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India, Pakistan in an insecurity trap

by Praful Bidwai, 21 December 2004

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Buying Arms, Talking Peace

It is regrettable that India and Pakistan have made so little progress on the worthy proposal, now 14 months-old, to launch a bus service between the capitals of divided Kashmir. And it is equally distressing that they remain stuck in a conservative groove while discussing nuclear and conventional military confidence-building measures (CBMs) which will genuinely reduce the threat of a conflict in this volatile and now-nuclearised region. While the hitch on the first issue concerns the nature of the documents to be carried by passengers, the talks on the second are marred by a lack of will to take the bold steps that are absolutely necessary in the South Asian context.

In Islamabad talks last week, India and Pakistan complacently declared that Kashmir is no longer a nuclear flashpoint. This is a dangerous delusion. So long as Kashmir remains a contentious issue, it will trigger military rivalry with a nuclear escalation potential.

Beyond a point, it is immaterial who deserves the blame for this stagnation. Each state has its own special concerns, compulsions and anxieties. At the end of the day, what matters is whether the two succeed or fail to address these concerns and allay their fears. The stagnation comes almost a year after the Islamabad breakthrough which re-started their first serious dialogue since the nuclear tests of 1998, punctuated by Kargil and the 10 months-long military standoff of 2002. Unless the dialogue leads to concrete results, India and Pakistan will fail in the eyes of the world community to achieve minimal peace or stability.

That is bad enough. Even worse, the two governments have since launched a huge arms-buying spree. India is acquiring sophisticated air defence systems, new submarines from France and Russia (including a nuclear-powered submarine), the Patriot range of anti-missile missiles from the US, as well as new warplanes and an air-defence ship. India is now among the world’s three largest arms importers. Pakistan is buying more P-3C Orion maritime surveillance-cum-submarine-hunter aircraft, six Phalanx rapid-fire anti-ship guns, and TOW missiles, etc.—worth a big $1.2 billion from the US alone.

Washington is encouraging both states to acquire new, ever-deadlier weapons. Indeed, selling such weaponry to them was the principal function of US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfold’s recent visit to New Delhi and Islamabad. This has created rancour and resentment in both the South Asian capitals. India’s Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee has protested at the arms sales to Pakistan. He says the US argument that the sales are meant “to contain terrorist groups like Al-Qaida and Taliban … does not stand… Nobody uses F-16 fighter planes and other weapons meant for big wars to fight terrorists”. He has even warned that the arms transfer could “jeopardise” the India-Pakistan peace process.
Pakistan retorts that India is being “paranoid”; Islamabad’s arms acquisition will only “restore symmetry and bring stability to the region”. As Pakistan Foreign Ministry spokesman Masood Khan put it, in criticising Pakistan, India is “misleading Indian public opinion and misinforming the international community.” According to him, “Pakistan is pursuing a modest programme to fill up the gap that emerged during the 1990s due to US sanctions…” He also accuses India of having a highly ambitious $95 billion arms acquisition programme spread over 15 years.

Mr Mukherjee is right to say that weapons like the Orion and F-16 or anti-tank missiles are meant “for big wars and not to fight terrorism. Nobody uses F-16s to fight terrorism”. But that’s hardly the point. The new deadly toys are a reward for Pakistan’s invaluable assistance to the US in fighting al-Qaeda in and around Afghanistan. Similarly, Washington has rewarded India for its “strategic partnership”: first by approving the sale of the US-Israeli “Green Pine” radar and an associated air defence system, and then by offering top-of-the-range weapons such as the Patriot-II missile interceptor which is reportedly effective against low-flying aircraft, as well as other conventional materiel.

Two transformations are visible here. During the Cold War—particularly between the mid-1950s and mid-1960s, and then again in the 1980s—, the India-Pakistan arms race was fuelled by rival powers: respectively, the USSR and the US. Today, the same power drives the engine of that race: the US. India and Pakistan both vie for its attention and favours. In the process, both sustain, and in the long run intensify, their rivalry.

