Building On The Indo-Pak Thaw

The welcome commitment made by General Pervez Musharraf to "permanently" stop infiltration of jehadi militants across the Line of Control in Kashmir, and the "calibrated", but tiny, steps announced by New Delhi in reciprocation, have created a new, positive situation: The grim threat of war has receded somewhat; and there is reason to hope that India and Pakistan could begin serious bilateral efforts for peace and reconciliation. This is arguably the first significant thaw in India-Pakistan relations since they were badly vitiated after September 11. India must seize the moment and convert the new opening into a breakthrough. To do so, Indian policy-makers must disabuse themselves of a few half-truths and fallacious beliefs.

Three of these are important. First, that a "determined" India, acting independently and ignoring the global counsel for restraint, made Pakistan blink. India’s "coercive diplomacy" worked only because it was backed by 700,000 troops all ready to strike. Second, New Delhi not only called Islamabad’s "nuclear bluff"; it has itself dramatically broken out of the "mental block" imposed by nuclear deterrence. Finally, India should capitalise on its advantage by shifting the goalposts in its Pakistan relationship. It can now act in Kashmir as it likes, unfettered by "cross-border terrorism".

The reality is more complex and many-sided. Pakistan has indeed executed a major shift of stance. Not only did it admit to something that it has strenuously denied for 13 years: its support for cross-border infiltration. It agreed to cease this permanently and verifiably – without conditions. This came about more through mediation or "facilitation" by the US and the UK than directly, through Islamabad’s capitulation before India’s show of strength.

This mediation, by whatever name, has been rather visible: with US officials talking turn by turn virtually daily to Mr Atal Behari Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf, or shuttling between their two capitals, carrying or delivering messages, including the specific language in which de-escalation formulas are couched.

Gen Musharraf blinked. It is not New Delhi which stared him down. It was Washington. Once Islamabad saw the tide turning against it at the end of May, it brandished the nuclear sword – through senior diplomat Munir Akram’s statement that "India should not have the licence to kill with conventional weapons while Pakistan’s hands are tied…" This only strengthened the tide. Pakistan was widely seen to have overplayed its hand. It lost whatever sympathy it enjoyed.

To be fair, India’s massive show of military strength did play a role in the drama. But that role was at best minor. International opinion favoured India not because it was impressed by its military might or nuclear brinkmanship, but because it saw India as the "aggrieved party" (Armitage), a country where scores of civilians are routinely killed by fidayeen militants with utter contempt for life. It is because India was able to produce some evidence of Pakistan’s routine, general involvement in the infiltration of such militants through the ISI – and because it invited the US to verify this – that Washington mounted intense pressure on Islamabad to stop the border crossing.

It is open to question if India could have persuaded the international community to intervene with non-military means, including resort to the United Nations Security Council, and to further diplomatic measures, instead of expensive and risky military muscle-flexing. But it is beyond question that both India and Pakistan indulged in rank brinkmanship to the point of alarming and frightening the world about the likelihood of war breaking out in "the world’s most dangerous place". Pakistani official statements, as well as the peculiarity of the sub-continent’s military balance and the logic of conflict escalation, convinced many in the world that war, once it broke out, would escalate to the nuclear level.

In the final instance, it is because nuclear war is everybody’s business that the world, specifically the US, intervened to defuse the situation. This is nuclear "deterrence at a distance", working indirectly, circuitously – but perhaps even more unstably and fallibly than Superpower deterrence during the Cold War. Call it what you will, but the crucial importance of the nuclear factor in the subcontinent cannot be denied.

Nor can it be claimed that India successfully "called Pakistan’s nuclear bluff". Pakistan, as this Column argued last week, was not bluffing. Its nuclear doctrine, and its strategic asymmetry with India, predisposes it towards a nuclear first attack – within a "use-them-or-lose-them" calculation. Thus, each one of the war-gaming exercises by strategic think-tanks – including India’s own – concludes with a nuclear exchange scenario.

Many people in South Asia have become smug and insensitive to this dangerous likelihood – simply because they are unaware of just how destructive nuclear weapons are, and also because India and Pakistan did actually fight a conventional conflict at Kargil three years ago; nuclear war didn’t break out then. Ergo, it isn’t likely to happen now!

