In February, a terrorist attack by Jaysh e-Mohammad (JeM) killed more than 40 Indian military personnel in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It triggered the worst escalation of India–Pakistan tensions for nearly two decades.
The flare-up was a stark reminder that the Kashmir conflict appears to be intractable, with especially dangerous consequences for the weaker party, Pakistan.
At great economic cost, Pakistan has constructed a nuclear-armed national security state over many decades to counter the Indian “threat”. This somewhat ossified approach has done little to improve security in South Asia.
It is also generating dangerous new threats to stability inside the country.
The militarisation of Pakistan during the Cold War
Kashmir has been in a geopolitical limbo, with a disputed border, ever since partition in 1947. The conflicting Indian and Pakistani claims to sovereignty over Kashmir have helped generate the emergence of a Pakistani national security state in which the military became a dominant political actor.
The Pakistan military has received the lion’s share of national resources and began acquiring nuclear weapons during the 1970s. But it has also played a key role in framing Islamabad’s national security policy.
Because Pakistan was struggling to compete with India, which is much larger in terms of territory, population, economy and military power, it needed external support. The Cold War provided an opportunity for Pakistan to make an alliance with the US, which was looking to contain the Soviet Union in South Asia. In February 1954, the Eisenhower administration announced it was providing military assistance to Pakistan.
American assistance significantly strengthened the role of the military and enabled it to become the key actor in Pakistan’s foreign and security policy. The civilian bureaucracy cooperated with the Pakistani military in a pragmatic fashion to help it exercise political control during the Cold War.
The Pakistani judiciary provided legal justifications for military rule when required. Consequently, the Pakistani military ruled the country directly for 24 years from 1947 to 1988. During this period the parliamentary system was undermined and a “controlled democracy” became the norm.
The Pakistani military also used its political and administrative autonomy to establish its own commercial ventures. This included road building, real estate, cement factories and private banks. By establishing its own version of a military industrial complex, the Pakistani military assumed a dominant position in the country’s national security policies.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) emerged during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s as a second key player. Civilian political parties or leaders in Pakistan were effectively constrained in national security decision-making by a military-led coalition that encompassed intelligence agencies, the civil bureaucracy and the judiciary.
The end of the Cold War did little to diminish Pakistan’s fixation with the Kashmir conflict. Its intense rivalry with India continued in South Asia, including in war-torn Afghanistan. But the post-Cold War era changed the strategic equation.
First, India embarked on a successful process of economic liberalisation in the early 1990s. This significantly widened the wealth gap between a rising India and a desperately poor Pakistan.
Second, the US no longer needed Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s and drastically reduced its military support for Islamabad.
But the Pakistani national security state showed little willingness to adapt to the realities of a transformed strategic environment. Islamabad persisted with its involvement in proxy wars in Kashmir. It supported militant Islamist forces opposing the Indian presence and, in Afghanistan, it supported Taliban militants in a bid to counter Indian influence in that country.
In the post-Cold War context, Pakistan’s stance on national security has largely failed to balance India’s preponderance and generated significant new internal security threats from factions of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) and other militant groups.
The war on terror and Pakistan’s dangerous double game
The 9/11 attacks helped restore Pakistan’s position as a key strategic partner of America in Washington’s war on terror. But the country’s national security state continued to pursue its anti-Indian agenda in Kashmir and Afghanistan, while ostensibly cooperating with US administrations in hunting down al-Qaeda terrorists in South Asia.
Osama bin Laden was eventually killed at a hideout inside Pakistan in May 2011, not far from a major Pakistani army base. This double game not only frustrated Washington, it also led to dangerous blowback at home.
Since the US-led war on terror, Pakistan’s internal security has been increasingly threatened by the activities of Taliban militants and the influx of al-Qaeda operatives into the country from neighbouring Afghanistan.
Over the past decade, Pakistan has experienced a gradual shift to more democratic processes. Nevertheless, the military has continued to play a dominant role in the making of foreign and security policy.
Today, Pakistan is a country in desperate need of peace and stability. But unless Pakistan’s national security state is reformed and brought under full civilian control, it is difficult to see how the country can reverse an ominous pattern of domestic instability and economic decline.
More than 40 Indian security staff lost their lives in a suicide attack on February 14, 2019 in the Pulwama region of Indian-administered Kashmir. The Pakistan-based Islamist militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) claimed responsibility for the attack.
