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A Torn Subcontinent

Patryk Kugiel – about a radical change of alliances in South Asia, the eternal conflict over Kashmir and the potential nuclear war – talks to Tadeusz Wróbel.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has already sent two letters to his Indian equivalent Narendra Modi, proposing a solution to the conflict between the two countries, which has been going on for decades. Why did he decide to take such a step?

For me, this is an act of desperation, because Khan’s offer was doomed to fall. India’s position on this issue has long been known: first of all, Pakistan has to stop supporting cross-border terrorism and hosting anti-Indian organizations. Only then will it be possible to start any talks. Narendra Modi won the last election with a decisive advantage. If he has such a strong mandate, he will not change his tough policy towards Pakistan. This is confirmed by the fact that Imran Khan was not invited to the inauguration of his second term of office and that he refused to meet him at the June summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Modi’s tough stance follows a bloody terrorist attack on 14 February 2019 in Pulwama, the Indian part of Kashmir. The attack on the security forces convoy was carried out by members of the Pakistani Jain-e-Mohammed group. Modi continues the policy of isolating Pakistan in the international arena that was initiated a few years ago. And he is successful in this respect, because this is facilitated by increasingly better relations with the United States and, at the same time, by the worsening of American-Pakistani relations.

Where does such a tough stance of the authorities in New Delhi come from?

From the changing geopolitical position of both countries in favor of India. In the past, Pakistan could afford a lot because it was a regional ally of the US during the Cold War. Even if the Americans shared the opinion of the Indian authorities on the question of support for Kashmiri extremists by Pakistan’s elite, they needed Islamabad after the attacks of 11 September 2001 because of their involvement in neighboring Afghanistan. Important supply routes for US troops led through Pakistan, so for years they turned a blind eye to many of the activities of the US establishment. The decline in engagement in Afghanistan has given politicians in Washington the opportunity to increase pressure on Islamabad. President Donald Trump himself is an important factor, as he does not hide his criticism of Pakistan.

What is the impact of India’s growing purchases of American weapons?

It’s big, because President Trump attaches great importance to foreign trade. From his point of view, India is a more attractive partner than Pakistan. Today, about 40% of Indian arms imports come from the USA, Israel and other Western countries. India, not Pakistan, is the largest buyer of US weapons in South Asia, as shown by the changing regional geopolitical system.

In what direction are the changes taking place?

India, seen for decades as an ally of Moscow, is now increasingly close to the United States, and the former American ally, Pakistan, is becoming an ally of China and Russia. Islamabad doesn’t have much room for maneuver, because the American train left and won’t come back. Washington has made a strategic choice of regional alliance.

So what is Russia’s role in the region? In the past, Moscow had a close relationship with New Delhi.

Indian-Russian relations remain good, especially between politicians, but this is also the public perception. However, India’s current policy is very pragmatic, aimed at maximizing the benefits, including investment and technology transfer, and Russia has little to offer in this area. Only two areas of intensive cooperation can be identified. India still buys a lot of weapons from the Russians and uses their technology in the nuclear industry. Nevertheless, Indians do not like the fact that Russia also sells arms to China, its main regional rival.

What does the presence of external powers mean for the disputed countries in their gameplay?

In the new situation, India has, inter alia, the possibility of pressuring Islamabad through the United States and other Western countries. On the other hand, the Pakistani services are covered by the Chinese protective umbrella and may therefore be tempted to escalate a low-intensity conflict with India. The alliance with Beijing also has great economic significance for Islamabad, which is one of the 50 poorest countries in the world. In addition to motorways, pipelines, railways and ports, China is building much-needed power stations in Pakistan. Thanks to them, factories will then be built in which the Pakistani people will find employment. The Pakistan-China alliance gives Indian politicians and military a headache, because they still remember the war with the Chinese that they lost in 1962. It is never good if global geopolitics overlap with regional geopolitics, then it is more difficult to resolve local disputes.

One of the reasons for the conflict between India and Pakistan is the divided Kashmir. Why has it not been possible to solve this problem for decades?

For India, the high mountain region is a barrier protecting it from China from the north. The power plants built on the local rivers are also important. In reality, however, these are secondary issues. The most important reason for the dispute, and this for both sides, is the question of identity. Pakistan was invented as a country for Indian Muslims. According to the elite of that country, without the accession of the Indian part of Kashmir, the concept of Pakistan will not be completed. For the Republic of India, secular and multinational, Muslim Kashmir is a confirmation of its state model. India feels like a superpower, and such is not to be subject to pressure. All the more so because in Asia, great importance is attached to sovereignty and the inviolability of borders. Indian politicians are also concerned that concessions to Pakistan could have a knock-on effect, as other ethnic minorities would be given the argument of separation from the Republic. Then the conflict over Kashmir will continue.

