Despite the Current Tensions on the India-Pakistan Border, a ‘Cold Peace’ Will Prevail

Recent days have seen the worst fighting between India and Pakistan in over a decade, but there is reason to believe that the heightened tension in Kashmir will most likely subside in the coming weeks. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was harshly criticized by his opponents when he brushed off a question regarding the skirmishes with “everything will be fine soon.” However, Modi is right; powerful actors on both sides of the conflict, namely the Pakistani military and the Hindu-nationalist Modi regime, are invested in preventing an all-out war, almost to the same degree that they are interested in curtailing a full normalization of relations between the two nuclear armed states. The current tensions can be best understood as a course correction toward the historic status quo, after a series of warm diplomatic overtures from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif towards the newly elected Prime Minister Modi.

The 2013 election of Nawaz Sharif, and subsequent plans to grant India Most Favored Nation status that would significantly boost bilateral trade, brought optimism to the public discourse on India-Pakistan relations. The Sharif government has consistently shown an eagerness to normalize relations with India, without insisting on first crossing the hurdle of the Kashmir dispute. Sharif finds little support from Pakistan’s military or across the Indian border. Better trade and transport with India fits neatly with Sharif’s pro-business party manifesto, not to mention the potential personal benefits the Sharif clan could accrue as owners of one of the largest business conglomerates in the country. The third-time Prime Minister has a history of making efforts to improve commerce and cultural links between the two historic rivals: after their respective nuclear tests soured relations, Sharif made a concerted effort to improve relations with India, which in 1999 culminated in a visit from then Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on the inaugural run of the landmark Delhi-Lahore bus service. The Indian premiere was received by Sharif in a historically warm welcome at the border (which was tellingly boycotted by Pakistan’s military chiefs). The meeting resulted in the Lahore Declaration, a bilateral agreement widely hailed as a breakthrough in the improvement of strained relations between the newly nuclear armed neighbors. Public on both sides of the border enthusiastically received the Declaration, as well as the resumption of cricket matches between the two countries after a decade-long suspension.

The Pakistani military, on the other hand, continues to be wary of all civilian initiatives of peace with India. Despite the historic strides toward peace initiated by Pakistan’s premier, the year 1999 saw the Kargil conflict bring the two nations to the brink of full-blown war, and ended with the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif by then-Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf. This time around, Sharif’s endeavors to improve relations with India once again put him at odds with the military. Pakistan’s military enjoys its reputation as the country’s most efficient institution, the guardian of the state, and the final mediator of internal conflicts. A large part of this image derives from having a neighbor that is perceived to pose a constant strategic and national security threat to Pakistan. The military’s opposition to a normalization of ties with India, as long as the Kashmir dispute remains unresolved, is certainly ideological, but it is also grounded in strategic reasons of self-interest. The current cross-border tensions, coupled with Pakistan’s ongoing internal political turmoil, provide just the right amount of friction needed to halt the diplomatic overtures towards India by Sharif.

Of course, it takes two to tango, and Modi has yet to disappoint. When the Hindu-nationalist leader rose to a historic victory on a pro-business agenda, many in Pakistan had hoped that his business acumen would win over attempts to consolidate Hindu right-wing support and that Modi may pursue a strengthening of economic ties with Pakistan. This, however, has not come to pass. Modi’s invitation to Sharif for his inauguration was seen as a positive first step, and despite goodwill gestures like exchanging presents for each other’s mothers and Sharif sending over cases of top-quality Pakistani mangoes, the relations have taken a turn for the worse.

In August, India cancelled high-level talks between the two foreign secretaries after the Pakistani High Commissioner met with leaders from the Hurriyat Conference, Kashmir’s largest separatist group.  The meeting between the Pakistani High Commissioner and Kashmiri separatist leaders has a decades-long precedent, and the cancellation of talks in retaliation came as a shock to Pakistani policymakers. The response, which resulted in a suspension of Pakistan’s plan to grant India Most Favored Nation status, signals the likelihood that despite the conciliatory rhetoric, when it comes to Pakistan and Kashmir, Modi is prioritizing his Hindu-nationalist credentials over his reputation for a strong economic vision. This is also evidenced by Modi’s selection of hard-liner former intelligence officer Ajit Doval as National Security Advisor. Doval’s appointment is in line with BJP’s more aggressive foreign policy and their calls to end the exceptional autonomy granted to Kashmir under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. Thus, on Pakistan, Modi appears to be playing to his right-win domestic audiences.

