several confidence building measures, the 2003 border ceasefire agreement, Pakistani assurances to clampdown on anti-India militant groups and stop cross-border infiltration, along with expansion and improvement of the nuclear programmes of the two countries made conventional war an unlikely and costly option.
In the estimation of the above school, this implied the beginning of a new era of peace-making and a possible conflict resolution in South Asia. This opinion largely came from the pacifist South Asian lobby comprising former diplomats, scholars, journalists and peace activists who remained actively engaged in several Track-II initiatives between India and Pakistan. They believed that an increasing level of people-to-people contact, interaction of the two countries’ civil societies and, more importantly, the interaction of the youth on social media, created a new constituency for peace which was irreversible and capable of altering the adversarial history of the subcontinent.
The other school of thought comprised the realist hawks who upheld that the post-9/11 India-Pakistan normalisation under the US umbrella was an exception rather than a rule. They emphatically maintained that American presence as a mediator could but temporarily suppress hostilities between the two rivals. The host of initiatives introduced during this period had a shelf-life which would expire with the US exit from Afghanistan. Arguably, the entire process of ‘normalisation’ was a make-shift arrangement that did not alter the structural realities of the region. Only nominal positive developments were made during the on-gain, off-again India-Pakistan peace process without any substantive outcomes.
This second point of view got further credence in the face of the divergent strategic postures of Washington DC and Islamabad. Moreover, the transactional relationship between Pakistan and the US was confined to certain specific issues as opposed to the wide-ranging Indo-US strategic relations, which extended from strengthening economic ties to building India as a counter-weight to China, as well as cooperation in the civilian nuclear field, making it obvious that America’s long-term regional and global interests were aligned with India, not Pakistan.
Regional developments in the recent past indicate that the old patterns of adversarial relations between Indian and Pakistan are returning to South Asia with added complexities and expanded turfs for proxy-wars. The Indian efforts to portray Pakistan as a state that ‘sponsors terrorism’ and Pakistan’s bid to internationalise the Kashmir issue reminisces the 90s era when the two rivals were engaged in a tit-for-tat tussle at every regional and international forum.
A new and significant dimension of this old-pattern is India’s growing closeness to the US and Pakistan’s estrangement from the latter. Meanwhile, India has also incorporated the Baloch separatist leaders and Afghanistan in its orbit to increase pressure on Pakistan in the face of latter’s relentless efforts to expose Indian forces’ atrocities in Kashmir and internationalising the conflict.
Truth is the first casualty of war: following the Uri attack, we may never know, conclusively, where the attackers came from. Moreover, it is questionable whether the attack was a false flag operation to divert international attention, ahead of the UNGA session, or whether the attackers in fact came from one of the Kashmiri militant groups. Truth will be lost in the war of allegations and counter-allegations between India and Pakistan.
However, what is certain is that New Delhi’s bid to hide its state-oppression against innocent Kashmiris under the accusations of cross-border terrorism will not change the ground reality. In the last two months, the killings of Muzaffar Wani and 84 other Kashmiris by Indian forces have enthused the Kashmir movement.
Similarly, Pakistan’s reluctance to (meaningfully) act against terrorist networks of all hues and colours indiscriminately will not help its efforts to force India to open negotiations on the subject of Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistan’s slow and lacklustre pursuit of the Mumbai attack case has only strengthened the international impression that the country is dragging its feet on the issue.
Above and beyond narrow nationalism and petty foreign policy interests, a dispassionate view of things reveals that India-Pakistan rivalry from the 1947 partition to the 1971 dismemberment of eastern Pakistan, and the continuing proxy-war till date, has left a bloody trail which has consumed the lives of innocent people from the Bay of Bengal to the mountains of Kashmir, and is now expanding from the Afghan soil to the sands of Balochistan.
The warmongering by hawks on both sides will further aggravate the already precarious situation in the region. Notwithstanding its superior conventional might, India does not possess the skills, knowledge and technical-resources to conduct precision airstrikes or ground hot-pursuit inside the Pakistani territory. Even if it does, it is highly unlikely that Pakistan will be deterred from pursuing its goals in Kashmir. At the same time, Pakistan’s warnings of using tactical nuclear weapons in case India activates the Cold Start Doctrine carries the inherent risk of nuclear retaliation from India.
In short, one step up the proverbial escalatory ladder from either side can lead to unforeseen and unintended consequences beyond the control of both adversaries. Hence, the saner elements on both sides should try to de-escalate the current atmosphere of war hysteria and earnest efforts must be made to restart the stalled peace process.
The writer is an associate research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.