Politics, policy, and global relations

The India-Pakistan Standoff and the U.S. Agenda

Despite intense pressure from Washington to curb terror and the threat of war with India, the India-Pakistan crisis may yield an opportunity to steer Pakistan away from extremism and toward positive change.

During his recent visit to India, Prime Minister Tony Blair is reported to have said that Britain supported India’s bid for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). A similar statement, supporting India’s candidature, was issued by the visiting Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres.

Earlier, on April 9, 2000, in an interview with India’s state-run TV, the then-U.S. ambassador to India, Richard Celeste, said that Washington supported New Delhi’s bid for a permanent seat on the UNSC. “The U.S. has to be prepared and will be prepared to give India serious consideration for the permanent membership of the Security Council,” Celeste was quoted as saying. Celeste’s remarks came in the wake of President Clinton’s five-day, high-profile visit to India. However, at the time U.S. officials denied that Celeste’s statement reflected any institutional thinking in Washington.

Lots of things have changed since Celeste’s statement, post-Sept. 11 and post-Dec. 13 [the date of a terrorist suicide attack on India’s Parliament allegedly carried out by Pakistani Islamist extremists that resulted in 13 deaths, including the five attackers—WPR]. Blair’s statement has to be seen in the backdrop of the standoff between India and Pakistan and juxtaposed with his remarks about “terrorist” groups (read, militant groups operating in Kashmir) that Islamabad is expected to crack down on.

This is essential for two reasons: One, any support for India’s candidature at the Security Council is significant only politically, since procedurally it is near impossible for any country, even the United States and the United Kingdom, to get India a seat at the high table—as long as the United Nations is constituted as it is.

Two, Blair’s statements in India and elsewhere must be read in the context of the role he has developed since Sept. 11, flying around the world and canvassing for Washington. Whatever he has said is what Washington wanted him to say. In the ongoing crisis, a similar statement was issued by the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell, in an interview to the BBC, saying that Pakistan “needed to do more,” the implication being that it had not done enough vis-à-vis terrorism to defuse the crisis with India.

Under the circumstances, Pakistan has two choices: One is to draw the line and accept the challenge, having done everything it could to de-escalate diplomatically while matching India’s military buildup; two, to wriggle out of the present situation and live to fight another day. Both choices are tough. In executing its strategy to pressure Pakistan, India is relying not just on its own conventional strength, but also on the international environment in which the two adversaries are operating.

While counterfactual assessments are difficult to make, it will be fair to assume, all other things being equal, that India’s ability or willingness to execute this strategy in another scenario would have been severely curtailed because of the nuclear dimension. However, as things stand, it should be quite clear that while ideally the United States and Britain would want the crisis resolved without the two countries coming to blows, in the event that a bout becomes inevitable, they would not be averse to looking the other way to give New Delhi some room “to teach Pakistan a lesson.”

The nuclear factor would of course be there, but in a real showdown escalating to the nuclear level would require Pakistan to project the threat credibly enough. Not only would that put immense pressure on Islamabad, but the need to escalate to that level also implies that Pakistan would have lost enough territory for it to begin to think in terms of the final option. The pressure of that decision itself could become unbearable, since by moving in and capturing territory, India would have called the bluff.

There is also the possibility that were Pakistan to indeed escalate to that level, the United States singly, or in tandem with Israel and India, might seriously consider exfiltrating the Pakistani arsenal. This is a possibility that Seymour Hersh has already written about in detail in The New Yorker, though he dealt with it in a different context. It is very risky, but not improbable.

Any thinking in Pakistan that Washington might be on Islamabad’s side is not supported by recent events. The United States would do what is necessary to achieve its own larger objectives. It has managed, to a great extent, to cleanse Afghanistan of the Islamist/fundamentalist elements. It now wants Pakistan to purge itself of these groups. Gen. Musharraf’s di-lemma is that these elements have been part of Islamabad’s strategy to put the squeeze on India. Getting rid of them runs the obvious risk of losing the most amenable proxies to keep the heat on India. But not doing so runs the greater risk of facing nearly the same, perhaps worse, situation that forced Gen. Musharraf in September 2001 to effect a volte-face on Afghanistan.

This essentially means only one thing: If Pakistan was to rethink its role of a force multiplier in Kashmir, India will immediately take advantage of the situation. It would move in to crack down on the extremist elements, offer the olive branch to the moderates, and get on with the task of governing. Even if it could not immediately achieve a breakthrough, it would still be able to contain the situation and allow it to fester in order for insurgency fatigue to set in before alienating the extremists and reaching out to the moderates. In this scenario, the role of the United States is clear. Its objective is to retain the integrity of Pakistan, but force it to shape up as a benign and militarily weak state that does not punch around.

At this stage, a rethink of the traditional strategy feels very painful. But the present situation, as well as other factors, favors that course. For a start, Pakistan needs to do everything, after a careful assessment of its capabilities in relation to India, to get out of this situation and secure its military strength. By all indications, it is trying its best to do that.

Secondly, Islamabad needs to objectively assess the ability and the stamina of indigenous Kashmiri groups to sustain their freedom struggle. In doing so it must beware that the contours of a likely solution by third parties are fairly clear. None of them envisages either a plebiscite or any major dislocation. Therefore, a strategy that relied on pulling third parties into the conflict for the purpose of mediation may be outmoded. Thirdly, long spells of overt activity may not necessarily mean the end of the freedom struggle. Through the ’70s and ’80s, Kashmir remained quiet until it emerged on Islamabad’s radar screen in a big way. That can and may still happen.

Recent events have made one thing very clear: Power and the capability and will to project it make and break international norms and set standards of behavior. Pakistan needs to use a period of relative quiet to set its house in order and enhance its military power. Economic strength is a pre-requisite for this purpose. A case can be made that the present chaos could in fact be used by Islamabad to its advantage if it can translate into a period that can allow it to strengthen itself.

Pakistan finds itself in the current situation because of the Islamist groups who broke all rules of objective analysis and tried, Icarus-like, to overreach. The state must eschew a course of action in the future that can lead to such chaos or where elements in a strategy can grow bigger than the strategy itself. This is a difficult situation but it also affords some important lessons. It will be a shame if those lessons are not heeded.