India and Pakistan are at the cusp of another opportunity for moving forward on in their relationship. President Zardari was recently on a pilgrimage visit to India. His Army Chief, in wake of the avalanche tragedy at the Gyari military base in Siachen, has declaimed in favor of ‘peaceful coexistence’. Even as India has welcomed both the visit and the pronouncement, it is worth interrogating if this may prove yet another lost opportunity.
India’s security establishment is concerned with the impact of the outcome inSouth Asiaof US-NATO draw down by 2014. The recent attacks in Kabul and elsewhere, the exhaustion of ISAF contributing countries, including most recently Australia, revelations of abuses by foreign troops, talks with the Taliban, etc., spell to India’s security managers an attempted return to center stage of the Taliban. This is seen to be in Pakistani interests, and therefore consequently against Indian interests.
The fallout on Kashmiris the foremost concern. The expectation is that with the western front taken care of Pakistan will resume its provocations in Kashmir, enabled by the disaffection in Kashmir persisting despite favorable conditions over the past year and half. This accounts for the military’s position against diluting its presence there and against any amendment to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA).
Given the apprehended possibility, there are two options India has. One is to preempt by engaging Pakistan seriously. The second is to build capability to cope with the outcome, while engaging Pakistan perfunctorily. The former option has merit but is unlikely to be operationalized as the government lacks the political capital to follow through in the sunset of its tenure. Therefore the latter is the default option.
India’s position as the world’s largest arms importer over the latter half of the last decade is set to continue into this one. It has taken care of the Chinese front by raising two defensive divisions. Paramilitary units specific to Jammu and Kashmir now number 66, thereby enabling India to pull out any conventional troops tied down on the counter insurgency grid. In keeping with a proactive and offensive doctrine, it now has these available for administering punishment on Pakistan in case of resumption. Covering of gaps in conventional hardware amounting to debility in its conventional deterrent have been fast tracked by the Cabinet Committee on Security after the ongoing spat between the bureaucrats and brass over this and other issues. The friction is another reason that will hold the government back from challenging the security establishment’s strategic positions.
In effect, India will be in ‘wait and watch’ mode, leaving the initiative with Pakistan.Pakistan, for its part, has a significant opportunity for unlocking the status quo. The Gyari avalanche that accounted for 140 servicemen can be used by it for progress on the Siachen front, widely seen as a low hanging fruit.India is in a position of advantage there that it is loath to lose without an acknowledgement by Pakistan of the front line held. Therefore, if Kayani is to put his money where his mouth is, he can easily acknowledge the existing reality on the ground as prelude to mutual demilitarization of Siachen. This can serve to lend momentum to more intractable issues in the composite basket, such as Jammu and Kashmir.
Indiahas the pieces in place for progress. The confidential report of the three interlocutors that had been tendered in last fall has apparently been examined by the home ministry. A constitutional commission is reportedly to be appointed to address the main grievance of Kashmiris that their autonomy had been arbitrarily imposed on by extension of Indian laws to the state through manipulation of state governments. Further, the home minister has let on that the ministry is contemplating introducing three amendments to the AFSPA for the legislature’s contemplation.
These initiatives can easily prove stillborn, since the conditions to see them through have not been created by political action. In case Pakistan, which sees itself as acting on behalf of Kashmiris, wants a suitable closure, it can seize the chance by unlocking the status quo. Action on the Siachen front is that chance.
This is in Pakistan’s interests. 9/11 created the circumstance for India to gain ascendancy over proxy war. Pakistan cannot now push India onto the backfoot. It has home grown problems it needs to address. Even if bomb attacks are fewer these days, the political prominence of extremist forces, such as through formation of the Difa e Pakistan Council, headed among others by Hafiz Sayeed, who carries a $10 million US bounty, is a signifier of troubled times ahead. Paradoxically, these can only become more acute in case an outcome in ‘AfPak’ seemingly favorable to Pakistan, in a negotiated return of the Taliban. In other words, the interim is a window for opportunity also for Pakistan.
This brings to fore Kayani’s apt ruminations during his trip to monitor rescue efforts at Gyari: “We in the army understand very well that there should be a very good balance between defense and development. You cannot be spending on defense alone and forgetting about development.” What needs doing is operationalizing this fairly self-evident bit of common sense. Kayani will be surprised how farIndiacan make the initiative go.
This is because India stands to gain as much asPakistan. Externally, its power ambitions and trajectory have been greatly aided by the stability in relations with Pakistan since the ceasefire of November 2003. Détente with Pakistan can release it from being tied down to the region, enabling its aspiration for an Asian role. Internally, there can be something to show for the government as elections loom nearer in terms of gaining ground both with Pakistanand in Kashmir. The invite from Zardari forIndia’s Prime Minister therefore has greater consequence forNew Delhithan it is letting on through its attitude of studied caution.
The ball therefore is in Kayani’s court. Since he cannot possibly pursue Hafeez Sayeed asIndiawould like at the cost ofPakistan’s internal stability, he could instead turn the tragedy in Siachen into an opportunity forPakistanand widerSouth Asia.
(Ali Ahmed, Ph.D, is an Assistant Professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution at the Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. Read more articles by Ali Ahmed.)