India said the strikes were “pre-emptive”, based on intelligence that JeM were planning more suicide attacks in Indian territory. Pakistan denied India’s claims, both about the damage done by their airstrikes and that Pakistan was planning further attacks.
But Pakistan retaliated with an airstrike on what it termed a “non-military installation” in the Indian controlled region of Kashmir. In the ensuing skirmish with the Indian Air Force, an Indian jet was downed and a pilot captured.
These events, in the disputed territory of Kashmir, have brought international attention to the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan. But why is the decades-long conflict heating up again, and why now?
India and Pakistan have been involved in a territorial dispute over Kashmir for decades. The roots of the conflict lie in the partition of British India in 1947, which created the secular state of India and the Muslim state of Pakistan.
The idea behind the partition was for Muslim-majority regions to become a part of Pakistan. But Kashmir was complicated. Although a Muslim-majority state, it was ruled by a Hindu king.
He decided to accede to India in October 1947. This was unacceptable to Pakistan, which launched a war in 1948 to capture Kashmir by force.
A result of the war was a UN-mediated ceasefire line. This divided Kashmir into Indian-administered “Jammu and Kashmir” (J&K) – which constituted two-thirds of the territory – and Pakistan-administered “Azad (free) Kashmir”, which was one-third of the territory.
While the 1948 ceasefire brought an end to the fighting, Kashmir’s status remained unresolved and Pakistan continued to contest the territorial boundaries. India granted J&K constitutional autonomy, while the Pakistan-administered region was a self-governing entity.
Kashmir is central to Pakistan’s national identity as a Muslim state, and therefore it represents unfinished business after the 1947 partition.
Pakistan launched another war against India in 1965, which caused thousands of casualties on both sides. Hostilities between the two countries ended after a diplomatic intervention by the Soviet Union and the United States and a UN-mandated ceasefire.
The 1965 war, the 1971 Indian intervention in Pakistan’s civil war, and the subsequent creation of Bangladesh led to more changes to the territorial borders in Kashmir. The ceasefire line is now designated as the Line of Control (LoC).
Since the 1990s, Pakistan has supported militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) to attack Indian security forces and civilians.
View from India
Kashmir has also been central to India’s national narrative of unity in diversity propagated by leaders of the independence movement, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Indian leaders have often projected the accommodation of a Muslim majority state in the J&K region as proof of Indian secular democracy.
India’s official position considers the whole of undivided Kashmir as a part of India. And India has not consistently upheld J&K’s constitutionally-guaranteed autonomy. Political instability in the state has been compounded by interference from the Indian government. Indian armed forces in the area have often used force against civilians.
In the 1990s, this led to a mass uprising and insurgency among the Kashmiri population in India. Pakistan exploited this discontent, offering arms, training and funds to both Pakistan-based and local Kashmiri militants.
The insurgency in Indian Kashmir eased in 2003, with a ceasefire and the initiation of an India-Pakistan peace process that led to a relative period of calm.
The peace process came to an end after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, carried out by the LeT. But India’s policy of strategic restraint and pressure on Pakistan by the United States to address militancy prevented a worsening of hostilities.
A new government came to power in India in 2014, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. The leadership’s approach to Pakistan and Kashmir has been significantly different from the previous administration, with more emphasis on curbing dissent in J&K and using pre-emptive strikes across the LoC against militant groups in Pakistan’s territory.
Local discontent in Indian Kashmir has also led to an increase in militancy since 2014 with more Pakistani support and a combination of rising local recruitment and an influx of foreign militants.
What does this mean?
The rules of engagement between India and Pakistan are changing. India’s “pre-emptive” air strikes in February were a significant shift away from the previous policy of strategic restraint. This is the first time since the dispute emerged that India has targeted militants inside Pakistani territory.
Pakistan chose to escalate tensions further, a move that had previously been prevented by the US. Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, has reiterated his desire for dialogue with India. But ceasefire violations across the LoC and the international border have continued unabated since February 14k, with both sides reporting civilian casualties.
Diplomatic pressure from the UN and the rest of the international community has forced the Pakistani government to ban some militant groups. Yet, it continues to deny that JeM is active in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, tensions with Pakistan are playing well into Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promotion of being a “strong leader”, capable of protecting the country from its enemies. This is all part of the strategy leading up to the coming elections.
