The Delhi-Islamabad Dilemma

5 October 2009
The Wall Street Journal
Harsh V. Pant

New York: The relationship between India and Pakistan is a high-stakes balancing act, given the two sides harbor historical grievances, dispute a border region and possess nuclear weapons. Now there are again signs that the South Asian neighbors are seeking to engage with each other and at last make peace. But caution is in order, given the significant constraints still faced by each side. At first blush, recent moves seem significant. In July, the prime ministers met at Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt for the first time since last November's terror attacks in Mumbai and decided to pursue bilateral engagement. Now Pakistan is contemplating appointing a former foreign secretary, Riaz Mohammad Khan, as its special envoy on Indian affairs-the first time Islamabad has placed a person of such seniority solely in charge of relations with India. Various factors have been pushing India and Pakistan toward dialogue. After the September 11 attacks in New York and the November 26 attacks in Mumbai, there is little or no tolerance in the international community for the use of terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy, as Islamabad effectively has been doing with its support for militants in the disputed Kashmir region. The United States also is cultivating a close relationship with India with an eye toward the containment of rising Chinese power and influence. Pakistan could feel increasingly isolated if it does not make peace with India. India also realizes that its aspirations to play a larger global role will not bear fruit unless it is able to better manage its relations with Pakistan. For India to be seen as a global power and not merely a South Asian one, it must first resolve its highest-profile border dispute and find a way to peacefully co-exist with its nuclear neighbor. Yet each side also faces forces pulling it away from negotiations that are as strong or stronger than the urge to hold talks. Part of the problem from Islamabad's side is historical. Pakistan, conceived to be a homeland for South Asia's Muslims, has always derived its identity from opposition to India. Significant sections of the Pakistani military and intelligence services still see themselves in a permanent state of conflict with India and have little incentive to change since that view justifies their pre-eminent position in Pakistani society. At a time when Pakistan's Islamic identity is under siege because of its cooperation with the U.S. in the war on terror, the need to define itself relative to India remains even stronger. The peace process also hinges on the ability of Pakistan's political establishment to control terrorist groups from wreaking havoc in India. There is little evidence of any significant Pakistani effort to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism such as communications, launching pads and training camps on its eastern border with India. Even if it wants to, it is doubtful how much control the civilian government in Islamabad can exert given that various terrorist outfits have vowed to continue their jihad in Kashmir. Meanwhile, in India, the Congress Party-led government will find it difficult to make any significant concessions on Kashmir, as it faces pressure from the right of the political establishment. This is especially difficult after the Mumbai attacks, as no party wants to be viewed as responsible if there is another attack-a perception that could spring from concluding a deal with Pakistan before another incident. While there is general consensus on smaller steps like opening bus routes or trade with Pakistan, this does not translate into willingness to sign a broader settlement. Moreover, India lacks clarity in its objectives and consistency in its plans. After first asserting last year that it would not engage with Pakistan unless the Mumbai terror masterminds were brought to justice, New Delhi signaled in July this year that it was willing to talk. Then the government backed off again under domestic political pressure. Although India is now back at the table, there's no guarantee it will stay there for long if the Mumbai perpetrators remain at large. The biggest problem, however, is shared between both sides: the very different strategic goals India and Pakistan have in pursuing a peace process. India's premise largely has been that the process will persuade Pakistan to cease supporting and sending extremists into India and start building good neighborly ties. Pakistan, in contrast, has viewed the process as a means to nudge India to make concessions on Kashmir such as easing of travel restrictions across the India and Pakistan sides of the territory. Yet it is obvious that India would not give up its control over the Kashmir valley. And just as India has had difficulty thinking of what it would offer, Pakistan also has had a hard time articulating what it would be satisfied with short of Kashmir. Given the current predicament, it is difficult to be optimistic that the peace process will move much beyond initial pleasantries. However, the two sides can aim to maintain the current thaw in their relations. Outsiders, and especially the U.S., can help. Washington should push toward greater internal political and institutional reforms in Pakistan to help the country's leaders better visualize a future of peaceful co-existence with India. The U.S. meanwhile should reassure India that it will deal strongly with terrorism emanating from Pakistan, whether directed at Afghanistan or at India. Many in India are worried about the lack of concern that the Obama administration has shown toward Indian security interests. It doesn't help that the administration initially suggested that the resolution of the Kashmir problem would figure prominently in its agenda as a means to cajoling Pakistan to devote more energies to fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Rightly or wrongly, New Delhi interpreted that as a sign Washington would push for greater Indian concessions. By allaying these concerns, Washington could make it politically possible for New Delhi to come to the table. As ineffective as new talks are likely to be right now, India and Pakistan do not have to be at each other's throats in perpetuity. But the key to a lasting peace will be to understand why current talks won't work. Mr. Pant is a professor of defense studies at King's College London.