The origins of this Kashmir conflict rest in British policy. They withdrew from the subcontinent without a clear understanding of the consequences. Their strategic naiveté was mirrored in another dispute, the Middle East, where they left plenty of material for future UN sessions. They believed they could entrust the Northwest frontier to Pakistan, and, crossing their fingers, assumed there would be no other quarrel. Some leaders of the British Indian army, including Claude Auchinleck, thought otherwise, but did not reckon on Pakistan turning to a faulty Kashmir accession as a way out.
The rest has been history. In Pakistan, the British general who took command deliberately constrained his forces until he was replaced by General Ayub Khan, who launched the 1965 war. The Indian decisions were made by a man — Jawaharlal Nehru — who did not believe in the use of force except in extreme urgency. He forgot that he had given Pakistan a critical issue, one that would toxically combine with the truth; he (but not Mahatma Gandhi) wanted to politely starve the Pakistanis into submission.
In the Cold War, the military came to influence and power in Pakistan. Trying to free himself from the army’s grip, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto understood that the army had to be hedged, and used a narrow victory to drive the point home. In the process, he entangled Pakistan in Afghanistan, beginning the long process of Islamising both states. Benazir caught the virus, and made intemperate speeches at the beginning of the internet era, but she also understood that her position was driven by politics.
The Uri event was by itself inconsequential. It could have been started by Pakistani “minders” of the trouble-makers, or it could have begun on its own. The issue is not Kashmir, but the army’s peculiar attachment to it, highlighted by the rapture with which it is held. However, Pakistani officers now get the full shock of contact with the Pakistan Taliban.
Certainly, most Pakistanis don’t want the achievement of a separate Kashmir, but they relish the idea of a troublesome state, controlled by India. The brief hiatus in Pakistani policy under General Pervez Musharraf collapsed quickly. In the end, they don’t have a clear vision for re-uniting Kashmir, but the distant hope is better than managing increasingly angry crowds. Even Nawaz Sharif may have gone along with this venture, as he could use the Jammu and Kashmir seats for his parliamentary struggle to maintain a dominant position.
We are beginning to learn about the new decision-making process. It works at these levels, but raises some questions.
First, the US model of using force to break up Iraqi forces when Saddam Hussein died was calamitous, and no one agrees with that policy today. India is not close to stripping the Pakistan army, unless it can neutralise the Pakistan bomb. This could be a US role in the future (as was suggested by the late K. Subrahmanyam). America is now neutral regarding India and Pakistan, although tilting towards India, but there is always the hope that it might change its policy. But hope is not a ground for a new policy, Pakistan is important enough to keep the relationship with the US as more than an alliance, but less than close.
Second, India has a Pakistan problem. The people in charge have little to do with electoral politics. There will be a new army chief, but will General Raheel Sharif accept popular opinion, and continue in office, or will he gracefully retire? There is enough ambiguity to raise concern in several capitals. This could be the starting point for more war, and could also be the starting point for a serious dialogue, but these will be sabotaged by the military in Pakistan. General Sharif will go, perhaps, but will his successor be tougher and more resistant than Raheel?
Third, the language used in the case of the deployment has to be reconsidered. India and Pakistan rest in the zone of uncertainty, their terminology makes war difficult but not impossible, risky but not calamitous. If both sides are cautious, they can please the crowds while meeting vital economic goals. Here is one round for improvement. The military terminology needs to be bilaterally redrawn. Not “surgical” strikes or “launch pads”, these are nuclear-related terms. The countries need to get a shared vocabulary, but this will not happen in an era of mass communications. Both sides are constrained by using old Cold War terms to describe a situation of mutual disadvantage.
Fourth, India needs to go back to real interests. Dialogues have failed, but there is still room for reasoned discussion. India needs an international approach to Kashmir, albeit without international meddling. Pakistan must feel that the fate of Kashmiris is not yet determined, but must go to other issues. US policy has been recently neglectful, backing India vis a vis the silly doctrine of dehyphenation. The US needs an objective examination of Kashmir, and of Pakistan’s role.
Does this inaugurate a dynamic that can spin out of Indian and Pakistani control? Maybe it does, but probably not. That will be the judgment in Washington, unless there are unknown processes that will impact choices. One factor that does not push the two nations into a state of open war — possibly nuclear — is that the economies are moving forward in India, and getting off to a good start in Pakistan.
This is not a new pattern and phase of the India-Pakistan relationship, it is exactly like the previous crises with the addition of a nuclear stand-off. That seems to be decisive, until India (or Pakistan) decides to move to the next level.
What is the larger frame and context in which to view this? We need to get an understanding of the pull of history, and put this oldest conflict in its proper terms. India needs at least 10 years of uninterrupted peace to move ahead, Pakistan may need more. Will this happen? Yes, in a perfect world, but probably not in the world we live. The best we can look forward to is a dozen years of mixed progress. The worst would be that the next crisis could get out of hand.