The India-Pakistan Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) is in trouble. The 2003 agreement, which has kept the border violence between the neighbors’ armies in check for nearly fifteen years, is being threatened by the rising levels of conflict between troops on either side, as the exchange of small and large caliber gunfire and artillery shelling has become routine. In recent years, the number of incidents per year has steadily climbed from 152 in 2015 to 228 in 2016 to 860 in 2017, and 432 in the first two months of 2018, according to Indian officials.

Observers have argued that the current demise of the CFA can be traced back to structural problems and policy issues which have appeared in mid-2010s such as the revived Kashmir insurgency, after-effects of India’s surgical strike, and worsening India-Pakistan relations. However, there is a simple functional factor which has also contributed heavily to the current crisis – governmental neglect. The CFA was originally designed without any concern for its longevity, yet it proved to be unexpectedly successful and durable in controlling the border violence for several years thereafter. Unfortunately, both governments did not use this crucial period to fix the agreement’s design flaws.

To understand its design, the origins of the CFA must be understood: while the India-Pakistan border in Kashmir had remained  periodically “hot” since the 1948 war between the two neighbors, border violence began to escalate to new heights with the onset of the Kashmir insurgency in 1989. By the mid-1990s, the two armies were not only exchanging gunfire and artillery shelling but even attacking each other’s posts. The peak of violence was reached with the Kargil War in 1999, when Pakistani troops dressed as mujahideen tried to capture large chunks of Indian territory. The conclusion of the war did nothing to abate the violence, which in some ways became fiercer. It was in this tense atmosphere, which far exceeded even the levels of violence today, that the CFA came into effect.

The CFA was originally designed without any concern for its longevity, yet it proved to be unexpectedly successful and durable in controlling the border violence for several years thereafter.

After several failures before, in 2003, New Delhi and Islamabad were yet-again taking tentative steps towards a peace process. Following some back and forth over the summer, in November of that year,  Pakistan offered an unconditional, unilateral ceasefire along the Line of Control in a public statement. India announced it was not only willing to reciprocate but would also extend the ceasefire along the International Boundary and the Siachen Glacier (the other disputed boundary between the two neighbors). The CFA came into effect on 25 November, negotiated through the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) hotline. This hotline has existed for decades to resolve short-term border crises like the violation of airspace and brief gunfire exchanges. However, now it was being called upon to negotiate an extensive agreement along the entire India-Pakistan border. The agreement was negotiated by phone. The DGsMO did not meet in person, nor would they for another ten years. Consequently, there was no physical document ever signed by the two parties. The CFA was, and remains, a verbal agreement.

Due to its intangible nature, the CFA holds very little legal, normative, or functional utility. It lacks basic contractual clauses which are common in ceasefire agreements around the world. It includes no enforcement mechanism, no space for neutral observers, and no system of high-level mediation to resolve frequent disputes. Importantly, there is also no delineation of what constitutes as a ceasefire violation—an errant shot across the border or driving a tank through? Should both violations be given the same weight? What about non-lethal acts like establishing an artillery observation post on a previously-unoccupied height? Under these conditions, the intentional or accidental violation of the ceasefire line becomes likely. Accordingly, India and Pakistan quote wildly different figures of ceasefire violations because of this ambiguity. Essentially, it is an agreement entirely dependent on the goodwill of both parties.

Unsurprisingly, the 2003 CFA was given little credence at the time of its signing by observers, as this was a particularly mistrustful period in India-Pakistan history given the Kargil War, Pakistan’s support for militants in Kashmir throughout the 1990s, and the nuclear tests. Most expected the ceasefire to collapse in the short term as so many other India-Pakistan cooperation efforts had, including the larger peace process that was jumpstarted by the CFA in 2003 and collapsed in 2007.

Yet, for reasons we still do not understand well, the CFA proved to be highly successful and durable. In fact, it has arguably been the most successful example of India-Pakistan cooperation in the last few decades. In the years leading up to the ceasefire, violence on the border had skyrocketed, reaching more than 5700 incidents in 2002, according to some estimates. The CFA brought this number down to practically zero and kept it there for most of 2000s.

In its success, the CFA became invisible to New Delhi and Islamabad: during its successful years, the ceasefire was rarely discussed in the media or within government circles.

Unfortunately, in its success, the CFA became invisible to New Delhi and Islamabad: during its successful years, the ceasefire was rarely discussed in the media or within government circles. This neglect meant that New Delhi and Islamabad did not return to reinforce or renew the CFA through the mid and late 2000s, despite intermittent talks on other issues during the same time. It was akin to making slapdash repairs to the roof during rains and not returning the next summer to fix it properly. To the surprise of all, the roof held for few more seasons but, ultimately, it began to collapse.

As the agreement began to show its first sign of cracks in the early 2010s, India and Pakistan did not do much to repair the damage. In 2013, DGsMO were once again dispatched to find a solution, but this meeting had little impact on the ground situation. Since then, there have been intermittent suggestions to formalize the agreement or arrange another DGsMO meeting. However, there hasn’t been any movement forward because neither side wishes to affect their negotiating positions in the larger India-Pakistan relationship.

Today, the CFA can still be saved, should both governments commit to saving it, treating it as an issue separate from peace talks over Kashmir, and allocating a higher level of political resources to it. However, there is a larger lesson here as well: India-Pakistan cooperation is such a rare occurrence that any instance of it which shows even a modicum of success needs to be nurtured and protected. Otherwise, India-Pakistan tensions are bound to destroy it eventually.


Click here to read this article in Urdu.

Image 1: Stefan Krasowski via Flickr

Image 2: Andolu Agency via Getty

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