Second, the US is far from even-handed in its treatment of India and Pakistan. In one phase, it tilts towards one; in another, towards the other. A pro-Pakistan tilt took place, for instance, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 2000, following President Clinton’s South Asia visit, this tilt was reversed. Washington also consciously plays one rival off against the other by offering different things to them.

In the 1980s, Washington sold F-16s to Pakistan on an exclusive basis. But in the early 1990s, it imposed restrictions under the Pressler Amendment, etc. Then, after 2000, it warmed up to India and offered it “strategic partnership” plus a role in Ballistic Missile Defence. But a few months ago, it suddenly designated Pakistan a Major non-Nato Ally. For all its rhetoric about India’s worthy democracy and the country’s great “potential”, the US does not support India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.

Now, Washington is dangling different carrots before the two states. President Bush has again described Pakistan as a “frontline state” which is successfully fighting al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups and called General Pervez Musharraf “a world leader”. Washington is even more effusive in describing India as an “emerging power, a regional power and a world power with which we want a growing relationship”.

US ambassador to India David Mulford says Washington is eager to increase its military market in India. “We would like to be a bigger supplier of military equipment…” Mr Mulford says Pakistan does not fall in the same category as India. “It is important to view these relationships each in their own context. … It is very important to de-hyphenate the relationship…” However, the relationship does remain strongly hyphenated—not least because of Washington.
Washington practises double standards based on short-term considerations. Such double standards come naturally to a Superpower. India and Pakistan realise and resent this. Regrettably, they have both fallen a victim to it. All this would be relatively unimportant if it did not have strategic consequences. But it does. The India-Pakistan rivalry is exacerbated by Washington’s policies and moves, with their profoundly destabilising and harmful consequences. In particular, the US’s conduct can vitiate the present climate of goodwill and put a spoke in the India-Pakistan peace process.

It is not just hypocritical, but downright foolhardy, for Washington both to supply new weapons to India and Pakistan, and then expect them to negotiate an authentic peace. The logic of the first process—arms race, escalation of military preparations, and increased hostility—is sharply different from the logic of dialogue, reconciliation and peace.

It is even more unrealistic and foolish of India and Pakistan to imagine they can continue to arm themselves to the teeth against each other out of insecuity, and at the same time, become self-assured and secure. The hawks told us this would happen in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s—through the conventional rearmament route. It didn’t. The sale of F-16 warplanes to Pakistan probably featured on the front pages of Indian newspapers on an average of 200 days out of 365 days in the year during the 1980s as a major bone of contention. But the contention didn’t end when the planes’ spares stopped reaching Pakistan.

Then, said our Right-wing experts, nuclear weapons would provide “strategic balance” and stability. They didn’t. India and Pakistan went to war within a year of their nuclear tests! Unless they reach a durable peace, conflict could break out yet again—with a definite nuclear escalation potential.

India and Pakistan have tried to talk peace without taking their foot off the nuclear accelerator or even halting the conventional arms race. This too suits a hawkish prescription based on the utmost cynicism. Indian ultraconservatives believe that the US’s “coddling” of Pakistan to the point of it becoming, as one of them puts it, a US “protectorate”, is a good thing. It will keep Pakistan on its “best behaviour”; by contrast, “whenever American interest flagged … [the] Pakistanis have run riot”. Besides, argue these cynics, a close military sales relationship between Washington and Islamabad will help New Delhi demand “parity” or “fairness”—new, yet more lethal weapons from Washington, in keeping with India’s “emerging” position.

This logic is fatally flawed: seeking “balance” through new armaments leads to the creation and widening of imbalances. These in turn furnish an argument for “balance” through yet more tilting of the scales. Such tilt in one direction, followed by a tilt in the other, violates the ends of fairness and justice—and peace. If you want peace, you must wage peace, not war. It would be suicidal for Indian and Pakistani policy-makers and opinion-shapers to forget this great lesson of the 20th century.—end—