Yet none of the actors involved in India or Pakistan would benefit from a full-scale military engagement. Pakistan has clearly articulated as much, despite fiery rhetoric on both sides of the Line of Control.  Power-brokers on both sides have more to gain from restoring the perception of a threat. Once the dust settles after this recent bout of violence, a precarious cold peace will return to the border. While better than conflict, it will remain a far cry from the warm neighborly relations that many had dared to hope for this time.


Image: Tauseef Mustafa-AFP, Getty

Posted in , India, India-Pakistan Relations, Kashmir, leadership, LoC, Military, Pakistan, Peace

Faiqa Mahmood

Faiqa Mahmood is an editor for South Asian Voices where she manages the platform’s Urdu channel. She was formerly a Visiting Fellow at The Stimson Center's South Asia program and is also a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU). Ms. Mahmood has conducted research for think tanks in the United States, Egypt, and Lebanon. Her writings have appeared in the Yale Journal of International Affairs, Georgetown Security Studies Review, Harvard Kennedy School's Journal of Middle Eastern Politics and Policy, Foreign Policy Magazine's South Asia Channel, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, among others. Ms. Mahmood graduated from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy with a focus on International Security Studies and Southwest Asia and the Islamic Civilization.

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3 thoughts on “Despite the Current Tensions on the India-Pakistan Border, a ‘Cold Peace’ Will Prevail

  1. Your article is based on the wrong premises and draws the wrong conclusions. PM Modi has been highlighting that everyone can benefit from India’s growth and prosper through mutual benefit. His vision for where he wants to take India has been well received around the world and Investments will pour in as he goes about economic reforms and shaking India out of its lethargy. The border firing and violations will stop sooner than later because the trouble makers there will be made to pay punitive costs.

    Shedding crocodile tears about the Kashmiri people after grabbing and bartering away some of their land to China, can fool only the most radicalized. A drowning man clutches at a straw, very surprising that a country can mortgage its well being and prosperity chasing a chimera. That a country took recourse to terrorism believing it can win territory reflects very poorly on the intellectual capacity of those decision makers. That Pakistan continues to retain faith in those same decision makers who also lost half the country is not just shocking but mentally challenging too.

    Modi presents an opportunity to those adept at grabbing opportunities. He is also a formidable foe to trouble makers who want to play spoilers in stalling India’s progress. Pakistan will do well to revisit its policies of duplicity and deceit and extend a genuine hand of friendship, letting bygones be bygones. Pakistan is in a very weak position overrun by thousands of well armed, trained and jobless terror prospects. These so called assets are nothing but mercenaries who if not eliminated immediately, can fall into the wrong hands and become calamitous liabilities. Wisdom can always deliver, what force cannot, if given a chance.

  2. Well written piece. My observation relates to the perceptions that state’s have in terms of how they want to view disputes and the respective actors involved in it. Talking of Kashmir, in this purview, the ‘separatists’ for Indians are freedom fighters for Kashmiris.
    One perspective of viewing this could be the election campaign in Kashmir. The rhetoric in this case may die down, afterwards. However, analysts on Indian side are viewing it as a stronger policy on the disputed territory of Kashmir. Modi setting new “benchmarks” in bilateral relations.
    A rising India with its global clout and international standing feels less inclined in bilaterally dealing with regional issues. However, with great power and status comes great responsibility and hence the stake for mutual resolution of all outstanding issues needs serious consideration, both from Indian and Pakistani side.

  3. Your conclusion that ” cold peace will prevail ” shows your deep understanding of the issue and is a true assessment. I too feel that under the given circumstances the two countries will not opt to start a war and your prediction will come true.

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