In the past six decades Indo-Pakistan relations have been driven by mutual suspicion and military rivalry. The two countries have engaged in four military conflicts, repeated diplomatic brinkmanship and even military posturing. Despite periodic dialogues, confidence building measures and agreements, the lack of faith in each other’s intentions remains alarmingly high. It is, therefore, not surprising that both sides keep their military options open. Each new round of talks begins with hype and enthusiasm, only to degenerate into a slanging match. The forthcoming talks could well follow the familiar trend unless the two countries strive towards focussing on a creative approach, and put aside difficult issues.
This comment attempts to examine the option of military to military engagement between the two countries. The suggestion, however, does not relate to the timing, scope or desirability of initiating such talks since there are serious reservations in India about talking to Pakistan at this time. The nay-Sayers oppose this Indian initiative since Pakistan has treated Indian requests and dossiers to prosecute the master-mind and planners of Mumbai 26/11 with utmost contempt and disdain. Many in the military top echelons and the civilian bureaucracy may well be against the initiative. There is also a widespread feeling in India that this is at the behest of the United States. Nevertheless, the necessity of engaging the Pakistani military cannot be ignored. Such an engagement may help us better understand Pakistan’s world view and in particular its insecurities vis-à-vis India.
It is interesting to note that while India has established defence cooperation with all its neighbours, including China, it has excluded Pakistan from the gamut of military diplomacy. Such a stance could possibly be attributed to several reasons. First and foremost is the fact that Pakistan’s military alliance with the Western world in the 1960s and 70s seriously clashed with India’s non-alignment ideals. Perhaps, both ideologically and as a fall out of the geo-political dynamics of the bipolar world, military engagements with Pakistan were an anathema. Another, and possibly a bigger inhibitor may have been the issue of diplomatic protocol in engaging a military which was at the helm of affairs in Pakistan from 1958 to 1971, 1978 to 1988 and 1999 to 2007. Pakistan military’s Kargil adventure in 1999 was also a major cause of loss of trust.
It could even be argued that our efforts have suffered because of an unexplained hesitation within the Indian establishment to including the country’s military in the conduct of foreign relations. After all, if successive Indian military commanders responsible for the Eastern Theatre have engaged in talks with their counterparts in Chengdu Military Region, the hesitation to start a similar exercise with Pakistan is inexplicable. It would be relevant to recall that many countries, including the United States, routinely use their military commanders in a variety of mutually beneficial military exchanges. The famous Admiral Kickleighter proposals of 1991 are a case in point. The talks paved the way for more substantial military cooperation between India and the US. The PLA Generals have also been holding useful talks with their US counterparts, even when the overall environment was tense e.g. US weapon sales to Taiwan.
Several well intended peace initiatives between the two countries involving people to people contact have simply not taken off due to our inability to engage Pakistan Army, the main arbiter of its destiny. The objectives of building peace and harmony in the sub-continent would likely be better served by engaging this powerful constituency in Pakistan. Faced with a host of seemingly irreconcilable differences, it may be logical to probe the efficacy of possible military to military engagement. It might help assuage its insecurity about India’s intentions and even assist in developing a cordial and a less hostile atmosphere in our relationship. In any case, the two militaries have operated in a fairly cordial manner in UN missions across the world. An incremental engagement without compromising the country’s core interests could be a good way to reduce mistrust and suspicions. Apprehensions that the Pakistan military hierarchy may show reluctance to engage the Indian military may also not be correct. The incumbent DG ISI had suggested such a move last year.
The foregoing may appear difficult to achieve at first glance. The process could well begin with a visit by the Raksha Mantri or the Service Chiefs. Having broken the ice at that level the initiative could be given further momentum by undertaking such exchanges at different levels. For instance, it could extend to exchanges of military delegations, visits to premier training establishments, increased frequency of border meetings and conclaves, combined deployment of forces in UN missions, and non-military interactions at other levels.
In our quest to seek peace in the neighbourhood, it would be fair to believe that no option is left un-exercised. A military to military engagement (this surely does not mean supping with enemy) could help pave the way for greater understanding and opening up in the troubled relationship. A word of caution would however be necessary. Expecting a high dividend from this initiative may be too premature given the subterranean hostility between the two militaries. However, it does hold out the promise of some dividends in a relationship that refuses to thaw.