By Robert M. Hathaway, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Robert M. Hathaway directs the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is co-editor of New Security Challenges in Asia. The views expressed are his own.
Archenemies India and Pakistan, South Asia’s two nuclear-armed powers, are once again trading fire, taking casualties, and hurling accusations. Recent hopes for better relations between these long-time foes have been set back. Unfortunately, we have seen this movie before – and we know it doesn’t have a happy ending.
The latest crisis erupted earlier this month when five Indian soldiers stationed along the disputed Kashmir border were ambushed and killed. India’s defense minister asserted that Pakistani commandoes were directly involved in the attack. Islamabad denied any role and countered that Indian shelling across the “line of control” separating the two parts of Kashmir had killed an elderly Pakistani civilian.
In the days since, a flurry of accusations and denials has roiled the two countries. Indian protestors demonstrated outside the Pakistani embassy in New Delhi. The Pakistani foreign office summoned an Indian diplomat to lodge a formal complaint. The Indian foreign ministry warned that unprovoked incidents along the line of control “naturally have consequences” for bilateral relations. The Pakistani finance minister announced that his government had shelved the idea of granting India the most-favored-nation status that had been in the works. Previously planned diplomatic talks are on hold.
The renewed turmoil in Kashmir comes at a moment when Indian-Pakistani suspicions are already elevated by events in neighboring Afghanistan. In early August, an unsuccessful assault on an Indian consulate in eastern Afghanistan killed nine Afghan civilians; Indian intelligence accused the extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, based in Pakistan and fostered by Pakistan’s intelligence services, of masterminding the attack. Lashkar’s leader lives openly in Pakistan, despite the $10 million bounty Washington has offered for his role in directing the 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai that killed 166 people.
Pakistan security experts in turn believe that New Delhi is using its diplomatic facilities, development projects, and trade links in Afghanistan to foment insurgency in Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan province, and worry that India’s presence in Afghanistan masks an encirclement strategy designed to strangle Pakistan.
The heightened tensions in Kashmir also come as bombs and suicide attacks rock Pakistan almost daily. More than 4,000 Pakistanis have died in extremist violence this year alone. The recently installed government of Nawaz Sharif is wrestling with what may well be the most crucial decision he will make during his premiership: how to deal with violent extremism inside Pakistan.
The current escalation of tensions with India should stir alarming memories for Sharif. In 1999, during an earlier tenure as prime minister, he and the Indian prime minister seemed on the verge of an historic breakthrough in relations until India discovered that the Pakistani military had orchestrated a large infiltration across the Kashmir line of control. The resulting crisis resulted in more than a thousand fatalities on the two sides and sabotaged hopes for peace.
Now, newly reinstalled in office and elected in part on a platform of improving ties with India, Sharif once again finds that groups associated with the Pakistan army – if not the military high command itself – threaten to subvert his India agenda.
The ill-tempered exchanges of the past two weeks threaten to overturn plans for the two prime ministers to meet in New York next month on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Unless Sharif can prevent Pakistani soil from being used as a staging ground for attacks on Indian-held Kashmir and India proper, his fine words about building a more constructive relationship with New Delhi will count for little.
But reining in these attacks will not be easy. Many in the Pakistani military remain wedded to an outdated mode of thinking that requires India as an enemy. So, too, do other Pakistanis, many of whom have never believed what the rest of the world accepts as fact: that Pakistan’s intelligence services had a hand in the deadly 2008 Mumbai attack. Some Pakistanis seized eagerly on a recent report alleging that Indian security agencies had staged the attack themselves, as a way to tar Pakistan with the brush of terrorism.
Even leaving aside the threat posed by extremist violence, the Sharif government faces a daunting domestic agenda. It must move quickly to revitalize the economy, meet the country’s energy shortfalls, modernize its infrastructure, educate its young people, and place Pakistan on the road to a more prosperous and secure future.
The last thing Sharif needs is heightened tensions with India, and the drain on the country’s limited resources this entails. No one has more to gain from new Indian-Pakistani conflict than the extremists. Moreover, most economists agree that expanding trade with India is one of the most important things Sharif can do to move forward on his domestic agenda.
Sharif must recognize that he cannot succeed unless he confronts the foes of democracy in his country – and not only the jihadis for whom violence is the only answer, but also the military establishment that has long called the shots in Pakistan. Surely Sharif has not forgotten that the last time he was in office, this establishment ousted him in a coup. Pakistan can ill afford a rerun of this movie.