By Global Public Square staff
Washington’s efforts to broker Middle East peace have given this age-old conflict a high profile and raised expectations once again. But there is another decades-old dispute, thousands of miles away, that is getting very little attention. And for the first time in many years, there are reasons to be optimistic about its prospects: We’re talking about India and Pakistan.
Yes, the two countries have fought three full-scale wars and are locked in a nuclear arms race. They have frequent skirmishes over disputed territory in Jammu and Kashmir, as they did once again this week when five Indian soldiers were killed in an ambush.
But if you take a step back from Kashmir and examine the broader political climate in the region – India, Pakistan, and also Afghanistan – there are reasons for cautious optimism.
Pakistan’s new government could be the game changer. Nawaz Sharif is back as prime minister. The last time he was in power, in 1999, Sharif brokered a peace agreement with New Delhi. That deal, the Lahore Declaration, could have set the stage for a breakthrough on the main sticking point: Kashmir’s disputed territories. Instead, Pakistan’s army sparked a conflict by raiding Indian territory and then it deposed Sharif as prime Minister.
Even in his years in exile and opposition, Sharif continued to stress the importance of peace. He has pointed out that Pakistan will progress only when it stops treating India as its biggest enemy. He has also called for cutting the army's funding. And he's right on both counts. Trade between India and Pakistan amounts to only $2.6 billion a year – about one-fifth the value of trade between Pakistan and China, and about one twenty fifth the value of trade between India and China. This despite the fact that India and Pakistan share not only a border, but a common history, culture, language. They are natural trade partners.
Pakistan's army could prove to be the biggest obstacle again. A climate of peace would threaten its vast budgets. Pakistan is the 44th largest economy in the world and yet it maintains the 7th largest army in the world. About a fifth of its annual budget is spent on defense. Meanwhile, most of the country suffers from a lack of electricity and basic resources. But Nawaz Sharif now has a mandate to tame the military.
What about New Delhi? There's a small window for talks ahead of national elections next year. The fact is, India knows that Sharif presents their best chance for a peace deal, or at least for the laying of the groundwork for friendship. India also knows that factions in Pakistan – militants and jihadists – could try to derail any moves towards peace. If there are further attacks, there will be calls across India to retaliate. New Delhi will need to hold firm, as it actually has so far. The solution isn't to abandon peace efforts but to redouble them. And if the New Delhi government is looking for a legacy, given its abysmal performance with the economy lately, foreign affairs does seem a possible way to be remembered.
All of this matters for the United States. As Washington pulls out of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan will compete for power there. That will influence whether Afghanistan moves forward towards stability or again becomes a failed state. If the two countries—India and Pakistan— can actually move towards better ties, the whole region becomes less of a cesspool of radicalism and terror.