A large Muslim minority also lives in other regions of India, but unlike Kashmir, it does not engage in anti-state activities. What does that mean?

One of the puzzles is why Muslims from other regions of India do not radicalize in large numbers. After all, they could, because they are usually poorer than other religious or ethnic groups. Asked at the scientific conference Raisina Dialogue 2019 in New Delhi, the Chief of Staff of the Indian Army, General Bipin Rawat, pointed to three reasons: strong family values and social self-control, the efficiency of security services, and the specificity of Indian Islam, which is strongly influenced by its moderate trend – Sufism.

Are there any other Indian-Pakistan disputes besides those relating to Kashmir and Islamabad’s support for cross-border terrorism?

Yes, the border crossing in the Thar Desert and Indian Ocean and in the Siachen Glacier area. It is a contentious issue to regulate Indus and other rivers that originate in India and flow into Pakistan. India builds power stations on them to reduce the amount of water reaching its neighbors. Pakistan therefore brings cases against India before international tribunals, accusing them of “water terrorism.”

Is not such a long-lasting conflict as the dispute over Kashmir also convenient for the political elites of both countries?

The usefulness of the Kashmir conflict is particularly important for Pakistan’s military forces, because for a poor country to have a strong army, an external enemy is necessary. It is said that every country owns an army, but in Pakistan it is the army that owns the country. The Kashmir dispute has allowed the military to create a certain business and economic structure and to gain political influence. The Indian army is also interested in maintaining tension in Kashmir. However, the reasons here are more mundane – high defense spending and military apanages.

But can Pakistan afford to have a conflict with India?

The great outlay on defense is destructive to the Pakistani state. Although its overall economic situation is better than it was years ago, gross domestic product is growing by 4-5% annually, the problem is the public finance deficit. There is a shortage of money for importing raw materials and commodities, and Pakistan’s weakened position in the international arena does not make it easy to obtain new loans. This situation has led to Prime Minister Khan travelling during the first months of his rule to countries from which he can obtain some money, including China and Saudi Arabia.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the last major armed conflict between India and Pakistan, the Kargil War. Since its end, there has been a conviction that this conflict did not degenerate into an open war, because both sides have been aware that they have nuclear weapons and what the end could be. Has it really kept Indian and Pakistani decision-makers from escalating crises above a certain threshold?

After the Pulwama bombing, it was different. Indian Air Force attacked alleged terrorist camps in Balakot, outside Kashmir. This is the first such rally into Pakistan since the war in 1971. India has broken a psychological barrier by giving a clear signal to politicians, especially military politicians in Islamabad, that they cannot afford too much, even if they are protected by their own or Chinese nuclear umbrella. Prime Minister Modi has shown that he is ready to take a big risk.

Doesn’t Modi’s attitude stem from the feeling that India also has a big brother behind whom, in the event of a conflict with Pakistan, will be keeping China in check?

Certainly it is. India considers China to be a greater threat than Pakistan. Thus their progressive approach to the USA.

What would happen if there were another major terrorist attack behind which Pakistan or the people who support it were to stand?

India would have reacted to it militarily in an even more decisive way. There would be a counter-reaction from Pakistan. If the escalation couldn’t be stopped, it could lead to the use of nuclear weapons.

Who would hit first?

Pakistan’s military doctrine is that it can use nuclear weapons first if its armed forces do not stop the Indian offensive. This is understandable, because Pakistan’s conventional potential is incomparably smaller than that of India, and these disparities will increase year on year. Therefore, nuclear weapons will become increasingly important to Pakistan. Anyway, already now it has more nuclear warheads than India.

Are we therefore threatened by a nuclear conflict in South Asia?

Such a threat exists, but for the time being, if we accept the fifteen- or twenty-degree escalation of the conflict between India and Pakistan, we can speak of a third or fourth degree.

Patryk Kugiel is an expert of the Polish Institute of International Affairs. Graduate of the Jagiellonian University and the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He specializes in issues concerning India and South Asia region.

Tadeusz Wróbel

autor zdjęć: Michał Niwicz

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