Tag Archives: India-Pakistan relations

Glimmers of Hope in Pakistan

Pakistan’s prospects careen from bad to worse, but there is still some possibility that it might one day evolve in a more liberal and moderate direction


Events over the last few weeks have amply demonstrated the growing decrepitude of the Pakistani state, providing fresh justification for its perennial ranking at the top of the world’s failed-state indices.  Yet out of the gathering gloom, several flickers of light can be detected.

First, though, there can be no doubt about the country’s cloudy prospects.  The massive energy crisis, which has resulted in prolonged black-outs, has crippled the already weak industrial base.  With the national government defaulting last month on its loan guarantees to power producers, some experts warn that the energy crunch is more of a threat to stability than is terrorism.

The economic crisis has also careened from bad to worse.  Last week, Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh disclosed that the economy grew only 3.7 percent in the July 2011-June 2012 fiscal year, undershooting the government’s 4.2-percent target.  Shaikh’s budget proposal to parliament the following day was widely criticized as perpetuating the status quo.  Its presentation was also a riotous affair, with loud heckles emanating from the opposition benches and shuffles breaking out between parliamentarians.

The country is running wide budget and trade deficits, exacerbated by the marked decline in U.S. financial assistance over the past year.  Inflation is at an 11-percent rate, investment is at the lowest level in decades, and the Pakistani rupee is trading at record lows.  The Wall Street Journal last week quoted the head of the central bank, Yaseen Anwar, as saying that Islamabad may soon have to turn again to the International Monetary Fund even though repayment of a prior $4-billion IMF loan is likely to test the national exchequer in the months ahead.  Anwar’s lament – “There are many serious challenges.  I have a rough job here” – neatly encapsulated Pakistan’s situation.

The rise of religious extremism has continued unabated, including the escalation of violence throughout the country against the minority Shia community by the Pakistan Taliban and Sunni militant groups.  Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch took Pakistani authorities to task for failing to protect the small Ahmadi sect that is regarded as heretical by many Muslims, a theme that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also repeated when she released the State Department’s annual human rights report.  The use of the notorious blasphemy laws against Christian minorities is another source of national disgrace.

Yet against this darkening horizon, a few glimmers of hope appear that are worthy of note.  The current issue of OPEN magazine, an Indian weekly, carries an article about how the privately-owned television channels that have proliferated over the past decade have become forums challenging hard-line anti-India policies, government malfeasance and societal extremism.  It reports:

A new breeze is blowing over Pakistan—most Indians are unaware of this because they cannot watch Pakistani TV channels—and it may well be a sign of the road Pakistan might go down in future. It augurs well for both countries.


Pakistan’s new media—actually old, but in its new incarnation—comes down really hard on Pakistan’s new and old rulers, including the military, for encouraging distortions in its new history books and spending time, effort and money on preparing for a future conflict with India rather than concentrating on building a better and more prosperous Pakistan.


It draws inspiration from India’s economic growth over the past decade or two. Its praise and admiration for India is almost embarrassing. It advocates free flow of trade between India and Pakistan. Just a few years ago, these thoughts would have been regarded as anti-Pakistani and deeply subversive. But Pakistan’s media is now free. It is on a roll and it is angry and rebellious.

On a related note, a new Gallup Pakistan poll finds that a strong majority approves of the deepening trade ties that are driving improved relations between India and Pakistan.

Encouragingly, too, the state-run Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation has asked All India Radio for a copy of its recording of the address Muhammed Ali Jinnah made to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan on the eve of the country’s founding.  In it, Jinnah, the leading figure in the Pakistan national movement, articulated the secular ideals he hoped would animate the new state, including the equal treatment of religious minorities:

You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.

Pakistani officials have done much since Jinnah’s death a year after the country’s creation to mask his liberal views and decidedly un-Islamic ways, including censoring his remarks before the Constituent Assembly.  So, the audio copy of his address is not just of historical interest.  Similarly, the pilgrimage that President Asif Ali Zardari – a minority Shia like Jinnah – recently undertook to the tomb of a 12th-century Sufi saint located in India contained a good measure of political symbolism.  Sufism is a mystical and largely tolerant variant of Islam practiced by many Pakistanis and is in stark contrast to the austere faith professed by the Taliban.

