Underlying Problems in South Asia

The CBS reporter Monday morning – I didn’t catch the name, coming in at the end of the report – was probably not conscious of implicitly endorsing a theory of international relations and political action, and one without a whole lot of evidence behind it. Discussing the fact that the presidents of India and Pakistan would be at the same conference Monday but would not be talking directly to one another, the reporter said (paraphrasing slightly) something like "that void of diplomacy has been filled by violence and hatred."

Now imagine what a world it would be if we were to look at the assumptions that would have to underlie such a comment and tease out the implications. Is it true that whenever there is a dearth of diplomacy – whenever the striped-pants set is not gripping, grinning and laboring behind the scenes – that violence and hatred, always bubbling under the surface unless the sterling members of the "international community" are being not just active but proactive, is virtually inevitable?

A moment’s reflection should reveal that this is not only not the case in every instance, it is seldom the case. I live in a neighborhood that is almost completely devoid of official supervision – the police drift through only when called, there’s no flying squad of professional mediators, no particularly visible official presence, a city council that would rather squabble and negotiate deals than try to rule us day-to-day – and almost completely devoid of conflict or hard feelings. If the implicit assumption were true that violence flows in when there’s a "void" of diplomacy, I would be afraid to go home at night without a weapon in my glove box.


I suspect that’s true of thousands of neighborhoods around the world. Hatred, violence and political divisions are not the natural state of mankind, kept in check only through the tireless exertions of wise rulers and diplomats. They have particular roots in history, the exertions of political leaders using disreputable means to gain support, attacks by others, and sometimes in ethnic or national differences.

If we are to have any hope at all of building a more peaceful world, it is important to acknowledge this. It is not simply a lack of diplomatic attention from wise superpowers that leads to cross-border and ethnic conflict, at least not very often. Concentrated attention from the representatives of the superpowers, therefore, is seldom the sovereign cure for brewing hostility. Imagining that just a bit more attention from the responsible members of the world community will ease the latest tensions, then, is often a formula for disaster, making matters worse rather than better.

It would be helpful to keep all this in mind as U.S. Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld is sent to India and Pakistan to defuse tensions this week.


In the case of India and Pakistan, there is not only the tension – perhaps an understatement in that it has included three shooting wars – that has existed since the British left the subcontinent and the old Raj was partitioned between predominantly Muslim Pakistan and predominantly Hindu India. There are genuine disagreements over the future of Kashmir, the gorgeous mountain region. And the sense of mutual tension rises very close to the level of each nation being seen as an ever-present threat to the fundamental interests of the other. In a sense, the very existence of one is a recurring or ongoing insult and irritant to the other.

From India’s perspective, as Stratfor.com has recently pointed out, "Pakistan represents the only serious national security challenge." To the east are thick jungles and weak countries. To the north, the Himalayas offer fairly strong security from any realistic threat from the Chinese. To the south is the Indian Ocean, dominated militarily by the United States, which doesn’t present a threat to India. Only Pakistan is a real threat.

Furthermore, the Pakistani-Indian frontier is also, in a fairly real way, the border between the Hindu and the Islamic worlds. If the Islamic world ever does unite politically – which Muslims are always talking about and so far haven’t managed to do and might never do – the marginal irritant represented by Pakistan could become a serious threat. Imagine a militant Pakistan actually united with Iran, Saudi Arabia, et. al., and the money, power and military might such an alliance might be able to muster. A nuke in the hands of Pervez Musharraf might start to look like the good old days of easy challenges.


One might think, given that India is so much larger and has so much more military potential, that Pakistan would seek accommodation with India. But several circumstances prevent this – or at least have up to now. Pakistani governments have perceived (and perhaps not just because of irrational fear) that India over the long haul seeks to dismember Pakistan. Thus they view any concession to India as a step toward accomplishing India’s long-term goals, not Pakistan’s, and also as steps that would weaken Pakistani ability to resist the next step.

