Stabilizing South Asian Politics

by Kevin Carmody | 1/10/02 6:00am

Since a December terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament that killed 14 people, relations between India and Pakistan -- never close to begin with -- have been in particularly dire straits. India accused Pakistan of harboring and backing those responsible for the assault, and how accurate that charge is remains doubtful. While Pakistan has shown support for the two major groups the Indian government condemns -- Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed -- proof of Pakistani complicity in these specific attacks remains unclear. Yet after previous attacks killed Indian civilians in October, India declared that while it remains committed to peace, its patience is growing limited. That sentiment, coupled with the strong domestic support for a tougher line on Pakistan, has prompted a much stronger response from the Indian government this time around. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee ordered hundreds of thousands of Indian troops to prepare for an offensive, and announced his country was prepared for war, should India be forced into war.

The primary source of tension between India and Pakistan is the disputed region of Kashmir, surrounded by India and Pakistan on all sides. Since the end of British colonial rule in 1947, the two nations have existed amid religious tensions -- India is primarily Hindu, while Pakistan is mostly Muslim. At independence, the Hindu Maharaja of Kashmir decided to join India, despite the fact that a majority of his subjects were Muslim. India claims that this decision must be honored, while Pakistan believes that the Kashmiri people ought to be granted the right to self-determination by way of a referendum. The past ten years have seen an increase in Pakistan's support of Kashmiri separatist groups, an alliance that has inflamed relations in the subcontinent. In 1999, both nations tested nuclear weapons, adding another dangerous element to their tenuous relationship. Earlier this year, the prospect for a peaceful resolution seemed relatively good. General Pervez Musharraf, the leader of Pakistan since a military coup ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in October of 1999, and Indian Prime Minister Vajpayee agreed to peace negotiations. The recent attacks, however, have caused a breakdown.

Yet despite the harsh rhetoric coming from both sides, war is unlikely in the near future. The catastrophic consequences of nuclear fallout weigh too heavily on the shoulders of leadership in both nations for them to take war lightly. For India in particular, Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons checks any temptations India has of taking advantage of its superiority in conventional forces, because Pakistan has not adopted a "no-first-use" policy.

Indeed, the rhetoric in the past few weeks is as much a result of domestic political pressure as genuine policy decisions. Indian public opinion in the wake of the attack on what is seen by many citizens as the symbol of Indian democracy has demanded a tougher line on both the terrorists and Pakistan. For his part, General Musharraf faces militarists within his own government who strongly back continued Pakistani support for fighters in Kashmir.

Perhaps the most significant reason that India will not resort to force in the Kashmir dispute is because it won't need to. The last thing the United States wants is a war between Pakistan, a nation that has committed its ground forces to fighting al Qaeda, and a Muslim nation such as India, which is democratic to boot. Given the American concern with preserving its coalition against terror, India realizes that it can use American hopes for peace to pressure Pakistan. Already, the United States has frozen the assets of several groups based in Pakistan thought to support violence in Kashmir. By attacking Pakistan, India gives up any leverage it has with the U.S.

Pakistan must legitimately arrest and try the militants who are launching these attacks. While extremists within Musharraf's government put political limits on how much he can do at one time, he must continue to arrest terrorists to prove to India that he remains committed to peace in Kashmir. So far, he has shown he is willing to make such politically difficult decisions. Last week he placed the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba under house arrest. But after the attacks on India's Parliament, it will take a sustained commitment to peace on the part of Pakistani leadership to prove not only its good will, but also its political viability.

For its part, the U.S. must recognize both its own regional responsibility as well as an important opportunity. War between those two nations would destabilize the entire region. Repercussions would reach as far as China, a close ally of and arms supplier to Pakistan. In light of Operation Enduring Freedom, ensuring that peace is maintained between a Muslim state and another country will help the U.S. make its case to the world that it bears no grudge against the religion of Islam. For, ultimately, continued international support for the United States is dependent on its ability not only to prosecute wars, but also to avoid them.