The world is getting used to India and Pakistan being on the brink of war. Perhaps that is why the latest escalation in tensions along the border of these nuclear-armed neighbours has not dislodged the Middle East from media headlines, particularly in the United States.
After last week’s terrorist attack on the Kaluchak military camp, both sides are looking towards the United States to bring pressure on the other to resolve the current crisis. Pakistan, a Cold War ally and current staging ground for attacks against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan, expects US diplomatic efforts to prevent Indian military retaliation. India, on the other hand, has expressed disappointment that the US cannot force Pakistan to effectively clamp down on militant Islamists operating from its territory.
But Washington may be unable to fulfill either side’s desire for US action. At best, it can act as an honest broker and help them end the current military standoff. In the end, the two neighbours must overcome their legacy of mutual mistrust and the history of three wars in 54 years. The US has been torn between choosing its ally, Pakistan, and the world’s largest democracy, India, before. It has failed to satisfy either side.
In return for offering military bases and intelligence cooperation during the cold war, Pakistan expected Washington’s support for its position in the dispute over Jammu and Kashmir. The US initially backed Pakistan in the United Nations but did not support its ally’s failed military effort against India in 1965. In 1971, Washington was unable to save Pakistan from dismemberment during the Bangladesh war. It is unrealistic on the part of General Pervez Musharraf to expect US support for the militant insurgency in Kashmir as repayment for military and intelligence cooperation in the Afghanistan war. Pakistan may be the US ally but India pulls more weight in Washington. From the US point of view, Pakistan may be America’s wartime ally but it is India that offers the prospect of long-term friendship.
This lack of influence despite being allies frustrates Pakistanis and breeds anti-Americanism. But this frustration cannot change South Asia’s strategic balance. In a showdown involving conventional warfare, Pakistan would be at a disadvantage. Its military has received no new weapons from the United States in a decade. Indigenously manufactured weapons and arms supplied by China might not be sufficient to effectively ward off an attack by India, which has been buying modern weapons on the international market from a variety of sources.
This military imbalance means that the possibility of a resort to nuclear weapons by Pakistan in the event of a war cannot be completely excluded.
War, even if limited to skirmishes in Kashmir, would severely damage the economies of both nations. The last time the two countries fought each other, during the Kargil conflict of 1999, their stock markets dipped and foreign investors were frightened away. South Asia is already one of the world’s poorest regions. Even if military conflict can be avoided, a prolonged cold war can only add to these economic problems.
Pakistan cannot afford to depend exclusively on the US ability to defuse tensions with India. It will have to act decisively against Islamic militants allegedly involved in attacks in India and Kashmir. Proposals for joint India-Pakistan monitoring of the Line of Control in Kashmir, to stop infiltration of militants ostensibly acting on their own, must also be seriously considered. Pakistan’s most significant diplomatic successes in its dispute with India, including UN resolutions demanding a plebiscite in Jammu and Kashmir, were attained during times of peace. Contrary to conventional wisdom in Pakistan, militancy and militarist solutions have not helped in mobilising international support for Kashmiri self-determination.
India’s response to the current situation should also be rational. At a time when extremists are under pressure globally, India’s insistence on rubbing Pakistan’s nose in the ground would be counter-productive. Not only would it impair Pakistan’s ability to cooperate in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, it could even give a boost to Pakistani militants. Conflict with India tends to unite Pakistanis. If Musharraf’s regime is seen as acting under Indian duress, support for the militants opposing him could increase.
While supporting Musharraf in his efforts against Islamic extremists, the US also needs to ensure that it would still be able to count on Pakistani help in the anti-terror effort even if there is a change of regime in Pakistan. In the past, India and Pakistan have managed to avoid military confrontation whenever civilians were in power in Islamabad, and a civilian-democratic government in Pakistan would be less dependent on the military and the Islamic militants for support.
The current crisis provides an occasion to address the root causes of violence between India and Pakistan. Pakistan needs to root out Islamic extremism for its own sake, not just to fulfill Indian and US demands. But India must also wake up to the fact that it will continue to have a Kashmir problem even after the current militancy there is brought under control. Sooner or later India will have to discuss the future of Jammu and Kashmir, both with the people of the state and with Pakistan. Why not do it now, so that a comprehensive solution to South Asia’s security problems can be implemented.
Published in ExpressIndia. Writer Husain Haqqani is currently a Visiting Scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.He served as adviser to Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and as Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka