The prospects for an end to the protracted conflict between India and Pakistan appear as remote as ever. In fact, it is likely that there will more deadly provocations in the future by terrorist groups based on Pakistani soil. In a recent op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal, C Christine Fair noted that in the future “Pakistan is likely to become more reliant, not less, on nuclear-protected jihad to secure its interests. Pakistan’s fears of India are chronic and are likely to deepen as India continues its ascent on the world stage.”
The notion of “nuclear protected jihad” is simultaneously chilling and perplexing.
The perplexing aspect of the rivalry is that Pakistan’s anxieties about India should have been alleviated once it tested nuclear weapons in 1998; thereby negating India’s conventional military superiority and achieving a level of strategic nuclear parity. However, instead of creating a “hard shell,” the possession of nuclear weapons seems to have only heightened paranoid anxieties about further dismemberment and even dispossession of its nuclear arsenal. It is as if Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons in “a fit of absent mindedness” and forgot to update its strategic posture.
There is zero possibility that India would contemplate further dismembering Pakistan. India has no incentive to risk a nuclear exchange. Evidence of India’s self-restraint over the last decade is abundant. Even spectacular attacks by militants, allegedly supported by elements linked to the Pakistani government, on India’s parliament and on its financial core have not led to war. The restrained response by the current Congress party-led coalition to the attacks in Pune, despite accusations from the BJP about being ‘soft on terrorism’ demonstrate the caution with which India approaches any potential slide into a conflict with Pakistan. The reason is that the fragmentation of Pakistan into a number of hostile and unstable Islamic republics is India’s nightmare scenario. Decapitating the hydra only creates more problems and distractions for India’s foreign policy.
Why does a nuclear armed Pakistan continue to fear India and seek parity?
The answer is that, more than any realistic fear of dismemberment, Pakistan fears India because it cannot compete economically or militarily. Of course, Pakistan and India have had a significant territorial dispute since 1947. However, the rivalry extends well beyond Kashmir. It was India’s role in dismembering its rival during the 1971 civil war in Pakistan which left a permanent scar on the psyche of the Pakistani people and state. Hence, it is understandable that Pakistanis deeply distrust India. But history and territory are not the only sources of anxiety. In terms of population, Pakistan is smaller than India’s largest state. India is also an industrial powerhouse in relative terms and its economy is doing extremely well by comparison. New Delhi has managed to develop a comprehensive relationship with the United States and it is considered a responsible stakeholder in the international arena at a time when Pakistan’s relations with Washington are under considerable strain and its reputation in the international community is maculate. (Moreover, the Pakistani military relies on these chronic fears to maintain its right to interfere in the public sphere. The spectre of Indian hegemony sustains the status quo distribution of power in the domestic realm and it conveniently distracts from the failures of economic progress.)
Therefore, the problem which needs to be solved to create peace in the region is one of the perennial questions in international relations: how can two competing polities reconcile to one another’s shifting strength and prosperity without recourse to war. There are several models. The first model is a semi-permanent state of competition and confrontation that lasts until one power collapses from the economic burden, as in the Cold War. A second model is integration into a larger political entity, like the European Union. The third model is a scenario in which the buildup of the military and economy is so dramatic that neighbouring states abandon any thought of strategic rivalry, as in the case of the United States in North America.
The problem for Pakistani elites is that the second and third alternatives result in Pakistan’s sublation. And yet Pakistan does not have the economic resources for the first model. Pakistan’s current defence spending in addition to interest payments already exceeds its annual revenue. There is a structural fiscal imbalance which means that Pakistan has to borrow money to service its debt and maintain its current level of military expenditure. This is not viable outside the short-term.
A loophole is to achieve parity by seeking the assistance of external actors. However, even this is unsustainable as Pakistan is not strategically valuable enough to any external power to subsidise it indefinitely. And while Pakistan once calculated that inviting major powers into the region redounded to its economic and military advantage, it is now seeing the downside risks that results from accepting massive US support.
Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism in India, and Afghanistan are attempts to delay India’s ascent. Unfortunately, it can slow down but not stop the inevitable. Illegitimate and wasteful policies will continue unless Pakistani elites can formulate a solution that either allows them to compete with India, or accommodates India’s emergence as a global power. The former option is not realistic in the current global economy. The latter is domestically unpalatable and will be very difficult for certain state institutions to accept.
Ultimately, however, the Pakistani policy of seeking military parity with India will have to be completely abandoned. The policy is both unrealistic and unnecessary. With the acquisition of nuclear weapons, Pakistan’s territorial integrity is secure. Pakistan’s armed forces are certainly more than sufficient in size to deter direct forms of coercion. Retaining the fantasy of military parity with a much larger and more dynamic neighbour only undermines democracy, fuels regional insecurity, and invites major powers to interfere in the region.