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South Asia: A Challenge for the Next U.S. President

Pakistan nuclear missile

While the American presidential election nears its conclusion, the dangerous deterioration of Pakistan-India relations shows no sign of abating. The next president will need to address a myriad of security concerns in South Asia, the most urgent of which will be to de-escalate the situation between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

The bilateral relationship looked promising just 10 months ago. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, signaled political will to improve relations after India’s abrupt cancellation of foreign-secretary level talks. Hopes were buoyed by Prime Minister Modi’s surprise goodwill visit to Lahore. The two leaders discussed avenues for peace and mutual cooperation, and Modi attended a Sharif family wedding.

A few days later, India suffered a terrorist attack on its Pathankot Air Force base carried out by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), a militant group operating out of Pakistan. Though Pakistan’s civilian leadership immediately moved to condemn the attack and offered assistance with the investigations, the attack led to a breakdown in the fragile peace process. India demanded Pakistan cease providing support to India-centric militant groups, Pakistan retorted that it was a target of terrorism itself and supported no such groups.

The relationship deteriorated further following waves of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir.  India and Pakistan have vied for control of the disputed region since 1947, and have fought three wars over it.

And then Uri happened. The September 18 attack on an Indian army base near the town of Uri was the deadliest attack on security forces in Kashmir in over two decades. Four militants killed 19 Indian soldiers in the devastating attack carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), another banned group operating out of Pakistan.

With the Uri attack, Pakistan and India have hit an alarming crescendo that has shrunk the political space, limited cultural cooperation, and most distressingly, ramped up jingoistic rhetoric from both sides. India’s Home Minister Rajnath Singh blasted Pakistan as “a terrorist state.” Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry responded declaring: “India immediately puts blame on Pakistan without doing any investigation” and demanded proof of Pakistan’s involvement. Sensationalist media on both sides spoke of war – India’s bellicose media heatedly demanding it and Pakistan’s discussing its inevitability.

In what was billed as a retaliation to Uri, India carried out surgical strikes across the de-facto border in Kashmir – a claim Pakistan flatly denies as “an illusion.” India’s restraint has been tested, and the right-wing government is under pressure from the public to respond more robustly. Both countries demonstrated a proclivity towards punitive responses, increasing chances of larger military engagement. To counter an indifferent Pakistan, India will likely pursue surgical strikes and covert operations to target networks it deems as threats. It is unclear how far past the Line of Control India would be willing to go or how beneficial that step would be in the long-term but it is now an option India has made clear is on the table.

Last week, both countries announced they would expel diplomats; India is accusing a Pakistani diplomat in New Delhi of running a spy ring and Pakistan expelled an Indian official in Islamabad, giving his family 48 hours to leave the country. It’s not just diplomats that are unwelcome. In the aftermath of Uri, the line between culture and politics has been blurred with Pakistani actors and technicians banned from working in India “until normalcy returns.” The cultural space so crucial as an unofficial Track II dialogue has dissipated and it seems Bollywood, too, is on a war footing.

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For the first time since the lead up to the 1999 Kargil War – another military escalation that developed rapidly – there is an unease in the air as both sides continue to posture aggressively. New Delhi operates under a superior escalation doctrine, meaning it commands superiority over Islamabad on every stage of conventional warfare. Recognizing this, Islamabad has opted for full spectrum deterrence, focusing on expanding its nuclear arsenal, putting it on track to have the world’s third biggest stockpile within a decade. It is crucial this situation be dialed down before it becomes a full on military conflict between the nuclear-armed archrivals. And that is precisely why the next American president must make this a priority.

Each side has set pre-conditions for resumption of talks: Pakistan demands the inclusion of Kashmir in any comprehensive bilateral dialogue (which India has never agreed to) and India insists on talking about terrorist groups based in Pakistan that have support from Pakistani intelligence agencies to carry out attacks on Indian soil. Confounding the matter further is the fact that the two countries do not share any common strategic interest. There is no large-scale cooperation on trade, combating climate change, energy projects and even the long-standing water treaty has taken an inimical turn. In regards to the theater in Afghanistan – another policy priority for the next POTUS – the enmity is likely to continue as the situation remains chaotic and violent.

The United States must press upon cooler minds to prevail on both sides, and it would benefit the region and world if shared interests, such as the stalled efforts to increase trade, could be pursued over the course of the next administration. An effective method would be to include regional power player China in the negotiations. It is in China’s interest to seek a de-escalation of Indo-Pak hostilities as it boasts strong economic and political ties with both nations, making it a worthwhile diplomatic partner.

In a region fraught with tension on a good day, the recent shutdown of diplomatic ties amidst acceleration of military engagement makes this the most urgent security concern facing the next leader of the free world. At this time, the odds of a looming crisis in South Asia remain high.

Editor’s noteAs the United States goes to the polls next week to elect a new leader, South Asian Voices contributors Hamzah Rifaat Hussain, Pranay Kotasthane, Sana Ali, and Monish Tourangbam analyze what the next U.S. president’s policy priorities should be in South Asia, why the region is critical to American interests, and what implications U.S. policies can have for stability in the region. Read the entire series here.

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Image 1: Syed Naqvi, Wikimedia

Image 2: Pankaj Nangia-Bloomberg, Getty Images

Posted in , , India, India-Pakistan Relations, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, POTUS Inbox, US

Sana Ali

Sana Ali

Ms. Sana Ali holds a Master’s Degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in International Relations (concentrating in Strategic Studies) and International Economics. Ms. Ali has previously served as an aide to Ambassador Husain Haqqani and Ambassador Sherry Rehman at the Embassy of Pakistan, in Washington, DC, maintaining a strong focus on internal and regional security issues. She serves on the Board of Directors of Marshall Direct Fund, a non-profit dedicated to education efforts and the empowerment of women in the Pakistani economy. Ms. Ali currently is the Editor of leading Pakistani newspaper, The Daily Times.

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