A separate peace

Ashley Tellis’s 91-page essay ‘Are India-Pakistan Peace Talks Worth a Damn?’ is compelling reading even if Mani Shankar Aiyar and the Wagah candle-walas disagree with its arguments and conclusion. It also sheds interesting light on the U.S. stand on the India-Pakistan problem. Mr. Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggests U.S. President Donald Trump is unlikely to help India and, even if he tries, it could actually make matters worse.

‘Misguided’ advice

Mr. Tellis’s central point is that “the international community’s routine call for continuous India-Pakistan dialogue is not only misguided but also counterproductive”. This is a direct rebuttal of Mr. Aiyar’s eloquently phrased plea that the dialogue should be “uninterrupted and uninterruptable”.

Mr. Tellis comes to this conclusion because what he calls “the security competition” between India and Pakistan is not “driven by discrete negotiable differences”. Not only is the dispute over Kashmir “rooted in long-standing ideological… antagonisms” but Pakistan also seeks to “exact revenge for past Indian military victories” and “to subvert India’s ascendency as a great power.” As he puts it: “Recovering the claimed territory is no longer the only prize; thwarting India’s rise is now the greater reward.”

Underlying this Pakistan attitude to India and, therefore, reaffirming and strengthening it is how the country’s army views its interests. “Even if satisfactory solutions could be devised,” Mr. Tellis argues, the Pakistan army will not accept them “if the end result dethrones the military from its privileged power in and over the state.” He believes “perpetual conflict with India, which does not provoke either cataclysmic war or categorical defeat… preserves the internal hegemony of the Pakistan Army.” It won’t want to give this up.

As he puts it: “The depressing upshot… is that persistent engagement… fails to alter the fundamental impediment that has prevented a resolution… namely, the inability of the Pakistani Army to accept that it cannot… surrender on a range of disputed issues.” This leads “to one ineluctable conclusion: the antagonism between India and Pakistan… does not lend itself to easy resolution even through a sustained conversation between the two sides.”

The only two countries that could persuade Pakistan to change its attitude to India are China and the U.S. However, given China’s geopolitical rivalry with India, Mr. Tellis says “it is highly unlikely that Beijing will ever press Rawalpindi to terminate its terrorism against New Delhi.”

In America’s case, Washington’s dependence on Pakistan makes it unlikely that it will apply real pressure. During the Bush and Obama years, “as long as Rawalpindi assisted Washington in ferreting out important al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, the United States… was content to accept the vague Pakistani promises of suppressing anti-Indian terrorist groups.” Now, after Mr. Trump’s Afghan strategy, “U.S. dependence on Pakistan for its ground and air lines of communication to Afghanistan… [gives] Rawalpindi enormous leverage over the United States.” Again, Mr. Tellis’s conclusion is crystal clear: “The chokehold that Pakistan enjoys on the United States, thanks entirely to geography, has thus neutralized Washington’s superior coercive capacity.”

However, Mr. Tellis’s argument goes one step further. He also believes that “persistent U.S. exhortations for India-Pakistan negotiations actually undermine Washington’s objective of securing peace on the subcontinent.” This is because “any kind of U.S. intervention in the India-Pakistan dispute… prevents Pakistan from negotiating on the basis of its innate power,” and instead, “holds out the false hope that the strength of the United States could be co-opted into procuring outcomes that otherwise lie beyond reach.” Again, his conclusion is blunt: “The best course of action for the United States, therefore, is to stay out of the India-Pakistan contention altogether, leaving it up to both states to reach any agreements they can based on their relative power.”

The sequence

So where does all of this leave the prospects of an India-Pakistan peace deal? Mr. Tellis’s answer is bleak though rooted in realism: “A lasting cordiality between India and Pakistan ultimately hinges on the Pakistan Army reconciling itself to India’s strategic superiority within South Asia.” At the moment — and for the foreseeable future — that seems not just unlikely but, arguably, impossible. Yet if “an authentic rapprochement… will have to precede the efforts at conflict resolution,” as Mr. Tellis firmly believes, then not only is a resolution of the Kashmir problem not foreseeable but, more critically, India-Pakistan relations are not going to change, leave aside improve, any time soon.

India’s only choice is to grit its teeth and keep its guard up till something alters but that’s unlikely to be soon. If this is the view of the Narendra Modi government — after initial attempts to win Pakistan over — I guess Mr. Tellis would say it’s right because it reflects reality.

Karan Thapar is a broadcast journalist

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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 9:25:55 AM |

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