On the first day of 2018, the president of the United States, Donald Trump, took to Twitter to intimate a change in his country’s policy toward its long-time ally Pakistan. A day later, the White House confirmed a $255 million military aid cut to Pakistan and, followed the cutting of $1.3 billion in annual aid to the South Asian nuclear power, which has been the United States’ partner in the now 17-year-long Afghanistan war. The move had many connotations for South Asia, in general, but particularly for Pakistan, which has been in conflict with its neighbor India over many issues — mainly the status of Kashmir.
India and Pakistan have never really been at peace since their birth after the partition of British India in 1947. The conflict started with their conflicting claims over the Muslim-majority princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, commonly known as Kashmir. Both countries control parts of the region with a de facto border — the Line of Control (LoC) — dividing the two sides. The LoC has lately been tense and the two countries have been exchanging mortar shells and bullets, resulting in the deaths of dozens of their soldiers and civilians. Within the Kashmir valley too, violence has only increased.
Pakistan has received more than $33 billion in aid since 2002 from the United States and now the freeze of more than $2 billion total in U.S. aid has turned relations bitter. “We can confirm that we are suspending national security assistance only, to Pakistan at this time until the Pakistani government takes decisive action against groups, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters last month.
According to the Center for Global Development, the United States gave nearly $67 billion to Pakistan between 1951 and 2011. As the relationship between the United States and Pakistan turns sour again, an impact on the India-Pakistan relationship looks inevitable, with implications for the Kashmir dispute eventually. But Tony Dalton, co-author of Not War, Not Peace: Motivating Pakistan to Prevent Cross-Border Terrorism, told The Diplomat that it is difficult to make good predictions about how the downturn in U.S.-Pakistan relations might manifest in the region.
“Tensions in Kashmir (firings over the LoC, attacks on Indian military bases, civil unrest) have many determinants that are mostly internal to India and Pakistan, whereas Afghanistan clearly features inter-state competition. It would not surprise me to see more attacks on Indian-affiliated locations in Afghanistan in the future,” said Dalton, who is also co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.
Dalton also points out that the United States and many other countries in the region are “keen to facilitate India’s rise.” Pakistan’s leaders have long observed that the United States has turned toward India, which also has interests in Afghanistan and has been investing in the war-torn country. Recently, Pakistan’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Lt. Gen. (retired) Nasser Khan Janjua warned that nuclear war in South Asia was a real possibility and accused the United States of “following the Indian policy on the longstanding Kashmir dispute.”
At the core of current geopolitical dynamics in the region is a power struggle in South Asia. Janjua claimed in Islamabad that, as part of U.S. policy to “counter Chinese influence in South Asia, Washington is conspiring against [the] China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) along with the Indians.” CPEC, which includes investments of over $60 billion, passes through the part of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan; India opposes the corridor due to its claims over the region.
Dhruva Jaishankar, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s India office in New Delhi, says that the United States has at various points in time tilted toward Pakistan instead or attempted — as in the 1990s — to play the role of mediator. “Deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relations today, specifically frustrations in Washington with Pakistan’s inability and unwillingness to stem its support for terrorist groups, has opened up some opportunities for India,” said Jaishankar.
He says that China is investing more in Pakistan as part of CPEC. However, the investment coming into Pakistan is probably only slightly higher than Chinese investment into India. Jaishankar notes that the “biggest impact of all this has been psychological.”
“Many in Pakistan believe they have a new form of support from Beijing, which has emboldened Islamabad in its engagements with both Washington and New Delhi. Whether there are substantive reasons for this newfound confidence remains to be seen,” he notes.
Today, India is getting closer to the United States and Pakistan is looking east. Pakistani Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, said that Islamabad is now deepening its relationship with Russia and China as well as Europe, which he called “a regional recalibration of Pakistan’s foreign and security policy.” The shift, as Dastgir said, is because of the “unfortunate choice” the United States continues to make in seeking out India to contain China.