On a political note that deserves some cheer, Yusuf Raza Gilani last week became the longest serving civilian prime minister in Pakistan’s tumultuous history and, against all odds, the present government seems likely to serve out its allotted term – another first in the country’s dismal record of civil-military relations.  It’s also managed to claw back some authority in the national security arena that previously was the sole province of the men in khaki.  Of course, Gilani’s government is highly dysfunctional and unpopular, but its unexpected longevity nonetheless is a sign of Pakistan’s on-going democratization.

A final point concerns the growing number of leading voices calling for greater public scrutiny of defense expenditures, which consume about a quarter of the wobbly national budget.  Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister who now heads the main opposition party, has in the past called for a reduction of military spending.  Now Imran Khan, a rising political star, has joined the chorus.  General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, the powerful army chief, also recently acknowledged the need for greater balance in defense and development spending.

All these gleams of light, however tentative and faint, indicate that there still remains some hope that Pakistan might one day evolve in the liberal and moderate direction that Jinnah posited at the outset.  The lesson for New Delhi is to continue searching out areas of engagement with those Pakistanis eager for more normalized relations.  For Washington, justifiably frustrated by the double game Islamabad is playing in Afghanistan and the anti-Americanism coursing through Pakistani politics, it is important to continue helping build up the country’s increasingly influential civil society and supporting the often messy democratization process.  There may be long stretches when such efforts appear in vain but they may end up making a good bit of difference.

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter.

Rather Unexpectedly, India’s Neighborhood is Looking Up

Things are going bad domestically, but at least India’s regional position is improving


A regular concern of this blog is the internal constraints on India’s rise as a great power.  But for decades the country’s global aspirations also have been encumbered by a quite problematic regional environment.  Unlike China, India has had the misfortune of residing in a highly volatile neighborhood, surrounded by weak and unstable, and often hostile, countries that habitually top various failed-states indices.   Fortunately, and somewhat unexpectedly, the situation is starting to improve.

As detailed in a previous post, India’s relations with Pakistan, its perennial arch-nemesis, are warming, driven by growing trade ties.  And against all odds, a remarkable measure of political stability has taken root in Islamabad.  The civilian government is weak and unpopular but looks like it will become the first one in the country’s 65-year existence to complete its allotted term.  It’s even managed to claw back authority in the foreign policy arena from the overbearing military establishment.

To be sure, Pakistan’s long-term prospects continue to be cloudy at best and the ever-latent rivalry with India will be re-ignited by coming regional scramble to secure influence over post-NATO Afghanistan.  But the present situation along India’s western flank is much better than one could have imagined just a year ago.

Ditto for the eastern flank, where the national fortunes of Bangladesh and Myanmar are trending upwards.  Not too long ago, Bangladesh was a pitiable basket case, known for its cyclone disasters, ferry boat tragedies and outbreaks of famine.  But the country has maintained a 5-6 percent growth rate for much of the last two decades and earned a spot on Goldman Sachs’ “Next 11” roster of countries with a high potential to become economic success stories.  It is a prime destination for labor-intensive manufacturing that is now migrating out of China and a hub for the global garment trade.  It has largely tamed the scourge of religious radicalism that keeps Pakistan, its erstwhile sibling, aflame.  And it has now embarked upon a cooperative approach vis-à-vis India, eschewing the confrontational line it pursued for decades.  Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Dhaka last September is widely seen as inaugurating a new era in India-Bangladesh relations.

Like Pakistan, Bangladesh is just four years removed from military dictatorship and it is conceivable that the army will once again storm out of its barracks given the prospect of political turbulence as the 2013 parliamentary elections approach.  The country also faces long-term environmental challenges.  Still, the overall situation there is a welcome relief to security managers in New Delhi.

Things also are suddenly looking up in Myanmar, which was part of the British empire in India until the mid-1930s.   Despite being blessed by abundant natural resources, decades of economic mismanagement made it one of Asia’s poorest countries.  Repressive, xenophobic and quixotic military rule guaranteed that it was an international pariah subject to Western embargoes as well as suspicion by even its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) brethren.

But a series of dramatic political and economic reforms over the past year, which have prompted a lifting of U.S. and European sanctions, have given rise to new hopes.   According to media reports (here and here), Yangon, the country’s commercial hub, has become a boomtown filled with foreign investors searching out long-denied deals.  Earlier this month, the International Monetary Fund released a report highlighting the country’s “historic opportunity” to become the next economic frontier in Asia.  Similarly, the Asia director of the United Nations Development Program notes that Myanmar “could become the economic engine of the region,” while an Asian Development Bank official states that it “has the capability for private-sector growth that we haven’t seen anywhere else for a long time.”

