Senior Research Associate, The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Indo-Pakistani Military Standoff: Why It Isn’t Over Yet
The recent crisis between India and Pakistan, which again raised fears of a war between the two nuclear powers, has receded. A combination of international pressure and military threats from India led to a shift in Pakistani policy; India, in turn, has initiated moves to relax tensions. Though war has been averted in this current crisis, basic, critical problems still exist between the two South Asian powers. Central issues include India's mistrust of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the presence of Pakistani-backed militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir, and the upcoming elections in Kashmir. As the two countries continue to assess each other's actions and behavior, a precarious situation remains.
The possibility of war in South Asia, which seemed likely in the last week of May and early June, now seems remote. Pakistan has caved in to international pressure and India's war threats and apparently stopped cross-border infiltrations of civilian combatants into Indian-controlled Kashmir. In an acknowledgement of the shift in Pakistan's Kashmir policy, India has withdrawn its naval armada that was massed in the North Arabian Sea. India's Vajpayee government has also lifted the overflight ban imposed on Pakistani commercial jets in the wake of the terrorist attack by Pakistani-sponsored militants on India's parliament in December 2001. In a further attempt to relax tensions, New Delhi has hinted that it will upgrade diplomatic relations with Islamabad in the near future. These tension-relieving steps and the success of the intense conflict-prevention efforts of the international community led by the United States would suggest that the crisis that brought India and Pakistan, two nuclear powers, to the brink of war, is winding down. However, a closer analysis suggests that tensions continue to lurk beneath the surface.
Despite India and Pakistan's decision to end aggressive patrolling by their respective navies, both countries continue to keep their armies and air forces deployed in forward areas. And although Islamabad has suggested that both countries demobilize their forces, New Delhi has rejected the proposal. Instead, Indian government officials from the prime minister on down have reiterated that India will not undertake demobilization until it can verify that Pakistan's verbal assurances have been translated into "hard" evidence on the ground.
There are three major reasons the Indian government is unwilling to accept Pakistan's assurances at face value.
First, the Vajpayee government does not trust Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and the military-intelligence establishment that he represents. It was Musharraf who sabotaged Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee's peace efforts at the Lahore Summit by initiating intrusions into Indian territory, which led to the Kargil war in the summer of 1999. Similarly, Indian leaders consider Musharraf's refusal to give up support for the cross-border insurgency in Kashmir as the reason behind the failure of the Agra Summit in June 2001. Likewise, in January 2002, Musharraf made a public pledge not to allow Pakistan to be used as a base for terrorist activities anywhere in the world, including Kashmir; but he soon reneged on that promise. After a brief respite in January and February 2002, the Pakistani military resumed infiltration operations into Indian-controlled Kashmir.
Given the empirical record of Pakistan's broken promises, Musharraf's credibility is at its nadir in New Delhi. Several Indian hardliners suspect that Pakistan's military has made a policy reversal in Kashmir against its will–not because it was convinced of the folly of its erstwhile policy of sponsoring insurgents to wage a sub-conventional war against the Indian army, but because it was trapped between the wedge of international pressure and impending Indian military action. Hence, instead of ordering an immediate demobilization, the Indian government would prefer to wait and verify that the changes in Islamabad's Kashmir policy are permanent.
Second, India is not satisfied with Pakistan's pledge to halt cross-border infiltrations. The Vajpayee government wants the militant camps and related infrastructure in Pakistan dismantled. Above all, Indian leaders want the Pakistani government to disband the militant groups. India insists that Islamabad accept and implement the latter two demands because it fears that Pakistan's military regime could renege on its promises after India demobilizes its forces or once U.S. political attention strays. In such circumstances, India would have gained little through its policy of military mobilization, and conditions in Kashmir would worsen once again. However, Pakistan regards the militant groups as a potential military resource: militants could serve as a potential fifth column against the Indian military in the event of another Indo-Pakistani war. Hence, the issue of disbanding the militant groups is likely to remain a divisive issue in Indo-Pakistani relations.
Finally, there is the problem of elections in Kashmir, which the Indian government plans to hold in October 2002. The majority of insurgents fighting the Indian government in Kashmir are opposed to an election within the framework of the Indian constitution. Pakistan's military-intelligence agencies, too, oppose the idea of elections without tripartite negotiations between the Indian government, the militant groups, and the Pakistani government. Although New Delhi has indicated a willingness to negotiate with the Kashmir-based militant groups that pledge to abandon violence, the Indian government rejects the idea of making Pakistan, which it regards as "part of the problem of terrorism," party to any proposed negotiations.
Because of Pakistan's past support for insurgent groups, there are now an estimated 2,500-3,000 militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The militant groups have a history of assassinating moderates who oppose the armed insurgency or who consider participating in the electoral process. Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment has also played a role in sidelining those militant leaders who want greater autonomy for Kashmir under the aegis of the Indian constitution or those who favor independence. Pakistan's agenda all along has been to force India to hold a plebiscite in which India's Kashmiri population would choose either India or Pakistan to govern the region. As a result, India fears that, despite the Pakistan military's pledge to halt cross-border infiltrations, Pakistani intelligence agencies could manipulate the militants already present in Indian-controlled territories and arrange to have them sabotage the electoral process. Should Indian fears prove to be accurate, tensions could flare up again.
Come October, India's cabinet committee on security will once again assess whether there has been a positive change in Islamabad's behavior. A positive assessment from New Delhi will likely pave the way for military demobilization and a resumption of diplomatic dialogue with Pakistan on all issues, including Kashmir. However, if evidence on the ground suggests that Pakistan has backed out of its promises, the Vajpayee government will be confronted with two uncomfortable options: either unilaterally demobilize despite Pakistani bad-faith or initiate some sort of military action against Pakistan before the onset of winter. Since unilateral demobilization would result in a loss of credibility for the Vajpayee government, and since the Indian military cannot be kept mobilized indefinitely, military strikes against Pakistan could become the favored option by default.
If this latter scenario comes to pass, the war clouds that have temporarily receded could return just as swiftly to threaten peace in South Asia.
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