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When American forces shot Osama bin Laden in a farmhouse in the heart of Pakistan in May, there was a widespread belief that it represented a defining moment in Pakistan’s tortured relationship with the world.
The Indian and Pakistan flags at the India-Pakistan border in Wagah.After the discovery of the world’s most wanted terrorist, close to the country’s elite military academy, Pakistan would have no choice but to discard its use of militias and terrorist organizations as an instrument
of state policy, went the conventional wisdom.
Yet, in the months since bin Laden’s death, Pakistan has not shown any willingness to change its deeply entrenched practice of leveraging allied militant organizations to target Afghanistan and India and work against U.S. interests. Even public shaming and threats from an American government that finances much of its armed forces has not succeeded in changing the tenor or trajectory of Pakistan’s posture.
Meanwhile, senior American administration officials routinely trek to Islamabad, alternately threatening and cajoling Pakistan, in the hopes of seeing a shift in its approach.
So, how should the world respond to Pakistan’s continued tango with Islamist terror organizations?
Proposals from foreign policy practitioners and analysts have fallen across a wide spectrum of philosophies and interventions. Broadly though, they fall into three distinct schools.
The first calls for deeper economic engagement and trade, including with the U.S. and India, arguing that the only way to stop the recruitment of locals to militia organizations is to accelerate economic opportunities.
The middle path is a new “containment” policy from the U.S., most recently articulated by Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. officer who led President Barack Obama’s policy review on Pakistan and Afghanistan in 2009.
According to this view, Pakistan should be treated as an explicit adversary, not a petulant ally. American military assistance would be cut and Pakistan’s army and intelligence services would be held more accountable for their actions, including the use of targeted sanctions on individuals.
Aamir Qureshi/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
Osama bin Laden was short in a farmhouse in the heart of Pakistan in May, this year.A version of this approach argued for the need to undermine the armed forces’ l ong stranglehold
on the state and strengthen civilian leaders.
At the other end of the spectrum, the most strident proposals call for outright hostilities with Pakistan, including a sharp escalation in drone attacks, and a bold effort to take control of its growing nuclear arsenal, last estimated at 30 to 100 bombs.
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The exasperation of the international community, especially Afghanistan, the U.S. and India, is deep and legitimate. They see a state that is hostile to their interests that just seems incapable of breaking itself out of a vicious cycle even when its actions do the most harm to itself.
While pragmatic, these proposals carry many flaws. While strong economic growth may well help in the long term, it is unlikely to stem the recruitment of locals into militant organizations in the near term, especially when that recruitment is being fueled by real resentment towards India and the U.S., and when the organizations driving the recruitment have the tacit backing of the state.
A “containment” policy does have the benefit of clarity. For the U.S., such a shift has the obvious advantage that it will not then be directing resources towards building the capabilities of a Pakistani military that is working to undermine its interests.
But the policy is more useful as a threat than as a real instrument of choice for the same reasons that it has not been employed to date: without at least the leverage of dependency, what would prevent Pakistan from sinking even deeper into the abyss?
And, while strengthening Pakistan’s civil society is critical for the future, what lurks beneath the militarist state now is not a thriving democracy waiting to be unleashed but a regressive feudal structure of competing tribes.
Luckily, the most brazen proposal –initiating a full-scale war with Pakistan — is only being advocated by out-of-work chicken hawks. Most practitioners realize that the consequences of a war with Pakistan are disastrous.
Above all, these proposals are just attempting to reduce the downsides in the short term without fundamentally changing the entrenched mindsets driving Pakistan’s approach and strategy for the long term.
The dilemma is even more severe for India. As several analysts have pointed out in recent years, the relationship between India and Pakistan has reached a “stability-instability paradox.”
Access to nuclear weapons has reduced the chances of an outright war between the two countries but has given impetus to a conscious strategy from Pakistan to pursue low-scale, continuous warfare through militants and terrorists.
Pakistan’s military establishment has always pointed to India as the reason for its policies and for the overly militarist state that has been built up since the partition of the subcontinent.
In the last decade, the international community has been increasingly dismissive of this assertion and has tried hard to persuade Pakistan that its obsession with its eastern neighbor will lead to a country torn apart by its western front.
There is no question, of course, that Pakistan’s armed forces have used the bogey of India to build for itself a lavish welfare system for the last 60 years. But is there another side to Pakistan’s obsession with India? Is there any legitimacy for its assessment of India as an existential threat?
The argument that Pakistan was a state created without a compelling idea to hold it together has been much debated.
For a nation that was avowedly created as a safe haven for the sub-continent’s Muslims, the very idea of a thriving, secular India where Hindus and Muslims co-exist must be a tough one to swallow.
But it is also possible to see the world from a Pakistani point of view.
And in that world, India has committed two cardinal sins, both of which have undermined Pakistan’s nationhood, and is in the process of committing the third.
