Thursday, 16 April 2015
The Lakhvi Triangle, by Whitney Kassel
The first few months of 2015 offered a glimmer of hope in the long, twisted history of the India-Pakistan rivalry. On February 11, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to wish Pakistan luck in the cricket World Cup, and to offer to send his new Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar to Islamabad for talks. But just two months later, the Lahore High Court’s approval of Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi’s release from prison on April 10 thoroughly tanked any near-term prospects for improved relations between the two countries. Lakhvi is the 55-year-old operational head of the Kashmir-focused Islamic militant groupLashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and alleged mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
The court’s decision has left Indian leaders fuming and has drawn criticismfrom the U.S. government. A deterioration in Pakistan’s relations with either nation will be detrimental to regional and global security and, in the case of bilateral India-Pakistan ties, the ultimate stability of both countries. A recent Atlantic Council report estimates that an expansion in bilateral trade between India and Pakistan could generate up to $400 billion in just a few years, while freeing resources currently tied up in bloating defense spending and improve access to resources like water and electricity. The stakes in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship are also high, with the Washington supplying billions of dollars in military and economic aid to Islamabad each year in hopes of eliciting critical counterterrorism cooperation and the facilitation — both political and logistical — of NATO’s projected withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Many Asia policy-watchers in India and across the world are pointing to the growing importance of the India-China rivalry. They are inclined to dismiss the India-Pakistan conflict as a kind of 20th-century relic, with a dysfunctional and debt-ridden Pakistan continuing to obsess over its neighbor’s supposed designs on regional hegemony while India has found bigger fish to fry in economic development and the larger long-term threat to the east. But while Pakistan’s preoccupation with perceived Indian meddling in Afghanistan and elsewhere can indeed verge on the delusional (not to mention self-destructive), the friction between these warring sibling countries is still a very real issue, and one that could quickly escalate — no small hazard when dealing with two nuclear-armed states.
Modi came into office in May 2014 with a fairly hardline stance on Pakistan (save a seeming gesture of goodwill in inviting Sharif to his inauguration), a position that was controversial but ultimately aligned with a large portion of Indian popular opinion. Since 2001, much of the Indian national security community has watched in confusion as the United States tried desperately to forge a “strategic partnership” with Pakistan in the name of bilateral cooperation on the war in Afghanistan and counterterrorism, despite numerous, damning indications that Pakistan was playing a double game by providing support to Afghan Taliban groups. Modi’s approach, therefore, while not completely entrenched, seemed to embody a sense of frustration and reflect India’s deep distrust that Pakistan would ever engage on issues of terrorism and bilateral relations in good faith.
Many Indians were shocked, therefore, when Modi reached out to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in February in what appeared to be a retreat from several of India’s previously set “red lines.” In August 2014, Pakistani leaders met with the Kashmiri separatist group Hurriyat Conference just days before scheduled foreign minister-level talks between the two countries. Modi saw this as a snub in the face of a potential rapproachment, and promptly called off the meeting. But this time, Modi reached out despite Pakistan’s continued contact with Hurriyat, including a meeting between Hurriyat Conference chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi, Abdul Basit, the day before Modi’s call to Sharif.
It was hard, then, back in February, to resist speculating over the reasons for Modi’s about-turn, given that his outreach to Sharif came just days after Obama’s visit to India. The press and observers in both countries widely assumed Obama had put Modi up to the call, a perception fueled by the White House’s comments before the visit that Pakistan was a top agenda item. The call angered many in India, who felt the move put Modi in an embarrassing and unwise position by simultaneously acceding to the United States’ behest and capitulating to a dangerous and intransigent rival. Others insisted nothing had — or would — change on Pakistan’s end, and remained certain that extending an olive branch was a fool’s errand.
Even supporters of Modi’s friendlier stance towards Pakistan were skeptical that such a step would ultimately lead to any real shifts in existing and deeply rooted antagonisms, which many perceive, at least in the case of Pakistan, to be built into the very socio-political fabric of the country. Ideas about the precise ways in which strains of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-India sentiment are intertwined and self-reinforcing across different segments of Pakistani society vary according to the observer and his or her background or bias (few, if any, analysts of these slippery issues ever appear to be truly impartial). But in India, if not in Pakistan itself, it seemed likely that those forces would derail any hopes for reconciliation.
On the Pakistan side, of course, there also remained deep distrust as to Modi’s true intentions.
In this argument, the army’s economic clout and prestige depend on its status as the nation’s savior, and the leeway given to it by the Pakistani people is largely built on their fear that without the Army’s protection, India will annihilate them.