Missing the Mark on Indo-Pak

On May 19, two days after the Congress Party-led coalition government won a resounding re-election victory in India, the New York Times ran an editorial arguing that "it is past time for India -- stronger both economically and in international stature -- to find a way to resolve tensions with Pakistan over Kashmir" and that "Kashmir can no longer be ignored." The editorial also stated that "India has played a constructive role in helping rebuild Afghanistan, but it must take steps to allay Islamabad's concerns that this is a plan to encircle Pakistan." It concluded with the statement, "The Congress Party has to do better -- starting with Pakistan."

The editorial's arguments are flawed in a number of ways. To begin with, it is highly unlikely that the Kashmir dispute will be solved in the near future. The Kashmir conflict is more about national identity than about territory. India sees Muslim-majority Kashmir as a symbol of its secular identity. Pakistan's founder Mohammed Ali Jinnah rejected the secular nationalism of the leaders of the Indian independence movement and argued that the Hindus and Muslims of the subcontinent are two distinct nations and that the Muslims must have their own separate state. For Pakistan to concede that a Muslim-majority state contiguous with it can be a part of India would be to reject the basis of its creation. These conceptions of national identity are mutually exclusive. While claiming all of Kashmir to belong to it, India's unofficial bottom is turning the line of control, the ceasefire line that divides Indian and Pakistani parts of Kashmir, into an international border. Pakistan's unofficial bottom line is an end to Indian-rule over the Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley, which compromises 17% of the area of Indian Kashmir. India wants negotiations on Kashmir to get Pakistan to accept the status quo, while Pakistan wants them to get India to alter it.

The reasoning of the editorial is backwards. It is Pakistan, not India, that can "do better" on the Kashmir issue. Modern norms of statehood dictate that states do not willingly give up territory they control, especially not to nations that are weaker than them. Moreover, given the diversity of India and the variety of secessionist movements that it faces, it would be hard to fathom India's conceding to substantially altering the status quo. By contrast, as I have argued in my book From Jinnah to Jihad: Pakistan's Kashmir Quest and the Limits of Realism, Pakistan's quest to end Indian rule over the Kashmir Valley is difficult to make sense of on the basis of cost-benefit analysis. The area has little strategic importance to Pakistan, Pakistan has almost no chance of obtaining it against a much stronger power (not by war or mere militant attacks) and its economy is being destroyed by military confrontation with India, which also threatens its security. Support for Islamic militancy in Kashmir has led to the strengthening of Islamic extremist groups in Pakistan, which gravely threaten the state.

Were Pakistan to permanently abandon its support for cross border terrorism in Kashmir (a promise it has made many times but not lived up to) and refrain from pursuing a confrontational policy with India over Kashmir, its fears of an Indian threat of war would be abated and as would its sense of insecurity. The militant Islamic groups would also be weakened in Pakistan itself. The "rational" policy for Islamabad to pursue on Kashmir would be to "agree to disagree," rejecting India's rule over the Kashmir Valley but not openly pursuing confrontation.

The Pakistani military, Washington's favorite institution to deal with in Islamabad, however, views pursuing conflict with India as a means to dominate the country's political system, undermine civilian political parties and justify an enormous defense budget. As Husain Haqqani, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace and now Pakistan's ambassador to the US has noted, "Pakistan's military has traditionally drawn its legitimacy from the fact that it is the defender of Pakistan against the existential threat from India and that it is the institution that will get Kashmir for Pakistan. If the existential threat from India [was] acknowledged as no longer real and that the issue of Kashmir [was] already settled, the Pakistani military would lose its legitimacy as the arbiter of the nation's destiny." Both Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto's and Nawaz Sharif's attempts to improve relations with India were undercut by the military.

Pressuring New Delhi to negotiate on Kashmir can actually have the reverse effect of encouraging rather than eliminating conflict in South Asia. After all, the belief that the US would intervene on its behalf in solving the Kashmir dispute has been driving Pakistan's support for militancy. Were Washington to indicate to Islamabad that it would not intervene on its behalf, Islamabad might see the folly of supporting militancy. Furthermore, any redrawing of borders on the basis of religion could lead to religious violence and the strengthening of Hindu extremists in India.

With regards to Afghanistan, it is certainly important that the US works to ensure that the government in Kabul is not too partial or hostile to any country in the region. It is true that in certain areas Washington can show more sensitivity to Pakistani interests. For example, as Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment notes, Islamabad has been uneasy with Washington's calculated neglect of the Ghilzai Pashutns, its clients in Afghanistan. However, the fundamental problem in Afghanistan is that Islamabad continues to see the Taliban as a strategic asset rather than as threat. Despite taking billions of dollars of aid from Washington, Islamabad has actually worked to undermine American interests in Afghanistan by continuing to support the Taliban. According to David Sanger, the Chief Washington Correspondent for the New York Times and the author of The Inheritance, US intelligence officials intercepted a call in the summer of 2008 by Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Kayani where he declared that Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani was a "strategic asset." American officials subsequently tracked calls from the Pakistani military warning Haqqani of coming attacks on his forces. According to the New York Times, US intelligence officials have concluded that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI, planned the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008 on the basis of intercepted phone calls between ISI members and the attackers. Officials believe that it was likely Haqqani's network that carried out the attack.

Even if the US were to show the utmost sensitivity towards Pakistani interests and concerns about Indian encirclement in Afghanistan, Pakistan would still not be completely satisfied because the idea of "strategic depth" remains a cornerstone of its foreign policy. According to this notion, Pakistan needs a puppet regime in Kabul so it can have a place to retreat to in the case of a war against India. Given the fact that the jihadi forces now pose a much greater threat to the Pakistani state than India does and that Pakistan can abate tensions with India by ending its support for cross border terrorism, the strategic sense of this policy is highly questionable. More importantly, Pakistan's nuclear weapons act as a much more effective deterrent against Indian aggression than merely having a puppet regime in Kabul ever could. Thus, rather than simply catering to Pakistani desires in Afghanistan, which are at odds with our interests, we should be working more closely with other countries that share our fears of the Taliban, such as India, the Central Asian states, Russia and even Iran. In particular, India has played a positive role in the rebuilding of Afghanistan by helping to construct schools, roads, hospitals and power lines.

In summary, the problem in South Asia is not Indian intransigence, as the New York Times editorial board seems to think, but the policies espoused by Pakistan's military establishment, which not only threaten to further destabilize South Asia and undermine American interests but, more importantly, make Pakistan itself much more insecure.