ORF America

How 9/11 Changed India-Pakistan Competition

Research Fellow
The annual Tribute in Light that will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
The annual Tribute in Light that will mark the 20th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

The 9/11 attacks may have brought the threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation front and centre globally, but in South Asia, it simply reinforced concerns India had for decades. Pakistan’s use of unconventional warfare, i.e., militias and terror groups, for political ends dates to the late 1940s; what changed a few years before 9/11, and has continued since, is unconventional warfare under a nuclear umbrella.

The last two decades in India–Pakistan relations have, at one level, witnessed a repetition of the previous five decades: War or terror attack followed by saber-rattling, high profile meeting of leaders, and talk of opening trade or resumption of discussions, and then once again a terror attack and the cycle is repeated.

India and Pakistan fought their last conventional war in 1999 (Kargil), but the two countries almost went to war soon after 9/11 when the Indian Parliament was attacked in December 2001 by a Pakistan-based terror group, Jaish-e-Muhammad. Throughout most of 2002, armies of both countries faced each other along their 3,323-kilometre long border. International, especially American, pressure on both countries led to a ceasefire in November 2003.

The next few years witnessed attempts at open and backchannel diplomacy, despite terror attacks across India. These included attacks in all major cities of India primarily targeting civilians on buses, trains, schools, temple; many of them were synchronised serial bombings. The Indian security establishment believed that all these attacks could be traced back either to Pakistan-based groups or to groups aligned with them in India.

The culmination came in the 26 November, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks: A series of 12 shooting and bombing attacks conducted by 10 jihadis connected to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based jihadi group, that has long spoken of hurting India through ‘a thousand cuts.’ One hundred and seventy four people were killed, including six Americans, and more than 300 wounded.

Instead of giving in to public anger demanding a military response, India maintained strategic restraint and instead sought international, especially American, pressure on Pakistan to act against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its leaders. Thirteen years later, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its top leadership continue to enjoy the support and protection of the Pakistani state even after being declared a global terrorist organisation by the United States and the United Nations Security Council.

Terror attacks continued unabated after 2008 but, fortunately, none have been as devastating. This led once again to attempts to resume dialogue between the two countries. At that time, India pursued a policy of sporadic engagement with Pakistan even amidst intermittent terrorist attacks. The hope was that these comprehensive dialogues—covering everything from Kashmir to Siachen, the economy to the visa regime, would help build a mechanism that would resolve both the larger and smaller issues between the two countries.

The leaders of India and Pakistan have met 45 times between 1947 and 2015; 22 of those meetings took place after 9/11. In the last two decades, three successive Indian Prime Ministers—Atal Behari Vajpayee, Manmohan Singh, and Narendra Modi—have attempted to restart and rebuild relations with Pakistan.

Pakistan’s civilian leaders who have initiated friendship towards India—Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif, and Asif Ali Zardari—have been targeted by their domestic opponents as ‘security risks’ or ‘ Indian agents. ’ They have also lost influence and power soon after the initiation of a peace process with India.

The last meeting between leaders of both countries took place in December 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopped in Lahore to meet with then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Two weeks later, in January 2016, an Indian Air Force station in Pathankot, Punjab, was hit by a terror attack. This was followed by another attack, in September 2016, on Indian security forces based in Uri in Jammu and Kashmir. This terror attack resulted in India conducting and openly announcing a surgical strike against Pakistan-based jihadi camps across the border.

Two years later, in February 2019, one of the deadliest terror attacks against Indian security forces by a Kashmiri terrorist belonging to the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed occurred in Pulwama, Kashmir. India ended its traditional strategic restraint and struck at terror camps in Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

This resulted in Pakistan retaliating with strikes that resulted in an Indian Air Force plane being shot down and an Indian Air Force pilot being taken prisoner but was soon released. These air strikes were the first-time warplanes of either country had crossed the Line of Control since 1971.

There has been no meeting since 2015, as New Delhi has made dialogue contingent on Pakistan ending all support for Kashmiri terrorist groups and giving up the option of using force to gain control of Kashmir. There have been a few half-hearted attempts to resume a dialogue, but they have not succeeded.

In 2018, after being elected, Mr. Khan spoke about improving relations with India even though he had denigrated similar efforts by his rival, Nawaz Sharif. Khan also sent a letter to his counterpart Modi.

The contents of Mr. Khan’s letter, however, were not released first by the Pakistan government, making Indian officials wonder whether Pakistan’s desire was just to create an illusion of a peace process to break out of international isolation. For India, it is important that negotiations with Pakistan’s leaders be conducted transparently.