The new stability and prosperity among the immediate neighbors promises to bring economic and security dividends to New Delhi.   For all the talk about the country as a rising global actor, it remains a less than “fully convincing hegemon within its own subregion,” as David Malone, former Canadian ambassador in New Delhi, recently put it.  Despite the common civilizational and historical links that permeate South Asia, India up to now has been unable to integrate the area in the same way that China has economically stitched together the much more culturally diverse and geographically dispersed East Asian region.

The result is a strategic paradox for India: A broadening diplomatic, economic and even military profile in East Asia, juxtaposed with a rather lackluster record of leadership in its own back yard.  In recent years, New Delhi’s economic diplomacy has been firing on all cylinders in East Asia, penning trade and commercial deals with Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the ten-country ASEAN.  It is also deepening security relations with Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.  Yet until recently, it has not displayed the same dynamism in its sub-continental diplomacy.  Conspicuously unsuccessful were efforts at promoting cross-border economic cooperation via the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation – a forum largely created by New Delhi.

But that may be changing.  Deepening economic linkages with Pakistan promise to enliven the 2006 South Asia Free Trade Agreement which up until this point has been all but a dead letter.  Last week, New Delhi also approved an ambitious $7.6 billion gas pipeline project that runs from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India.

New Delhi has become more magnanimous and imaginative in its relations with Dhaka.  It has liberalized Bangladeshi apparel imports; offered generous terms for a free trade accord geared toward services to complement an existing pact for goods; and worked out agreements to settle complex border disputes and nettlesome water-sharing problems.

With Myanmar distancing itself from China’s longtime patronage, New Delhi is moving with celerity to fill the void, including developing the deep-water port of Sittwe on the Bay of Bengal.  This landmark $120 million project, scheduled for completion next year, would directly link India’s economically-isolated and insurgency-ranked northeastern states to the growing markets of Southeast Asia and so is significant for both commercial and geopolitical reasons.

Citing Sri Lanka’s flirtations with China and New Delhi’s slow response to the toppling of the democratic government in the Maldives in February, some Indian pundits lament the erosion of regional influence.  But India’s position in the neighborhood, at least for the time being, is actually brightening.  Now if New Delhi could only get its act together on domestic policy, it would go places.

This commentary was originally posted on Chanakya’s Notebook.  I invite you to follow me on Twitter.

Rice’s Revelations and Omission

Condoleezza Rice’s new memoirs contain some interesting details about recent crises in India-Pakistan relations.  But her silence on the peace process they undertook in 2004-07 is unfortunate. 


The disclosures about the landmark U.S.-India nuclear cooperation accord that are contained in Condoleezza Rice’s new memoirs of her service in the Bush administration, No Higher Honor, have been widely reported. Less noticed are the interesting nuggets about two signal episodes in the recent arc of India-Pakistan relations. The first is the egregious assault upon the Indian parliament while it was in session by Pakistan-based jihadi groups in December 2001, which in turn precipitated a serious military confrontation that lasted for most of 2002. The second is the spectacular November 2008 terrorist strike in Mumbai that is often regarded as “India’s 9/11.”

The 2001-02 standoff was the first nuclear crisis of the 21st century. Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government came under tremendous domestic political pressure to respond forcefully to the attack. A similar assault two months earlier on the Kashmir state assembly had caused him to warn the United States that India would be forced to take matters into its own hands if Washington could not convince Islamabad to keep in check terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan. He termed the December attack “the most dangerous challenge so far to India’s national security” and vowed that “we will fight a decisive battle to the end.”

To back up its demands that Islamabad crack down on the militants, India went on a vast war footing, including deploying three strike corps along the border with Pakistan, which reacted with a massive counter-mobilization. In short order, some one million soldiers were arrayed in combat readiness posts on both sides of the border.

Rice recounts that the Bush administration had a difficult time assessing the likelihood of war. The Pentagon believed Indian military moves were to be expected and did not by themselves indicate that an attack was imminent. The CIA, however, concluded that Indian retaliation was inevitable. Washington also received reports that New Delhi was moving nuclear-capable Prithvi ballistic missiles to the border area. Rice recounts that in the closing days of 2001 Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s national security adviser, told her that war fever was rising in the Indian government.

