The India-Pakistan joint statement of February 25 following the talks between the Director Generals of Military Operations (DGsMO) was sudden, though it would have been some weeks in the making. Both sides agreed for “strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 February 2021”. It further stated, “In the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, the two DGsMO agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.”
The adherence to the ceasefire agreement is a welcome proposition, as not only does it prevent the unnecessary loss of lives of soldiers and civilians residing in border areas, but because it could provide an impetus to bring some normalcy to India-Pakistan bilateral ties. After an extended period of steadily worsening relations, what has triggered this rapprochement? In my view, and for want of a better term, I would say that it is the ‘sharp bite of strategic reality’. The continuing hostility is serving little strategic purpose, particularly for Pakistan, and to some extent, for India.
The aggression on the Line of Control (LoC) mirrors the state of India-Pakistan relations. While the relationship had been worsening for some years, there was a steep dive after India’s decision of August 5, 2019, on Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan reacted in an inexplicably wounded fashion and went into a diplomatic offensive, over-estimating their foreign policy influence. Pakistan’s desire to push the Kashmir agenda internationally rebounded and ended up damaging their ties with traditional friends like Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Pakistan’s relations with the United States had frayed under President Donald Trump, and Pakistan was being considered a part of the China, Russia alliance with the prospect of having to choose sides in a great power rivalry. Despite attempting to paint India in a bad light in international forums, it was Pakistan that was under constant pressure from institutions like the Financial Action Task Force.
The hoped-for insurrection in Kashmir has not come about. The expectation that the Chinese intrusions in Ladakh would show India’s weaknesses as a regional power, unable to stand up to China, has been belied. Meanwhile, Pakistan is buffeted with internal problems, primarily an economic crisis that can ill-afford a military budget that is 4 per cent of the GDP. Even at this level, Pakistan’s defence spending is one-seventh of India’s. It is perhaps a combination of all these factors that has brought a realization to the Pakistani leadership that continuing hostility against India serves little purpose, both in achieving their foreign policy objectives and their aims in Kashmir.
There was also a need in India to rethink its approach towards Pakistan. Wielding the blunt military instrument in the absence of diplomacy was yielding limited results. Fears of a war breaking out between the two countries led to President Trump offering to mediate between India and Pakistan, going against India’s stance that this is a purely bilateral issue. It is likely that the new Biden administration could also have given a gentle nudge as the continuing India-Pakistan hostility would have a corresponding effect on the future of Afghanistan after the American withdrawal.
The military threat to India from China is visible and real, leading to a scrambling to reorient army assets from the western to the northern borders. The two-front threat, which many strategic experts often dismissed in the past, is now being openly spoken about in the highest levels of military leadership. Dealing with the contingency of a war on two fronts will require more resources than the current state of the Indian economy can provide. It, therefore, makes eminent sense to calm the heated borders.
There is also a moral responsibility of governments of the two countries towards their border population. Often, in the rhetoric about showing military resolve, we forget that the biggest sufferers of the firing exchanged between the two armies were the civilians whose lives and livelihood was very severely affected. The ceasefire agreement will bring tremendous succour to them.
The easing of military tensions could also have a positive impact on the situation in Kashmir. All political parties in Jammu and Kashmir have welcomed the ceasefire agreement. On the other hand, there is consternation among the terrorist organizations; the Islamic Emirate of Kashmir has already responded with a statement accusing Pakistan of “backstabbing Kashmir’s cause of Independence.” A peaceful and inclusive resolution of the Kashmir issue requires many more healing touches by the Indian government, but a good step has been initiated.
There are questions on whether the ceasefire agreement will last and be translated into a normalisation of India and Pakistan relations. There are genuine doubts on whether the Pakistan Army can dampen its deep and enduring suspicion about India being an existential threat and whether the Pakistani political leadership can see the larger context of bilateral relations without being held hostage to Kashmir. On the Indian side, some questions are being raised on whether the policy of ‘terror and talks can’t go together’ has been diluted.
The success of the agreement will depend on two factors. First, whether the two countries view this as a short-term fix to band-aid the immediate challenges or as a precursor to improving relations. If it is the latter, the firing on the border will be controlled to ensure that border incidents do not vitiate the overall environment. The second factor is how successfully both countries can prevent the foreign policy from being sabotaged by domestic politics. This is perhaps the more difficult challenge.
With the guns falling silent, it is time to give diplomacy a chance. As Thomas C. Schelling, a pioneer in the study of strategic behaviour, wrote, “Diplomacy is bargaining; it seeks outcomes that, though not ideal for either party, are better for both than some of the alternatives. In diplomacy, each party somewhat controls what the other wants, and can get more by compromise, exchange, or collaboration than by taking things in his own hands and ignoring the other’s wishes”. The ceasefire agreement provides an opportunity for India-Pakistan ties to move beyond a zero-sum game.