In February 2021, the two countries announced their sixth ceasefire in seven decades with Pakistan’s army Chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa taking the lead and speaking of the need for the two countries to move beyond their past.

In April 2021, within a 24-hour period, Pakistan first announced that it would import sugar and cotton from India, and then halted that decision. This, along with both Khan and Bajwa’s insistence on Pakistan’s ‘Kashmir first’ policy, means there is little chance that talks will really go any further.

The Indian view now seems to be that Pakistan seeks dialogue whenever it is in a weak position, only to reinstate conflict once its hand becomes stronger. History supports that view.

Soon after the 1962 India–China War, the US and United Kingdom pushed for an India–Pakistan dialogue seeking to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Two years after the Swaran Singh-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto talks, Pakistan initiated war in Kashmir in 1965.

After the 1971 war, which resulted in the loss of Pakistan’s eastern wing that became Bangladesh, the two countries signed the Simla Agreement in 1972. India released 90,000 Prisoners of War (PoW) and returned Pakistani territory it had occupied in the western wing. But a few years later, Pakistan’s military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, described the agreement as an ‘unequal treaty’ that could no longer be the basis of relations between the two countries.

Soon after the 1998 nuclear tests by both countries, a comprehensive peace dialogue began, culminating in the 1999 Lahore Declaration signed by Atal Behari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif. A few months later, Pakistan started the Kargil conflict and Sharif’s government was toppled.

Vajpayee overlooked the Kargil debacle to invite its chief architect, General Pervez Musharraf, for the July 2001 Agra Summit, which, in turn, was followed by terrorist attacks on the Jammu and Kashmir state assembly followed by the December 2001 attack.

Musharraf’s back-channel negotiations with the Manmohan government from 2004 to 2007 are supposed to have laid the foundations of a comprehensive peace but these ended with the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

Narendra Modi’s initiatives for negotiations in 2015 were followed by another round of terrorist attacks and a judicial coup, backed by Pakistan’s military, against Modi’s negotiating partner, once again Prime Minister Sharif.

India and Pakistan know that good relations would benefit them both, but nations tend to proceed cautiously when it comes to countries that have acted in an antagonistic manner or failed to keep promises in the past. This is one of the the reasons why that knowledge has not translated into a workable strategy for positive engagement.

Since independence in 1947, Pakistan’s foreign and security policy has been driven by a fervent desire to check ‘hegemonic’ India from achieving its nefarious aims in South Asia and beyond. Unable to maintain parity with India on the conventional military front, asymmetrical warfare in the form of terrorism was viewed by the Pakistani deep state as the cost-friendly and yet potent alternative against a much larger neighbour.

The Kashmir conflict, a legacy of Partition, has been viewed by Pakistan as the ‘unfinished business of Partition’ and every Pakistani leader and government has tried to solve the problem, whether through war or negotiations.

Pakistan has nurtured a hardline ‘Kashmir bazor Shamsheer’ (Kashmir by the sword) lobby that portrays India as an existential threat to Pakistan—a view supported by Pakistan’s politically dominant military. Each of the four India–Pakistan wars was initiated by Pakistan, which tends to maintain an ‘all or nothing’ approach on the Kashmir issue that surfaces soon after periods of dialogue.

Throughout the various ups and downs, India’s argument has consistently been that the two countries must build people-to-people ties and economic relations before resolving outstanding issues like Kashmir. In recent years, the rise in terrorism—including the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks—has made it difficult for Indian governments to consider a dialogue with Pakistan without any discussion of and action taken on the issue of terrorism.

India-Pakistan crises are not new, nor are terrorist attacks by Pakistan-based groups or India’s attempts to coerce Pakistan in their aftermath. What has changed, however, especially since the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, is the regional and global reaction to terror attacks. Previously, most countries would ask both sides to resolve the Kashmir dispute or impress upon India the need to start a dialogue with Pakistan. Now, almost every major country, as well as the United Nations Security Council, is unequivocal in condemning terrorist attacks and most have not minced words in assigning the blame to Pakistan.

For Pakistan, antagonism towards India has become an essential characteristic of its national identity. Until and unless the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment moves away from viewing India as an existential threat and stops using jihad as a lever of foreign policy, there is little hope for normal relations to exist between the two countries.

India, therefore, must plan on the assumption that Pakistan would continue to be hostile to India and will act as an obstacle to India’s rise. India would have to convince others, especially the US, that instead of mediating in some India-Pakistan disputes, their role should be to check Pakistan’s implacable hostility and disregard for international norms when it comes to India.

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