The first was at the very beginning. The history of Kashmir is a much disputed one. But it is possible to see the Pakistani argument that a state with a Muslim majority population should have been a part of Pakistan and not India; and that a Hindu Maharaja twisted the rules of accession to align itself with India rather than Pakistan. Or that Pakistan’s attempt to force Kashmir’s annexation was no different in philosophy from India’s own approach that succeeded in bringing Hyderabad into the Indian state.
The second sin has perhaps been the more difficult one to forgive for Pakistan. For India, the 1971 Bangladesh war was a high point in its post-independence history, one that erased the bitter defeat of 1962 and established India as the dominant regional power.
For Pakistan, India’s active intervention in what was then East Pakistan convinced it beyond any doubts that India wanted its breakup and disintegration; that India had not forgiven it for the sub-continent’s partition, and would continue to undermine it at every stage, perhaps with the intention even of bringing it back to the fold.
At Pakistan’s moment of greatest weakness, India had revealed its true colors and intentions.
And the third sin, in Pakistan’s eyes, is India’s “meddling” in Afghanistan, its “backyard” and the country that gives it “strategic depth.”
Pakistan has always seen its western neighbor as its natural ally, with ties that cut across physical boundaries and which are fostered by shared religion and shared history.
More important, it has viewed Afghanistan as a place that gives it flexibility on one border even as it faces down threats from its mortal enemy on the other. Pakistan has always seen any association between Afghanistan and India as a serious threat, and one that could only be interpreted as India’s attempt to encircle Pakistan.
So, it has viewed the deepening relationship between the two countries with alarm.
Add to the mix the sight of an emerging strategic relationship between India and the U.S., a country that Pakistan had seen as its steadfast ally through the Cold War period, and it is easy to see why Pakistan feels insecure.
However, for each of these events, India has an equally (or more) compelling counter argument to make.
Pakistan forced the confrontation in Kashmir by sending in armed tribes. The rules of accession were followed to the last dot.
With millions of refugees flowing into Bengal in 1971, India had no choice but to intervene, especially since the West Pakistani army was massacring its own people without mercy.
Afghanistan is an independent state, not Pakistan’s backyard. Moreover, it is one that has grown exasperated with Pakistan’s success in fueling turmoil inside its borders, and is looking toward India as a reliable friend that has been willing
to invest in helping it build a functioning state. In contrast, the re-emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan could create a safe haven for terrorist organizations that pose the same threat to India as it faced in the 1990s.
It is legitimate for India to work to reduce that possibility. And the relationship with the U.S. has far less to do with Pakistan than it has to do with two natural allies coming together to navigate a new international system.
That exactly is at the crux of the entrenched hostility between the two countries. Both have deeply held views of events and beliefs about geopolitics that are not easily reconcilable.
But what is apparent, too, is that no country has as much influence on Pakistan’s future as India does. Whether setting the stage for a reduced role for the armed forces or reversing the radicalization of Pakistan’s population, the best road to reforms goes through a Pakistan that feels more secure and less threatened by India. This requires real concessions from India; Pakistan needs to chalk up a few real victories.
What can India do? For a start, Indian policy can be more empathetic towards Pakistan’s insecure view of the world.
India, of course, cannot drive its policies to assuage its neighbor’s fears but it may be able to make choices that further its interests without deepening Pakistan’s insecurities.
For a start, India can desist playing any grand games in Afghanistan that go beyond what is specifically needed to reduce the risks of a Taliban-like regime in the country.
While likely to be excruciatingly difficult, India can, very incrementally, attempt a tripartite relationship with Pakistan and the U.S. in developing an approach towards Afghanistan that also reassures its neighbor on its intentions.
On the economic side, a big and bold proposal that was floated earlier this year was for Indian information technology firms to band together and commit to channeling a share of their outsourcing work to Pakistan.
These are real choices that involve difficult tradeoffs and serious downsides for India but have the potential of signaling to Pakistan that the country is ready for a new approach.
But no issue is more important to Pakistan than that of Kashmir. India and Pakistan will be locked in a deadly embrace for a very long time unless the two countries find resolution on Kashmir.
Here, New Delhi will have to make serious concessions. Not just because that will be a game changer in its relations with Pakistan but also because progress on Kashmir and an approach that addresses the legitimate aspirations of the people of Kashmir is essential to India retaining the soul of the plural, authentic democracy that it aspires to be.
India has an ambitious agenda to pursue, one that can lift millions of people out of poverty and drive substantial improvements in social outcomes.
Outside its borders, it will require new capabilities that will enable it to compete with other rising powers — to access resources, protect trade routes and reach new markets. The capabilities that are needed to drive its economic agenda and its relations with the world are not the ones that will emerge out of a debilitating cycle of confrontation with a much smaller neighbor.
This is India’s moment to shape a new future for Pakistan. Its trump card? India’s own approach.
Based in New Delhi, Ajit Mohan has worked with private and public institutions around the world. His work in public policy has covered urban renewal, education and public health, and more recently, he led the work and co-authored McKinsey Global Institute’s “India’s Urban Awakening: Building inclusive cities, sustaining economic growth” published in 2010. He writes the Weekend Panorama column for India Real Time every two weeks.