The retreat ceremony at the Wagah land crossing, the main immigration and trade point between India and Pakistan, has been taking place daily since 1959. Soldiers on both sides stomp around in a synchronized drill that climaxes in a shutting of the double gates, while crowds gather on either side to watch the show. Their increasing numbers signify the curiosity to see each other in person and connect as travel and trade between the two neighbours remain highly restricted, despite some opening in recent years.
But last Sunday’s suicide bombing reinforces the belief that Pakistan as a snakepit of terrorism is getting ever more dangerous, however one may try not to take a unidimensional view of the country. Following the “Zarb-e-Azb” military operation in its northwest, Pakistan has claimed Islamic militants have been weakened. But the fact that the suicide bomber could come near a high security area and detonate the explosives highlighted that the extremists are still strong despite the operation. The bombing also reaffirmed a perception that the country is on what an observer said “an interminable downward spiral” towards a failed state.
The attack took place just as reports were coming in that the two countries were engaged in Track-II talks in a bid to normalise relations that have suffered following the recent border firings. The incident happening just weeks ahead of the SAARC summit in Kathmandu this month also threatened the South Asian economic integration process as overtures by prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi had rekindled hope that the two countries would step up cooperation, especially on trade and energy.
The attack looks clearly aimed at derailing the process by the Pakistani military establishment and their terrorist proxies, who know that the very purpose of their existence would be lost if the Indo-Pak and SAARC processes succeed. Analysts like Farahnaz Ispahani, former member of Pakistan’s parliament and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, say that Sharif’s moves towards better ties between India and Pakistan had angered the military and “may have resulted in the renewed clashes on the Line of Control.”
Also, the Pakistani military is not in favour of Sharif’s move to extend the Most Favored Nation trading status to India without preconditions. Many former Pakistani soldiers and officers own or are employed by small and medium sized enterprises who fear being overwhelmed by cheaper Indian goods if trade is normalised. The military thus has an incentive, says Jordan Olmstead of Southwest Institute, University of Arizona, to “protect their own” by pressuring the civilian government against ratification.
In her recently published book, “Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War”, C. Christine Fair of Georgetown University says the “strategic culture” of the Pakistan army is essentially enduring hostility against India. The Pakistan Army believes that it is locked into a permanent, existential, civilizational battle against India, she says, and there has never been any strategy to uproot the terrorist organizations from the country and governments have “remained committed to using Islamist proxies as tools of foreign policy and Islamism as a tool of domestic politics.”
Others like Arif Jamal, Pakistani-born author of a new book, “Call for Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba (1985-2014)”, say the terrorist organizations are closely linked to the Pakistani intelligence.
A just-tabled Pentagon report in the US Congress adds further evidence that Afghan- and India-focussed militants continue to operate from Pakistani territory to the detriment of regional stability.
In another interesting new book, “The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World”, T.V. Paul of McGill University argues that Pakistan suffers from a “geostrategic curse”, like the “resource curse” that plagues oil-rich autocracies, and that is the main cause of it becoming increasingly unsafe and unstable.
Since its birth in 1947, Paul says, Pakistan has been at the heart of major geopolitical struggles – the US-Soviet rivalry, the conflict with India, and most recently the post 9/11 wars. No matter how ineffective the regime is, massive foreign aid keeps pouring in from major powers and their allies with a stake in the region. The reliability of such aid defuses any pressure on political elites to launch far-reaching domestic reforms that would promote sustained growth, higher standards of living, and more stable democratic institutions.
South Asia is the least integrated region in the world. As a regional grouping, SAARC is also the least successful. It has not made much headway mostly because of the accident-prone, distrustful relations between Pakistan and India, the grouping’s two biggest economies.
Michael Kugelman, South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, says that “so long as the Pakistani security establishment does not sever ties with militant groups, India-Pakistan relations can ever be functional.”
He argues that the political realities in the two countries make it highly unlikely that they would reconcile and that has implication for South Asia as a whole. “In Pakistan, you have a situation where the military is in control of the policies on India and it is not interested in reconciliation. In India, you have a government that is not opposed to engaging with Pakistan but it is more assertive and not willing to sit quietly when there are provocations from Pakistan.”