Hamid Gul and Pakistan’s Schizophrenia

The recent passing of Hamid Gul, the Pakistani general who served as head of the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency in the late 1980s, elicited a good deal of media commentary about the instrumental role he played on several fronts: the collapse of the Soviet Union; the jihadization of Afghanistan and Pakistan; and the destabilization of the Punjab and Kashmir regions in India.

But Gul also exemplified the oscillations within the Pakistani military establishment between anti-India paranoia and the desire to stabilize relations with Delhi.

The example of Hamid Gul and his successors illustrates what is a basic frustration for Indian leaders: Any rapprochement with Pakistan can only come about via a military establishment that swings between paranoia and pragmatism.  The anti-India fixation receives much focus these days.  But officials in New Delhi would also do well not to lose sight of the desire to find equilibrium in relations.

Read the rest of the essay on Fair Observer‘s website.

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Memo to Modi: Focus on India’s Near Abroad

The invitation by Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, bringing other South Asian leaders to his elaborate swearing-in ceremony was a brilliant piece of regional diplomacy.  Breaking with tradition, the event was akin to an American-style inauguration held in the forecourt of the Presidential Palace, a majestic red sandstone edifice that formerly housed the viceroy of the British Raj.  At once, the ceremony showcased the vigor of India’s democratic institutions – the centerpiece of the country’s soft power – as well as its natural primary in subcontinental affairs.  It also dampened concerns that the incoming government would be driven by hyperbolic nationalism.

But Mr. Modi will require creative initiatives and sustained endeavors in order to capitalize on this initial gesture. Continue reading

Time for Nawaz Sharif to Put Up or Shut Up

Nawaz SharifMy last post argued that the Indian government should ignore the influential voices urging it to stiff-arm efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to restart the bilateral détente process.  Now is the time, I emphasized, for New Delhi to assay energetically the depths of his seriousness as well as his capacity to deliver on promises.

That said, it is also incumbent on Sharif to start proving his good faith.  So far, he has been long on sweet-sounding rhetoric about deeper economic engagement but has failed to provide any concrete sign he is willing to take political risks to give it concrete meaning.  A depressing case in point concerns the granting of “most favored nation” trading privileges to India, something that New Delhi extended to Pakistan nearly two decades ago.  The previous government in Islamabad made a good deal of noise about doing this, a politically difficult act that convinced skeptics in the Indian government last year that Pakistani leaders were earnest about seeking better ties.  But Sharif’s predecessor ultimately could not pull the trigger, and now comes news that Sharif’s government is likewise deferring the issue “for the time being.”

Islamabad has reportedly refrained from doing this because of fears that Pakistani companies would be overwhelmed by cheaper Indian goods.  But these businesses have already weathered the commercial competition brought about by the 2006 free trade agreement with China.  Moreover, a World Bank report released just days ago underscores the value of stronger trade links with India.  It notes that:

Completing the trade normalization process with India and granting it MFN status would help Pakistan benefit quickly from the fast growth and large markets. Conservative estimates suggest that bilateral trade flows could multiply at least three times, and most observers agree that the growth-enhancing dynamics that this process would unleash would be even more significant for foreign direct investment (especially information technology and manufacturing), services (including financial and tourism), integrated value chains in manufacturing, and power projects.

Discouraging too is that elements in the Pakistani security establishment have reportedly derailed plans to build cross-border energy connections.  With the country in a severe energy crunch (here and here), Sharif’s government had considered importing electricity from India and an Indian delegation visited Islamabad in June with a concrete offer in hand.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears to have judged, correctly in my view, that the peculiar state of civil-military relations in Pakistan does not allow Sharif to put a halt to renewed military tensions along the Line of Control in Kashmir that are now roiling relations.  But at this point, New Delhi has every right to question why Sharif has not yet used his strong political position to back up his nice words with specific actions.  So when he meets Singh on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual conclave later this month, it would be good if Sharif arrives with something more than continued rhetoric.

Sharif can begin proving his bonafides by giving a definitive promise on MFN implementation.  He could couple this with a proposal to set up a joint commission of prominent business leaders and distinguished private citizens to develop further recommendations about expanding cross-border trade and transportation links.  This group could also serve as a useful mechanism for mobilizing political support on both sides for forward movement in the bilateral agenda.

