In a welcome bit of good news from South Asia, a top-level retired Pakistani military officer has joined with an Indian counterpart to call for new confidence-building measures to reduce the risk of nuclear war between the two nations.
The proposal comes in a joint op-ed piece scheduled to be published Wednesday in the Hindustan Times. The authors are Gen. Jehangir Karamat, former chief of Army staff in Pakistan, and Air Chief Marshall Shashi Tyagi, former chief of staff of the Indian Air Force.
The joint statement is important to a war-weary America for a simple, selfish reason: “Détente” between the South Asian nations would open the way for cooperation on Afghanistan as the U.S. and its NATO allies draw down their forces there. If India and Pakistan can align their interests, it will be much easier to avoid a civil war in Afghanistan; if they continue to bicker, Afghanistan will be a zone of confrontation.
The military proposals are unofficial, to be sure. But they come after a year of steadily improving relations between India and Pakistan that has led to some breakthrough commercial agreements. And given the close contact between retired officers and the current military leadership in each country, it’s unlikely that Karamat or Tyagi would have approved the statement without at least an informal blessing from their respective capitals.
The retired generals made their joint proposal after a meeting of military leaders from the two countries in Bangkok in February, which followed an initial round in Dubai last November. These “track two” meetings, as they’re known, were sponsored by the Atlantic Council and the University of Ottawa.
“It seems the moment for India-Pakistan dialogue is now,” says Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, who helped organized the meeting. “After years of suspicion and hostility, it appears the two militaries want to talk to each other and interact with each other.”
The measures proposed by the two retired generals seek to improve crisis stability, which was severely tested in May 2002 when the two nations massed troops on their border and appeared close to nuclear war. That confrontation involved long-simmering tensions over the disputed border region of Kashmir, propelled by extremists on both sides to the point that it nearly spiraled out of control.
What has frightened foreign observers—and now, it appears, the Indians and Pakistanis themselves—are new weapons and doctrines on both sides that could reduce the room for maneuver in a future crisis, and put the two nuclear arsenals on something of a hair-trigger.
The Indians are said by the Pakistanis to have developed a doctrine for very quick attack, known as “Cold Start.” The Pakistanis, meanwhile, are said to be developing tactical nuclear weapons that could be deployed quickly on the battlefield to prevent a rapid Indian advance across the border. Adding to the tension have been terrorist incidents like the 2008 Mumbai attack by the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Taiba, which the Indians believe was created by Pakistan’s intelligence service and sometimes operates with its guidance.
Two retired generals address these issues directly in their joint article. They write: “Evolving doctrines compress the time available for diplomacy...This is a dangerous situation.” Recognizing this danger, they said, the Indian-Pakistani military experts who met in Bangkok agreed on “a framework for crisis management.”
In their article, the generals propose the two nations should:
— pledge in advance that they will have diplomatic discussions when a crisis erupts, rather than the usual suspension of dialogue.
— promise not to take military actions “which would be construed as preparations for an offensive.”
— create an effective “joint anti-terror mechanism” and a “hotline” between the two interior ministries on terror issues.
— discuss “legal frameworks to deal with terror” and share information about immigration and border controls.
These last measures proposing joint counter-terror cooperation are especially important for the Indian side, which has complained that in other back channel meetings, the Pakistanis have failed to address the severe danger posed by the Pakistani-based terror groups.
For the Indians, the key question is whether the Pakistani military is ready to publicly embrace a de-escalation of tension. In the past, argue the Indians, the Pakistani generals have blocked moves at détente because a state of tension enhances the military’s influence. Pakistani military leaders, for their part, have made almost identical criticisms of the Indians.
That’s why the joint proposal is encouraging: For once, generals on both sides (albeit retured ones) are talking about how to avoid war, rather than how to prepare for it.