Polaris | My Presentation at the Atlantic Council

I participated in a panel discussion earlier today (Tuesday, July 26) at the Atlantic Council of the United States in Washington DC. Below is the full text of my remarks. During the discussion that followed the four presentations, I elaborated upon India’s position on U.S. intervention on Kashmir, on India’s presence in Afghanistan, and on the Cold Start doctrine, and also fielded questions on China’s potential role and the supposed ‘trust deficit’ between the two sides.

Thank you, Tom, and thanks to Shuja Nawaz, Shikha Bhatnagar, and the Atlantic Council for organizing this event and inviting me to participate. I would like to begin with two caveats. First, nothing I say should be construed as the position of my employer. These are solely my personal views. Second, I want to clarify at the outset that, unlike others on this panel, I am not an expert on Pakistan. I will therefore limit my remarks, to the extent possible, to India-Pakistan relations and U.S. regional policy as seen from an Indian perspective. I want to use my time to make a set of four interrelated points – or propositions – some of which Tom already alluded to, before addressing possible implications for U.S. policy.

My first proposition is simple: the general characterization in the United States of India-Pakistan relations – particularly India’s position – has ossified since the 1990s, even though both India and Indian foreign policy have altered radically in that same period. Mirror-imaging – the assumption that attitudes and actions are similar on both sides – is therefore a common fallacy. But India is no longer an insecure, autarkic state obsessing about zero-sum competition with Pakistan. Today, it is reluctant to intervene militarily in its neighboring states – witness Nepal, where Indian interests were directly under threat. It has little to gain from seizing Pakistani territory and nothing from its dismemberment. India’s leaders are fully aware that military aggression and conflict threatens the Indian growth story. Moreover, nuclearization has created strategic stability. There is more than $50bn in trade today between India and China, up from almost no trade in 1998, despite their outstanding boundary dispute. And after 2002, India’s leaders are fully conscious of the limitations of conventional military force in a nuclearized and globalized environment. India has not fully mobilized its military in almost a decade, despite terrorist attacks of greater severity than the 2001 parliament attack, including many with clear links to elements operating in Pakistan. In fact, we can largely attribute the last decade’s peace in the region – by which I mean an absence of limited inter-state war – to this transformation in Indian behavior. I am not making a case for Indian moral superiority. Its history is littered with bad intentions. But I do want to underscore that India’s more benign and restrained behavior over the past decade stems from self-interests the prioritize stability over instability.

My second proposition is that, many aspects of India-Pakistan confrontation and competition – particularly the Kashmir dispute – are symptoms rather than root causes. If Kashmir were to be resolved tomorrow, there is no guarantee that other outstanding problems between the two countries will dissipate. Kashmir alone does not explain the nature of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, when foreigners were deliberately targeted, or Pakistani-supported terror attacks against Indian interests in Afghanistan, or al Qaeda’s presence in Pakistan, or nuclear relations with North Korea and Iran. Pakistan’s purported insecurities related to India’s economic growth and military modernization are not going to go away. Consequently periodic U.S. attempts at intervention or mediation are not just dangerous from India’s standpoint – and I can get into why that is in the Q&A – they are of little use to solving the region’s many security problems.

My third point is that a number of developments often associated with India-Pakistan competition – Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal, India’s military modernization, and Pakistan’s support for certain terrorist groups – have only loose, tenuous linkages to the India-Pakistan dynamic. I already mentioned al Qaeda. As Bruce Riedel, among others, has suggested, the increase in Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is arguably directed as much at Washington than at New Delhi. And many analyses of Indian arms acquisitions, particularly by Pakistanis, fail to account for China. In such cases it would do us well to think outside the narrow confines of India-Pakistan security competition.

My final point, flowing somewhat from my previous three, is that the ball is now in Pakistan’s court, as the region’s first-order problems lie within it, rather than between India and Pakistan. Unless Pakistan can begin to behave like a mature, responsible state – by which I mean a state accountable to its people and the international community – meaningful normalization between the two sides will be all but impossible. India today finds itself in much the same boat as Washington vis-à-vis Pakistan: broadly desirous of a unified, democratic, stable Pakistan at peace with itself and its neighbors, and no longer home to a terrorist infrastructure that compromises Indian, American, Afghan and, yes, even Pakistani interests. The difference, of course, is that India has a convenient history of animosity with Pakistan, and unlike Washington has almost no form of coercive leverage, whether economic or military.

But much like the U.S., India is confronted with multiple power centers, indecision and duplicity. In other words, while Indian equities have changed, there is little indication that the same can be said for the other side of the Radcliffe Line. A state of permanent crisis with India supports the private interests of several key individuals and institutions in Pakistan. I refer, of course, to the security forces and its allies of convenience in the civilian government. Unless those interests alter – unless the constituencies for normalization in Pakistan permanently marginalize the constituencies of crisis – the current peace process has no hope of succeeding, and we would be foolish to expect any major gains. The official Pakistani reactions after the Osama bin Laden raid or the 2008 Mumbai attacks are particularly illustrative in this regard. Like many other incidents in recent years they were characterized by an absence of accountability, investigation, and cooperation. To extend an analogy made by Steve Cohen, anyone should be expected to help a neighbor whose house is on fire; but it is far more difficult if that neighbor is an arsonist.

So what can – and should – the United States do to target the root causes of regional tension? While Indians might be irritated, they are also broadly sympathetic to Washington’s limitations. One modest proposal is that the United States should consistently challenge – with the intention of completely reversing – certain pernicious national narratives in Pakistan. So far, the U.S. response has been piecemeal. For example, Pakistan is indeed a victim of terrorism, but that does not absolve it of harboring terrorist groups that target India or Afghanistan. Washington could also display a lower tolerance for media manipulation by the Pakistani security forces. It allows India and the United States to be unfairly blamed for a litany of problems, and deflects responsibility from the Pakistani leadership, and with it any sense of accountability. Washington could contest the Pakistani view that its activities are propelled by fears of Indian encirclement, Indian arms acquisitions, the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and Cold Start. Whatever insecurities they might cause Pakistan, they do not justify a state run by an army, Pakistani nuclear proliferation, or its harboring of terrorist groups. The activities or stature of Indian intelligence are not comparable to Pakistan’s, nor is India a revisionist power. So far, the failure to contest these narratives legitimizes them, thus perpetuating false expectations and bad behavior.

I’d like to end on a cautionary note. One striking trend of the past few years is that the frequently unkind and perhaps unfair Indian caricature of Pakistan – as a predatory and morally bankrupt state that is an incubator of transnational terrorism – is now shared by a much wider proportion of the international community, including many in the United States, Europe, and even Pakistan’s all-weather friend China. Pakistan would be on a much stronger footing in its dealings with India if it could prove the world wrong, rather than continue to play the victim. The task for pulling Pakistan back from the abyss falls not to Washington, or Beijing, or London or Riyadh, or even New Delhi through political concessions and unilateral engagement. That task ultimately falls to Pakistan itself.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.