Pakistan’s Fear of Big Neighbour a Peace Risk

This article first appeared in the 6 August 2008 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Al Qaeda – having made Afghanistan almost ungovernable – is poised to also destabilise Pakistan, says Richard Whelan

The agreement of Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to investigate Indian allegations that his spy service was behind last month’s suicide bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul – made at this weekend’s South Asian summit in Sri Lanka – underlines how fraught relations between the two neighbouring nuclear powers have become.

The renewed hostilities between India and Pakistan on the disputed Kashmir border last week, which claimed the lives of five soldiers, brings into focus the underlying cause of the instability affecting the region.

This latest violation of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan further raises the temperature in a conflict already inflamed by the recent bombings in India and Kabul, blamed by India on militants supported by Pakistan one of which Pakistan has now agreed to investigate. Looming in the background is the unstable nuclear standoff between these two powers.

To understand what is happening in Kashmir and, I might add, in Afghanistan, you need to understand how much Pakistan fears its mighty neighbour. Pakistan (“the land of the pure”) was created not as a territory but as a concept – a home for the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. It was born in a violent and bloody partition with India, separating Hindus and Muslims in 1947. That violence has continued, involving a second bloody partition, again involving India, when East Pakistan broke off from the Pakistani state to form Bangladesh in 1971.

Pakistan fearing encirclement by India, responded by lighting “bushfires of conflict” originally in Kashmir and more recently in Afghanistan, to divert Indian attention away from itself.

Unable to confront India directly, Pakistan has pursued a “policy of aggression on all sides”, as French Islamic scholar Olivier Roy puts it. It provides training and support to Islamic religious militants in campaigns against India, and encourages religious networks to ideologically focus them, while leaving itself in a position to deny any involvement. This policy involved the elite landowning classes (who still control most political parties in Pakistan) using the military/intelligence complex and religious militants (at most 10 per cent of the population) to keep India off balance and involved in strategic diversions and so unable to focus its military strength against Pakistan itself.

When Pakistan joined the nuclear club in 1998 it then had appropriate “cover” for this sub-conventional warfare against India.

However in a classic example of “blowback” from this policy, religious militants in Pakistan now target the Pakistani state, its political parties, and those in the army and the intelligence services who do not continue to support them. In this they are fully assisted by Al Qaeda which is also based in the lawless tribal areas in Pakistan bordering Afghanistan.

The Taliban now attacking the Pakistani state is a creation of that very state. As a recent review put it: “ .. even a radically atavistic Islamist group such as the Taliban was raised, promoted, and unleashed by the civilian government of the late Benazir Bhutto (during her second term in office from 1993 to 1996) with the full collaboration of the Pakistani military and intelligence services – and the Taliban continued to receive complete moral and material support under her civilian successor, Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif”. (Ashley J Tellis, Pakistan and the War on Terror: Conflicted Goals, Compromised Performance, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

Reducing Pakistani fears of Indian encirclement is going to require major changes. This will require a significant effort on the part of the international community to cajole these two countries to fully engage to end their sub-conventional conflict. This peace deal will require four discrete but interlocking steps.

The key step is an agreement to end the conflict over Kashmir. The second is an agreement between India, Pakistan, and Iran, with the support of the international community, to treat Afghanistan as a neutral state. Absent such, both India and Pakistan (and also Iran) will treat it as just another part of a “Great Game” between them. The third, to enable Pakistan and Afghanistan to live in peace, the colonial border between them, the Durand line, must be finally agreed, with resolution of the question of the Pashtun militants on both sides of that border who form the core of the Taliban insurgency in both countries. Finally the international community needs to heavily support democracy and economic reconstruction in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India itself.

In the absence of this international commitment, Pakistani fears of their massive neighbour will perpetuate the policy of strategic diversion of India which as one expert put it has led Pakistan in “ever decreasing circles”. That policy will eventually lead Pakistan itself but also India and Afghanistan to ruin. The international effort to change this ruinous policy will not be easy. However all the alternatives are much worse.

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