The escalatory responses by both governments have shown the actions of the two countries are becoming more difficult to control, particularly with the United States’ lack of involvement in defusing tensions as it disengages from the region.
Once a global cricket star, Imran Khan is now poised to become Pakistan’s new prime minister. But he’s likely to find that running a country is much more difficult than winning the vote; the July election that brought him to power has also left his party short of a clear parliamentary majority.
Forced to form a coalition in parliament, Khan will have to compromise if he’s to have any hope of tackling key issues in Pakistan – myriad economic, environmental, foreign policy and social welfare challenges – while trying to deliver on his vision for “naya Pakistan” (new Pakistan).
Khan formed his political party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in 1996 and persevered for years to muster support for his vision for “naya Pakistan”. His electoral success is also partly explained by his popularity as the cricket captain who won the World Cup for Pakistan in 1992.
In a country that feverishly loves cricket, Khan creatively used “cricket-speak” in his campaigning and employed a cricket bat as his electoral symbol. But his success has predominantly resulted from pre-polling orchestration and support from the military, which provided him space for electioneering while denying similar opportunities for other contestants. In other words, he has learnt the art of politics.
Khan’s chief rival was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), led by former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose administration was toppled over corruption allegations. When the nation’s top court declared him ineligible to hold public office – a move Sharif decried as “judicial martial law” – his party was left weakened. Khan’s party, the PTI, reaped the benefits.
Following the July vote, the PTI secured 116 of the 270 seats contested in the National Assembly, with rival parties PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) securing only 64 and 43 seats, respectively.
Falling short of a clear majority, Khan’s PTI party has opted for coalition politics. It has joined forces with independently elected representatives and a wide variety of political parties, including the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA), the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) and the Balochistan Awami Party (BAP).
The coalition is also poised to form three of the four provincial governments: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), Balochistan and Punjab. Of these, Punjab is the jewel in the crown, with half of the country’s 208 million people, and where the PML-N has lost its traditional power base to the PTI. But ensuring the sustainability of coalition government at provincial level remains a challenge, especially as local tensions intersect with the eternal strain between central and regional governments.
Foriegn policy woes and domestic tensions
In the foreign policy arena, Pakistan faces mounting US pressure and has been placed on the “grey list” of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental body aimed at combating money laundering and terrorist financing.
The military has increasingly sought to control Pakistan’s foreign policy, especially its relationships with India, Afghanistan, the US, Iran and the Gulf States. We shouldn’t expect huge change on that front. Judging by the PTI manifesto and Khan’s first post-election address, the new government will continue to operate within the parameters established by the military.
Khan acknowledges these challenges, and has proffered solutions. He’s talked about learning from China the art of rapidly lifting people out of poverty and promised to cut government spending.
But the capacity of the government to deliver on these promises cannot be guaranteed. Traditionally, Pakistan’s regional and national leaders have used their local influence to sustain their respective power bases at the cost of ordinary citizens. Khan’s PTI party has engaged a number of these “electables” for its electoral success, but such people are unlikely to embrace change beyond a certain level.
The biggest challenge remains the tide of rising expectations in Pakistan. Khan says his vision of “naya Pakistan” means combating corruption and nepotism, promoting merit-based decisions at all levels, increasing accountability and boosting access to education and health services.
Such aspirations are noble, but he will need more than five years to achieve all this in a country in which the powerful are privileged and the powerless usually ignored.
This is not to suggest that nothing can or will change in Pakistan.
But change may be so slow that young people (who make up 64% of the population) could grow increasingly disillusioned.
Pakistan’s political history may repeat itself. Former prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (who was also the father of another Pakistani leader, Benazir Bhutto) similarly heightened expectations among the poor in the 1960s with a suite of promises. His inability to deliver on them pushed the country towards 11 years of military rule.
The growing power of Pakistan’s religious groups is an even bigger challenge. Traditional Islamist parties have not fared well in the elections. But one such party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), secured 2.2 million votes, in contrast to the 6.8 million votes for the left-leaning Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), led by Benazir Bhutto’s son Bilawal.
If PTI fails to deliver on Khan’s promise of a “new Pakistan”, the TLP or other militant outfits could entice more young people to join their cause.
After the celebrations for Khan’s victory are over, we must be realistic about the likelihood for rapid change in Pakistan.