This reasoning misreads both history and the deterrence doctrine. Even in conventional military thinking, wars are premised not upon high probabilities, but mere possibilities. States maintain big armies and spend billions on them every year not because wars happen every year but because they might – some time. Kargil came very close to the nuclear precipice. In 1990 too, Pakistan threatened a nuclear strike in case India launched a conventional attack in retaliation to Operation Zarb-i-Momin.

Nuclear deterrence is flawed not because it never works, but because it works unreliably. Its failure has unspeakably disastrous consequences. Deterrence can break down because of miscalculation, misperception of the adversary’s intentions, by accident, or simply because combatants have divergent perceptions of how much damage they can inflict/bear and how much is "unacceptable". We cannot assume that not only our generals, but theirs too, will always think rationally. I have interviewed Pakistani officers who think their country can "absorb" one, two, ten Hiroshimas, and still survive!

Nobody has summed up the widespread adverse perception of the India-Pakistan stand-off better than novelist Salman Rushdie. He says: "Both sides are locked into old language, old strategies and an old game of chicken that’s currently playing itself out across the LoC. Like two aged wrestlers fighting on a cliff, India and Pakistan are locked together, rolling ever closer to the edge. …These old pathetic fighters must be pulled apart, and soon."

That’s precisely what happened. Rather than foolishly claim triumph for our "coercive diplomacy", we must thank our stars that war didn’t break out. The next time around, we may not be so lucky. To prevent being all reduced to radioactive dust, we must enlarge the opening provided by last fortnight’s events. New Delhi can best do so by rapidly de-escalating the border build-up, and fully restoring diplomatic relations and communication links with Pakistan. Any indication that it is dragging its feet, or cannot decide how much is "too much too soon" and how much "too little too late", will erode sympathy for it.

Two issues have now become critical: who monitors and verifies that there is no cross-border infiltration, and what stand India takes on Kashmir once a dialogue with Pakistan begins, as is inevitable. India can’t be both the complainant and the judge as regards the cessation of infiltration. It must allow neutral, external, multilateral monitoring and verification. Here lies the crunch. India is proposing joint patrolling with Pakistan, but Islamabad sees that as a prelude to making the LoC a permanent boundary, thus cheating it of a negotiated deal on Kashmir. It rejected that idea 30 years ago. Pakistan would like the UN Military Observer Group (UNMOGIP), set up in 1948 and now reduced to a token existence, to be expanded to play that role. New Delhi sees that as a way to "internationalise the Kashmir issue", something it has opposed tooth and nail.

Perhaps the best compromise lies in creating a multilateral body, composed of a number of governments and non-governmental organisations like Verification Technology Information Council and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This does mean some external involvement. But it would be ostrich-like to pretend that Kashmir now remains a purely bilateral issue. It has become "everybody’s issue". Unlike in the past, the Indian position on Kashmir is no longer viewed with universal suspicion or hostility. The "multilateral solution" is far preferable to proposals like US-UK Special Operations surveillance, with their obvious political-military biases.

However, New Delhi must evolve a well-considered Kashmir policy: halting armed repression of dissent, demilitarising daily life, rebuilding popular trust, and promoting a culture of peace. It shouldn’t cite the Shimla agreement to insist on bilateralism, and then refuse a serious dialogue with Islamabad – as it has done for 30 years, including the 18 years when "cross-border" militants weren’t breathing down its neck.

Nor must the Central and state governments play political games to thwart truly free and fair elections in which all currents of opinion take part. On this, the indications so far are largely negative: witness Syed Ali Shah Geelani’s arrest under POTA, journalist Iftekhar Geelani’s harassment, and the toughening official posture against a dialogue with the Hurriyat. If India doesn’t get its Kashmir act together, today’s sustained gains will be quickly lost.

Author: Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai is a New Delhi-based political analyst and peace activist, a columnist with twenty-five Indian newspapers and co-author (with Achin Vanaik) of New Nukes: India, Pakistan and Global Nuclear Disarmament. He shared the International Peace Bureau's Sean MacBride International Peace Prize for 2000 with Vanaik.