The act of geographically dividing a people on an untested “two nation theory,” ignoring a shared multi-cultural heritage dating back centuries, was bound to have consequences beyond anything that political scientists could have imagined. This cataclysmic event resulted in the creation of a country based on religion, with two halves separated by thousands of kilometers, mass transborder migration of the population, division of families, untold bloodshed, and the poignant division of militaries that shared a common military history and tradition. Not surprisingly, the aftermath of this painful experiment in human history continues to haunt India–Pakistan relations and now threatens regions well beyond.
Pakistan continues to receive generous military and economic aid, its military dictatorships were condoned and promoted, its nuclear proliferation activities studiously ignored, and its waging of a proxy war against India…
As estranged neighbors, the two have fought three wars plus the Kargil conflict, of which one war resulted in the birth of Bangladesh and the burial of the original misguided theory. Today, both are nuclear weapon states, and while India remains the largest democracy in the world, Pakistan’s experiment with democracy remains patchy.
Over the decades, Pakistan has helped further U.S. interests as a bulwark against communism during the Cold War, break the ice with China, reverse the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and now fight the al Qaeda and Taliban both in Afghanistan and within its borders. For this, Pakistan has extracted a heavy price. It continues to receive generous military and economic aid, its military dictatorships were condoned and promoted, its nuclear proliferation activities studiously ignored, and its waging of a proxy war against India in Kashmir glossed over as a freedom struggle.
But the Pakistan state also paid a heavy price. Its polity and democratic institutions decayed, its military and intelligence agencies became politicized, and the seeds of religious fundamentalism were sown to breed a new generation brought up on hatred and jihad towards non-believers in general and India in particular.
Buoyed by the apparent indifference of the U.S. and its allies, the Pakistan military – the ultimate arbiter of power within the country – ventured into uncharted territory by promoting terrorism as an instrument of state policy to bleed India “through a thousand cuts” and to establish strategic depth in Afghanistan through the creation of the Taliban and other terrorist organizations. Ironically, the inspiration for this hydra-headed monster was the mujahideen fighters (erstwhile creatures of U.S. and Pakistan intelligence agencies to thwart the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), who have now mushroomed into various terrorist outfits spanning the region. Today, distinctions between these different outfits and the good and bad Taliban are meaningless, as all are fused ideologically and operationally. Now when terrorist rhetoric speaks of destroying the “Crusader-Zionist-Hindu-alliance,” the chickens are coming home to roost!
It is too late to hope that India and Pakistan can reverse their estranged relationship, as the U.S. pretends to believe. Governments on either side are now hostage to their respective constituencies and are the problem rather than the solution. Pakistan is hostage to the “two nation theory” and believes in a solution through terror. The nation is not reconciled to an India with a huge Muslim population as its equal or peer, or even the more influential Indian Muslim population in the eyes of much of the world, in view of its avowed secularism. Elected Indian governments, hampered by coalition constraints and sensitive to third party involvement, are seen as being too soft on Pakistan-inspired terror and too pliable to U.S. pressures. The U.S. and others that watched, and at times even encouraged, the militarizing of Pakistan’s polity and its flirting with terror hope that the issues can be resolved bilaterally, even as they plan hasty exit strategies from Afghanistan, giving the Pakistan military and its terrorist creations cause to celebrate!
Conventional conflicts are being replaced by sub-national and terrorist induced ones. We are faced with an ideological war that is of mind over matter, where smart weapons are pitted against human bombs and where the battle front is our backyard.
It was 9/11 that brought the realization to the international community that events in the distant Indian sub-continent had adverse implications for the entire world. Today, Pakistan faces an existential threat and is concerned that it may be heading towards a failed nuclear state. Were this to happen, security would be imperiled not just on the subcontinent, but also across the globe. It behooves not only India and Pakistan but also the entire international community to coordinate international action to snuff out the ever-growing monster of terrorism originating in Pakistan and the Af-Pak region. Once this cancer is eliminated, India and Pakistan can focus attention on bilateral issues and respective development priorities.
Mutual understanding and trust is the first key to any future endeavor amongst the dominant players – namely the U.S., India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This is easier said than done in an international environment where perceived short term national interests override international ones. But mindsets across the international diplomatic and security landscape need to take the changed reality into consideration. Conventional conflicts are being replaced by sub-national and terrorist induced ones. We are faced with an ideological war that is of mind over matter, where smart weapons are pitted against human bombs and where the battle front is our backyard. When civilized societies begin to live under the shadow of terror, there is need to revisit conventional notions of national interests, international diplomacy, security strategy and tactics. This is a challenge to democracies across the globe.
Notwithstanding its very long and close military ties with Pakistan and being its principal financier, the U.S. must reflect on why it is not trusted by a majority of Pakistani people. While warming relations with India are a relatively recent phenomenon, the U.S. has always enjoyed genuine goodwill amongst its people. Yet Indian public opinion remains guarded about U.S. involvement as a third party interlocutor in India–Pakistan relations because the U.S. has pampered a wayward Pakistan military for decades. If U.S. policymakers see a constructive role for themselves in the region, then they would need to be cognizant of these sub-continental sentiments and their historical roots.
