Moving Forward in South Asia

Three weeks ago, deadly bombings in Mumbai took 24 lives. With anger and suspicion high, India vowed to find the terrorists responsible. Any chance for diplomacy with Pakistan, their historically unwelcome neighbor, seemed diminished. Yet not even a month later, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers found themselves face to face across a table.

At just the same moment, Ploughshares Fund grantee The Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center hosted a panel discussion entitled “The India-Pakistan Security Dilemma: Major Issues and Charting A Viable Role for the US”. The talk featured four experts, Dr. Dhruva Jaishankar, Dr. Aparna Pande, Mooed W. Yusuf, and Dr. S Amer Latif, who assessed the current relationship between the two nations and offered recommendations for United States involvement going forward.

Their joint statement was consistent with the largely positive outcomes from the official talks, though as the panel of experts agreed, the process of rebuilding the bruised and delicate relationship between the two nations will take lengthy dialogue and cooperation to succeed in the long term.

Dr. Pande expressed general consensus among experts and South Asia watchers that the tension between India and Pakistan stems from a lack of trust. Yusuf noted that since September 11, 2001 the United States has grown closer to India while attempting to buy out Pakistan’s obedience, a failing strategy. Most panelists agreed that the most effective step the United States can take involves promoting mutually beneficial or “interest-based” cooperation between India and Pakistan. This could include targeted assistance to and heavy investment in Pakistani industries to ready them for trade with India, cooperation in maritime law to counter the piracy that has affected both countries, and cooperation of disaster response programs. (Ploughshares Fund intern Rizwan Ladha suggested a specific avenue of cooperation on this blog last week, promoting cooperation around control of nuclear materials as a path forward that would benefit both countries.)

The United States could help to improve the relationship between these two nations, but as Yusuf articulated, simply telling the Indian and Pakistani leaders what to do will have no effect. The most beneficial role the U.S. can play is that of convener. India and Pakistan have come close to negotiations before, and are primed to do so again, he noted, as long as a referee makes sure they sit at the table long enough to see it through. We can make sure the “final screwdrivers turn,” Yusuf said, without forcing them in.

The dominoes are aligning for progress in India and Pakistan. The foreign ministers recently expressed openness to negotiations involving Kashmir, the heavily disputed region separating the two countries. With continued engagement, conflict could eventually be a thing of the past.