Following diplomatic interventions orchestrated by Washington and London, the standoff seemed to be winding down when a terrorist attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir in May 2002 re-inflamed passions. Vajpayee thereafter traveled to the Line of Control in Kashmir where he chillingly instructed Indian troops “to be ready for sacrifice. Your goal should be victory. It’s time to fight a decisive battle. We’ll write a new chapter of victory.” Concerned that tensions were reaching a boiling point, Washington and London evacuated their embassies in New Delhi (though curiously the U.S. embassy in Islamabad was not vacated).

At this point, according to Rice, Mishra urgently called her to say that “I cannot contain the war lobby without some help.” She adds:

Making it clear that he was acting on his own, he asked that the President [George W Bush] make a statement, which he [Mishra] could use internally to try to hold the line.

Acceding to this request, Bush issued a public statement calling on President Pervez Musharraf to do more to rein in militants and then telephoned the Pakistani leader to underscore the message. Following renewed U.S. diplomatic intervention, tensions abated significantly by the summer months and the crisis concluded anticlimactically by October.

Were New Delhi and Islamabad actually on the precipice of war? Much remains unknown about Indian decisionmaking in the crisis. Rice chalks up the reduction of tensions “to the good work of Brajesh Mishra.” Yet not all Indian leaders believed war was imminent. Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, for example, has denied that New Delhi was actively contemplating offensive military operations.

Moreover, the window of opportunity for Indian action rapidly closed after January 2002 as Pakistan quickly repositioned forces that were guarding the border with Afghanistan to shore up its eastern flank. For all of the heated rhetoric caused by the May 2002 terrorist attack in Kashmir, senior Indian military officers apparently realized that the likelihood of battlefield success had markedly declined in the intervening months.

The Mumbai terrorist strike that took place in the fall of 2008 was more horrific and brazen than the one that sparked the 2001-02 crisis. In the intervening years, the Indian army had unveiled the Cold Start doctrine which aims to deter Pakistani support for attacks like the one in Mumbai by threatening swift and forceful military retaliation.

Rice states that Washington feared that the doctrine would be implemented in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks. According to her, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, David Mulford, reported that “there is war fever here. I don’t know if the prime minister can hold out.” Asif Ali Zardari’s fledgling civilian government in Islamabad was also spooked by a hard-hitting telephone conversation Pranab Mukherjee, then serving as Indian foreign minister, had with his Pakistani opposite number. Alarmed that India is on the warpath, Islamabad frantically began calling on China, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates for diplomatic support.

Worry also started to gnaw at Rice when Mukherjee proved hard to reach by phone. She writes: “Is he avoiding my call because they are preparing for war? I wondered. It still didn’t make sense, but it was India and Pakistan, and anything could happen.” When the Indian at last returned her call, he is taken aback by Pakistan’s frenzy. He is in his parliamentary district campaigning for upcoming elections, he explains. “Would I be outside New Delhi if we were about to launch a war?”

A central question in the Mumbai episode is why New Delhi reacted with what can only be described as remarkable forbearance instead of renewed military confrontation as in 2001-02 or with the retaliatory offensives envisioned in the Cold Start doctrine. Rice attributes the quiescence to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s determination to avoid war. Indeed, some analysts have observed that compared to Vajpayee’s BJP government that controlled decisionmaking in the 2001-02 crisis, Singh’s Congress Party is more reflective of the preference for military restraint over risk-taking that is ingrained in Indian strategic culture. While the Cold Start doctrine was promulgated during the BJP’s tenure in power, the succeeding Congress government has taken pains to distance itself from the concept.

But more seems to have been at work than just party ideology. For all the effort on Cold Start, Indian military leaders reportedly told the government after Mumbai that the armed forces were ill-prepared to go to war. Indeed, in a February 2010 cable to the State Department, Timothy Roemer, the U.S. ambassador in New Delhi, assessed that the strategy “may never be put to use on a battlefield because of substantial and serious resource constraints.”

Rice notes that she became fatigued by the crisis-prone nature of India-Pakistan relations. So it is even more striking that she omits all but fleeting mention of the intensive back-channel peace process New Delhi and Islamabad undertook in 2004-07. Although the negotiations ultimately collapsed in the face of Musharraf’s domestic political problems, they may have come tantalizing close to defusing the perennially-inflamed dispute over Kashmir.

Rice’s silence is unfortunate. The talks are a significant counterpoint to arguments that the nuclearization process in South Asia has only served to foment greater tension and conflict. And they may also hold relevant lessons for the peace dialogue the two governments are currently embarked upon.