Pakistan is also divided ethnically and religiously. At the time of partition its rulers were religiously Muslim but essentially secular, as the first modern non-British rulers of India were Hindu but secular in their philosophy of governance. But a powerful Islamic fundamentalist movement has arisen, partly because of the Pakistani government’s involvement in Afghan politics and partly for other reasons. The existence of that movement, which has already been somewhat destabilizing to Pakistani governance, makes it even more difficult for a Pakistani government to reach accommodations with India, even if it were inclined to do so, which it isn’t.

Therefore Pakistan has spent the last 50-plus years rather consciously avoiding anything that might lead to a comprehensive settlement with India.


Pakistan has pursued this course largely through military means. It has created a military designed to make it tough for India to invade. Terrain has been an advantage here, but the kinds of forces and weapons have been chosen with deterrence to India in mind. It has also developed nuclear weapons, not only to counter India’s nuclear capability but as a kind of deterrent of last resort. Should an Indian invasion start to succeed – and splitting the Kashmir frontier might be militarily feasible – the nuke would be the ultimate trump card.

Finally, Islamabad has both allowed paramilitary groups to operate from Kashmir and elsewhere against Indian interests, and probably has subsidized and/or supported them. It is unclear (at least to me) to what extent the Pakistani government actually controls these groups. It does seem clear that really clamping down on them, as both India and the United States insist Islamabad must do, would risk serious domestic opposition and perhaps even destabilization.

The problem with this implicit support for guerrilla operations against India is that the operations significantly increase the likelihood of Indian military action. Pakistan doesn’t really want to provoke an attack by India, so its leaders alternate between tough talk and sweet talk.


The entrance of the United States as a big player in the region after September 11 actually complicated what had been a tense but essentially stable situation. The U.S. considered it important to get Pakistani support for the war to oust the Taliban (which had to a great extent been installed by Pakistani intelligence but had become uppity), and Musharraf made all the right noises. Now that al Qaida and other fighters have apparently retreated into mountain fastnesses in Pakistan, the United States considers Pakistani cooperation – at least to the point of letting U.S. forces operate without raising an overt fuss – more important than ever.

The U.S. used Indian outrage over an attack on the Indian parliament in December to gain more leverage in Pakistan, while appearing in public to be trying to defuse the situation. The U.S. has also made it known that it might be prepared to take over physical control of or destroy Pakistan’s nukes. All this has given Musharraf less and less room to maneuver, both domestically and internationally, at a time when the Islamic groups’ interest is to destabilize the region, and ideally to precipitate an Indo-Pak war.

All this has weakened Pakistan vis-à-vis India and helped to make a lot more Indian officials think that if India is ever going to act militarily against Pakistan, it is unlikely to have more favorable circumstances than it does now. So to some extent, at least, the imminent current tensions the United States is trying to address have been caused by U.S. meddling in the area – all well-intentioned, of course, but unintended consequences are one of the few constants in an inconstant world.


So: The Pakistani interest is to keep needling India without provoking a war. The Indian interest is to handle the Pakistani problem – perhaps by counterguerrilla activities against militant Pakistani-backed-or-tolerated groups in Kashmir, perhaps by an attack that would divide and dismember Pakistan. But the United States has no interest in Pakistan (which is already fragmented and only loosely controlled from Islamabad) being dismembered, which would make parts of the country virtual safe havens for al Qaida fighters.

If India were to attack, it would almost certainly want to launch a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan’s nuclear capability. That would be easier with U.S. cooperation, but the U.S. might not have any interest in an Indian attack, especially since it would probably strengthen al Qaida.

So we have three countries armed with nuclear weapons (no, I don’t think the U.S. is the least bit likely to use them in that part of the world, but it does have them) and profoundly conflicting interests. It isn’t just a matter of being a place where there is a "void" of diplomatic contact. The void of diplomatic contact is a symptom, not a cause, of more fundamental underlying strategic conflicts.

It will be fascinating to see if Mr. Rumsfeld can sweet-talk and bluster the situation into anything resembling even a stable stalemate, which seems the most optimistic projection about now.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).