With deep distrust of each other’s intentions and a long history of belligerence and hostility, there are no prospects for any meaningful breakthrough in relations between Pakistan and India. Bilateral engagements have, from time to time, led to partial restoration of contacts in sectors like trade, tourism, treaty on water sharing but no real headway has been made in starting sustained multi-dimensional and mutually-beneficial contacts in a host of sectors.
Considering the enormous potential for coordination and cooperation in a variety of fields that could lead to the advent of a new era of economic progress, the success achieved so far would appear to be infinitesimally limited. But what to talk of mutual cooperation for lifting millions out of poverty, the two countries are in a deadly race for acquiring more lethal weapons driven by mortal fear of a sudden devastating attack from the other. The recent flare-up in Kashmir almost led the two countries to the brink of a catastrophic confrontation — a conflict that would have been described as an act of collective suicide by 1.5 billion people.
With so much at stake for South Asia and the wider world, why is there not much focus on effective mediation by powers that enjoy influence in the region?
Reasons are too many: India is not prepared to accept that the issue of Kashmir requires any external mediation; China has its own problems with India in South China Sea and the unresolved border issue of Arunachal Pradesh besides the political asylum to Dalai Lama; and Russia has historically been closer to India because of Pakistan’s deep affiliation with the US. The only country that could manage to get a somewhat favourable response to any mediation endeavour is the United States of America. Because of its power, influence, clout and bonds of longstanding ties with India and Pakistan, the US should have played a more robust role in easing tensions between the two South Asian neighbours.
It is a paradox why the US has chosen not to invest in peace building in South Asia despite its tremendous influence. True the military standoff has in some ways benefited the large US arms industry. But the benefits of a sub-continent at peace with itself would far outweigh the financial rewards as a result of arms sales.
The US could have acted, behind the scenes, to create an ambience of trust and understanding that could have led to productive political engagement for resolving issues of Kashmir. Not that the US intervention would have delivered complete peace in South Asia but its involvement would have been instrumental in minimising the areas of disagreement and discord. That could have, with time, led to some concrete progress in seeking durable solution to the longstanding dispute on Kashmir, Siachin, and water sharing etc.
Any such covert intervention would have created huge goodwill for the US not only in one-fifth of humanity but around the world. And there are no impossible bottlenecks to overcome. Because back in 2004-5, Pakistan had relented on its previous position and acknowledged the sanctity of the current borders in Kashmir and offered to work within that framework of those borders.
One can start with that position and, with time, establish a convergence of perceptions that could lead to an understanding for resolving the dispute that has bedeviled relations between the two countries.
The current dynamics in Kashmir provides the basis for a pragmatic approach that is steeped in the aspirations of the people. The status quo is no longer tenable. It has to change. At the same time any alteration in the current borders would not work. India will not accept a complete independence or adjustment in borders because that would trigger umpteen demands and movements for more such states to break away.
But the issue of complete autonomy and a special status like Hong Kong and Macau could be a pragmatic way out of the current impasse. That would go a long way in generating a new environment for peace, cooperation, progress and prosperity and would change lives of millions of impoverished people.
The US role in making that happen will be a historic contribution to peace in Asia.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2019.