Politics of unresolved issues flare with new India-Pakistan tensions

In India and Pakistan, politicians dance to a rising drumbeat of war. With last week's suicide bombing in Kashmir’s Pulwama area, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “the time for talks has passed.” Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan spoke of dialogue, but warned of the costs of Indian retaliation for the attack, which was planned by Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed. But Modi and Khan cannot hold the beat. In fact, they evidently are not in control. As in the past, another moment of India-Pakistan confrontation shows just how limited both governments are in their ability to either move peace forward or to substantially change the security issues that continue to provoke confrontation.

When Pakistani politicians talk of peace and dialogue, some believe the country’s military hawks seek to sabotage them out of desire to maintain a strong defense budget heavily oriented towards India. The military does perceive India as its number one security threat; however, in recent years it has professed its desire for stability with its eastern neighbor. However, it continues to allow anti-India militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to operate in Pakistan and views them as convenient proxies in their effort to balance power with a diplomatically and militarily more powerful India.   

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In India, any government attempt to de-escalate the situation with its predominantly Muslim-neighbor is stymied by Modi’s hardline politics of Hindu nationalism — a dynamic further exacerbated by the prime minister’s reelection bid in the Lok Sabha elections this year. Lack of progress in Pakistani courts on the Mumbai terror attacks case will remain a sticking point for any Indian government when thinking about advancing a big-picture vision of its relationship with Pakistan. Because so little has progressed on Mumbai and the host of outstanding bilateral security disputes, the politics of these unresolved issues are conveniently re-litigated each time tensions flare up.

Then there is the issue that perpetually keeps India and Pakistan in lock-step conflict and competition with one another: their nuclear weapons capabilities. The Pulwama attack, and others like it, generate fears among the international community of nuclear escalation. For this reason, the United States always has encouraged Indian restraint after similar attacks from Pakistan-based groups. It has intervened on behalf of Indian interests as well. When American intelligence revealed Pakistani plans to use a nuclear weapon during a 1999 India-Pakistan border conflict, the White House and the U.S. Department of State were intimately involved in walking Pakistan back from the brink.

We are light years away from that 1999 moment, which preceded the growing strength of domestic militancy in Pakistan, the significance of transnational terrorist actors such as al Qaeda and ISIS, and the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. Today, new regional security interests are at stake in the latest India-Pakistan security conflict — chief among them the U.S.-led effort to make peace with the Afghan Taliban.

With that in mind, it’s no surprise that U.S. national security adviser John Bolton condemned Pakistan after the Pulwama attack while expressing support for India’s right to self-defense. Pakistan’s relations with the United States pale in comparison to the U.S.-India strategic partnership that is based on commercial, diplomatic and military interests that continue to endure, despite periodic challenges to the relationship. For the Trump administration specifically, its policy regarding Pakistan is focused on two things: to pressure the government on its links to militants, and to engage Pakistan in bringing the Afghan Taliban to peace negotiations.

Bolton’s words are not welcome in Pakistan, where pressure is a knife that cuts both ways. Pakistan knows that President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE wants all American troops out of Afghanistan and that the United States is keen on striking a deal with the Taliban this year. On this, Pakistan has been immensely helpful as of late, in particular in releasing Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar, who now leads negotiations for the group. But it also has shown that it can be equally unhelpful.

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In response to threats of Indian retaliation, Pakistan stated that U.S.-led peace talks with the Taliban would be affected by any Indian response. The Afghan government rebuked Pakistan for the suggestion, calling into question its genuine commitment to regional stability and peace. While it may seem like Pakistan is cutting off its nose to spite its face, it’s a clever reminder to the Americans that President Trump has built an Afghanistan strategy that relies, perhaps too heavily, on Pakistani cooperation.

Wasn’t minimizing U.S. dependency on Pakistan a distinguishing factor of the Trump administration? Perhaps so, but its implementation falls flat in the face of the intertwined nature of the region’s security politics. For Pakistan, Afghanistan always has been about India. The 2006 U.S.-India civil-nuclear agreement, combined with U.S. encouragement of Indian development activities in Afghanistan, have threatened Pakistan’s sense of security — a sentiment that partially explains Pakistan’s current Afghanistan policy and its inaction towards anti-India militants in Punjab.

As long as this is the case, the utility of anti-India militants for Pakistan continues to outweigh the benefits of peace with India, a point reinforced by the unfortunate Pulwama attack and all of those before it.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a senior South Asia fellow at New America and senior adviser at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. She served in the U.S. Department of State and at the White House National Security Council during the Obama and Bush administrations. Follow her on Twitter @ShamilaCh.