Some experts believe that this could nevertheless be beneficial for Pakistan’s new foreign policy. One former Pakistani diplomat, Arif Kamal, in an email interview, tells The Diplomat that the bulk of U.S. assistance to Pakistan has been “transnational” in the military domain. “The Trump era disconnect of assistance is disadvantageous for both. However, if the cut persists, it can only serve as a ‘blessing in disguise’ for Islamabad and hasten [the] diversification of sources of its supplies,” noted Kamal.
Such a development could lead to an intensification of the conflict between India and Pakistan and further escalation of violence. As Dalton notes, in the past, the United States was seen as “a useful and credible party to help tamp down crisis or conflict,” but now changes in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship have “eroded trust in Islamabad that the U.S. would be a neutral outsider in a future crisis.”
The current crisis between India and Pakistan remains centered on Kashmir. Their dispute leaves the civilians in the area living in a highly militarized zone, facing continuous violence.
U.S. policy over Kashmir has constantly been that India and Pakistan need to solve the issue bilaterally. The only way out is to engage in talks and those have been at a standstill for years. But Kamal, the diplomat, points out that Pakistan is ready to wait rather than give way to the other side “in view of the rejectionist India[n] stance on the normalization process.”
“Islamabad will continue to uphold Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, though maintaining a high graph of support to its ‘Kashmir constituency’ and without any militaristic underpinning,” he says.
The long-running conflict between the two sides over Kashmir has cost tens of thousands of civilian lives, with many estimating that as many as 70,000 civilians have died in last 29 years. Since the 2016 civilian uprising in the Kashmir valley, there has been a rise in young boys joining militant groups and even attacking Indian forces’ installations.
The violence has reached such a level that last month the United States issued an advisory to its citizens, cautioning them against travel to Jammu and Kashmir. In August 2017, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that “not the gun, nor bullets” would lead to a breakthrough, but instead that “a solution will be reached through dialogue.” But this month, after a militant attack on an Indian army camp in Jammu, Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters that “Pakistan will pay for this misadventure.”
The dynamics in Jammu and Kashmir and along the LoC, says Jaishankar, are partly independent of the larger regional dynamics involving the United States, China, and others. “Taken together, developments in Jammu and Kashmir, the continuing stalemate in Afghanistan, the new role of China, and domestic political dynamics in both Pakistan and India do not augur well for India-Pakistan engagement in the medium-term future,” he added.
Looking back at history, outside powers have not had much success mediating in the Kashmir dispute; not even the United Nations is able to do much. Washington in particular has not been very useful as a mediator on this issue, notes Noor Mohammad Baba, a political scientist. He says that the United States hasn’t been active in Kashmir so recent trends won’t make much difference for the Kashmir conflict. “[T]hey [the United States] have accepted the problem but they can’t enforce a solution on Kashmir; they can only persuade,” he says.
“The Americans will not say that Kashmir is not an issue; they will not go out of their way to keep eyes closed against terrorism. Even if they do, it wouldn’t make much difference. When the U.S. was very close to Pakistan, and had problems with India, both were weak — the Americans were interested but only to persuade both countries,” says Baba.
China’s growing relationship with Pakistan has balanced the India-Pakistan power equation, but the dynamics of U.S.-India relations are being closely watched in the region. As economic concerns have always driven and shifted the foreign policy of countries, it remains to be seen how India, Pakistan, the United States, and China will look at the growing violence in Kashmir and its regional impact.
According to Dalton, the determinants of conflict in and around Kashmir have more to do with domestic politics in India and Pakistan than with the role of external powers in the region. “If there is another Kargil [war], who might India and Pakistan turn to if they sought outside crisis mediation? [It’s] not clear that the U.S. could play this role anymore,” he observes.
It remains an open question what kind of role the United States might play in the larger peace process between India and Pakistan. In the meantime, the two countries continue to stand alert against each other, without the possibility of any productive talks on Kashmir — a region in pain that is in dire need of attention and calm.