And Sharif would do well to enunciate a new policy on the treatment of Indian fishermen apprehended in disputed territorial waters.  In recent months, Islamabad has been repatriating hundreds of Indian fishermen but only after they have served out their full sentences.  But a better policy would take a page from the U.S. practice on its border with Mexico: After having their photographs and fingerprints taken, and warned that second-time offenders will face stiff penalties, apprehended fishermen should be quickly sent back to India.  (Indians who are still serving their sentences would have their terms immediately commuted.)

This gesture, which should be reciprocated by New Delhi, would earn Islamabad some much-needed goodwill in India, as well as conserve resources that are needed for other budgetary priorities.  And since many of the fishermen are arrested in and around Sir Creek, a disputed 60 mile-long patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh, it might even give new impetus to efforts to resolve this impasse.  Prime Minister Singh has called an agreement on the issue “doable” and many observers believe it is easiest to solve among the territorial contestations bedeviling India-Pakistan relations.

As I’ve noted before, bilateral relations are in for a rough spell in the coming year.  So if Sharif wants his rhetoric to count for something, he needs to move quickly and decisively.

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India Should Not Leave Nawaz Sharif Hanging

Renewed military tensions in the disputed Kashmir region are once again underscoring how even localized incidents there can subvert important diplomatic initiatives between India and Pakistan.  Skirmishes this past January put the brakes on the détente process that picked up steam last year.  The current round of fighting has led to a rising chorus in India demanding that New Delhi rebuff efforts by new Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to put the process back on track.  These calls are understandable enough – indeed they have a parallel in the running U.S. debate about whether to get tough with Pakistan over its behavior in Afghanistan (examples hereherehere, here and here).  But they are nonetheless misguided. Continue reading

India and Pakistan: The Ties that Bind vs. The Line that Divides

Despite the promising rapprochement (here and here) that gathered pace between India and Pakistan last year, disruptive military tensions are never far from the surface.  This point was amply demonstrated by last month’s skirmishes along the 450 mile-long boundary – known as the Line of Control – separating the two armies in the disputed Kashmir region.  The fighting, which left two Indian and two Pakistani soldiers dead, was the worst flare-up since an uneasy ceasefire agreement came into effect along the heavily-militarized LoC in November 2003 and has put a damper on the détente process.

The clashes are a stark reminder of how combustible the military rivalry in Kashmir remains and how even localized incidents there can have important ramifications for the broader relationship.*  Accusations that Pakistan decapitated one of the dead Indian soldiers and carried off his head as a trophy provoked fury in New Delhi.  The Indian army chief warned of “aggressive and offensive” reprisals in the event of further provocation and a senior leader in the Bharatiya Janata Party, the main opposition party, demanded that India “get at least 10 heads from their side” if the Pakistanis did not return the soldier’s head.  An influential Hindu nationalist group even called for nuclear retaliatory strikes – a contingency that was underscored when Indian officials inexplicably advised residents in Kashmir to prepare for a possible nuclear war.  And Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, a dogged champion of better ties with Islamabad, was forced to announce  that “there cannot be business as usual with Pakistan.”  One immediate consequence is New Delhi has put on hold a liberalized bilateral visa regime that had been hailed as an important milestone in relations. Continue reading

Pakistan in 2013: The Year of Living Dangerously

In earlier posts (here and here), I argued that Pakistani politics would be fraught with turbulence in 2013, with one of the key casualties being the fragile détente process that has recently emerged between New Delhi and Islamabad.  Two weeks into the year, events are already conspiring to validate this assessment.

Pakistan, the most important country on everyone’s roster of failed states in the making, is once again in the throes of political chaos.  The Supreme Court, led by maverick Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, has just ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf on corruption charges arising from Ashraf’s earlier stint as the federal minister in charge of power production.  Two years ago, the judiciary ousted him from the post when it found that a program he oversaw to spur private generation of electricity was riddled with graft.  The latest action is sure to aggravate what was already shaping up to be a chaotic round of parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in the next few months. Continue reading