If the international community is endangered by terrorism originating from Pakistan and the Af- Pak region, then it is for the U.S. and its allies, India and Pakistan to sit together as interested parties and begin a dialogue towards building mutual understanding and trust shorn of parochialism. This first step could become a stepping stone towards starving international terrorism of its oxygen, stabilizing the Af-Pak region, ushering a rapprochement between India and Pakistan, and furthering international peace and nuclear disarmament goals. Along the way, India and Pakistan can address their bilateral issues in a manner befitting democracies. If this notion seems utopian and impractical, then the trailer of alternatives is already unfolding before our eyes and the worst is yet to come.
Popular perception amongst the international community for continuing poor relations between India and Pakistan, and one strongly advocated by Pakistan, is that once the issue of Kashmir is resolved to their satisfaction all will be well. This would reduce a complex and multidimensional relationship borne out of a turbulent history to a uni-dimensional territorial issue. This misunderstanding that has failed to result in any substantive improvement in the India- Pakistan relationship.
The Pakistan military needs India as an “enemy” to feed its hold on unfettered power over its own people – including its elected governments.
Today, international cricket matches between the two countries take on the dimension of a sporting war. Cricketers are idolized irrespective of the country they represent. Cricket is literally worshipped by millions on the sub-continent and is as good a barometer of the sentiment between the two peoples as arts, literature, cinema, theatre, media and indeed across the entire societal space. Cricket provides a sentiment with mutual admiration and respect across national frontiers and an unfulfilled desire to share and build on this deep cultural heritage. Experts in international relations often miss this complex and emotive mindset unique to the sub-continent.
Ideally, one should have added the two militaries to this list of positives, as they enjoy a common history and lineage. Not doing so is deliberate, because with passing years, politics, religion, commerce, terrorist leanings, and a pathological hatred for India have penetrated the psyche of the Pakistan military. The Pakistan military needs India as an “enemy” to feed its hold on unfettered power over its own people – including its elected governments. Indeed, bringing the Pakistan military back into this equation is a prerequisite if goodwill and rapprochement are to stand a chance.
Recall that both the Pakistan and Indian militaries are borne out of the Royal Indian Armed Forces of colonial India and are inheritors of the finest that the military traditions have to offer. Even their division was achieved with discipline, unlike the civilian bloodshed that followed partition of India. Military traditions that evolved out of sacrifice and glory do not lend themselves to easy erosion. A crucial link for rapprochement between the two countries is for the two militaries to once again look upon each other as defenders of their respective democracies in the finest tradition of militaries and to develop a healthy professional relationship. It is only the U.S., with its long-standing alliance and influence with the Pakistan military, that can nudge this institution into becoming a professional military, thereby severing its umbilical cord with international terrorism and hatred of India.
Waiting to be unshackled by the above keys of mutual understanding, trust and professionalizing the Pakistan military is the “people to people” relationship. This relationship is a natural relationship that has remained a victim of sub-continental politics and one which, when unleashed, will progressively wipe clean a painful chapter of history and replace it with the deeper cultural and common heritage that spans many generations. Just as the artificial division of a common heritage has created multiple fault lines too difficult to be resolved by diplomatic or military means, so also the solutions must be for this “people to people” relationship to unfold in its own native breadth, pace, and style. Neither governments nor the international community should attempt to drive the process and none must expect instantaneous results.
Even as this experiment at building trust, friendship, and military professionalism continues, democratic governments on both sides must become facilitators and guarantors of the process.
From times immemorial, trade and commerce have seen people, goods, and services move across the South Asian sub-continent to Afghanistan and Iran, promoting commerce and bringing people, cultures, and faiths of different regions closer to each other. The Grand Trunk road, known to European travelers of the 17th century as the “Long Walk,” spanned the sub-continent from present-day Bangladesh to Afghanistan and is a living memorial to this past. A beneficial corollary to any thaw in relations will be the reopening of this historical trade and commerce relationship. Entrepreneurs and business interests on both sides know only too well the route’s potential and how best to exploit it. They need to be left to their own genius to unleash it.
Even as this experiment at building trust, friendship, and military professionalism continues, democratic governments on both sides must become facilitators and guarantors of the process. From these will emerge indigenous ideas and solutions to bilateral issues like Kashmir or render them irrelevant. It is solutions thrown up from within democratic governments that will have a chance of permanency. Even as this process is unfolding, vested interests will create obstacles. Two neighboring democracies, aware of the painful past and now trusting of each other, can best manage this fallout bilaterally.
Being the most powerful democracy with access to India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and being a co-victim of terror and one that shares some responsibility to where Pakistan and Afghanistan stand today, the U.S. is best suited to play a leadership role in helping wipe out the source of regional and international terrorism. This calls for determination and open diplomatic engagement with the affected states.
Recent events, however, are cause for concern. Being a directly affected party, India was neither invited to the Istanbul summit on Afghanistan nor were its views considered at the London conference. With an exit timeframe in place, President Obama co-opted China as a partner in stabilizing South Asia in his joint statement with the Chinese President. Clearly, history is repeating itself, but with one exception: the Middle Kingdom is now ready to play its own version of the Great Game. Indian policy makers would do well to read the signals and plan strategies to defend what in the future may be a lonely outpost for democracy in a deeply troubled region – from which will leave no shores untouched!