Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari plans to travel to India on April 8 to visit the shrine of a Sufi saint in the city of Ajmer, in India's northwestern state of Rajasthan. Accompanied by a 40-member delegation that includes Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and Interior Minister Rehman Malik, Zardari will meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Cabinet in New Delhi before traveling to the Ajmer shrine.
The visit is taking place amid developing trade ties between the South Asian rivals. The India-Pakistan dialogue is also occurring parallel to bumpy negotiations between the United States and Pakistan on a post-U.S. Afghanistan settlement that have New Delhi unnerved at the prospect of unchecked Pakistan-based militancy against India. Pakistan and India both have strategic reasons for expanding their dialogue from trade to security issues, but the security issues are where the most fundamental obstacles remain.
Barring any last-minute changes to his schedule, Zardari will travel to India — the first such trip by a Pakistani president in seven years — in the wake of positive trade developments between the two South Asian neighbors, which have fought four wars since their founding as independent states in 1947. While India had accorded Pakistan most favored nation status in 1996, Pakistan only decided to reciprocate in early November 2011.
Islamabad's move is the result of a paradigm shift in the Pakistani strategic thinking about India. For decades, Pakistan saw trade with India as possible only after a resolution on the wider security issues (particularly the dispute over Kashmir). The current civilian government, however, inverted this approach and has embarked upon a new strategy under which trade comes first and can lead to the eventual resolution of security issues. Especially significant is the fact that after much internal debate, the Pakistan People's Party-led coalition government was able to get the Pakistani military establishment to sign off on the idea.
The military acceded to the plan mainly because of its potential economic benefits, especially given Pakistan's dismal financial situation which has been exacerbated by the fallout of the decade long U.S.-jihadist war. However, the Pakistani security establishment is also eager to see some signs that the government's strategy will produce the desired results. Therefore, according to Pakistani media reports, Zardari's trip is designed to get the Indians to reopen serious negotiations on two key border disputes — the Siachen Glacier on the northern end of the 2,900-kilometer (1,800-mile) border between the two countries, and Sir Creek on the southern tip of the border.
For Pakistan, the Siachen Glacier is the more important of the two because it is located in the disputed Kashmir region. The area was taken over by Indian troops in 1984 in a surprise attack and has been the scene of intermittent low-level military conflicts ever since, proving excruciatingly costly for both sides. Pakistan would like to see Indian troops return to their pre-1984 positions along the lines of an understanding that was worked out in the late 1980s between then-Pakistani Prime Minster Benazir Bhutto and her Indian counterpart, Rajiv Gandhi.
Islamabad realizes that getting New Delhi to heed such a demand will be extremely difficult. Talks on this issue will likely continue for some time and the outcome remains unclear. But for the Pakistani government, this is not just about bilateral relations with India. Pakistan is also in the process of redefining its security cooperation with the United States and needs to ensure that Washington does not use its relationship with India as leverage in the U.S.-Pakistani talks.
The dramatic weakening of the Pakistani state over the past decade has been a troubling development for India. Though a relatively weak and preoccupied Islamabad is in the interest of New Delhi, sharing a border with a country approaching the verge of collapse is not at all in India's interest. In the case of Pakistan, India also has to be worried about cross-border terrorism. New Delhi needs an Islamabad that it can hold accountable for any anti-India militancy that originates from Pakistani soil.
The strengthening of civilian governance in Pakistan takes place at a time when the United States and Pakistan are trying to come to terms on a post-NATO Afghanistan, and India fears that the process and its outcome will give Islamabad greater regional leverage against New Delhi. The Indians therefore need to make sure that the United States does not neglect the Pakistan-based anti-India Islamist militants as it works out a deal with Islamabad to contain al Qaeda and its transnational allies.
But India realizes that bilateral and multilateral pressure (mostly via the United States) on Islamabad regarding Pakistan-based non-state militant actors can only go so far. Such pressure is essential in the short term, but in the long term New Delhi would like Pakistan to change its entire approach and stop treating India as an enemy. Therefore India sees utility in developing ties with democratic forces in Pakistan.
Until recently, a shift in the Pakistani attitude was not possible given that Islamabad was a military-dominated state. The current efforts toward democratic rule in Pakistan are welcomed by India, which allows the two sides to engage in substantive negotiations. After resisting for 16 years, Pakistan finally agreeing to grant India most favored nation status is a significant development that the Indians want to build on.
Increased bilateral trade that can help improve the Pakistani economy offers India considerable leverage in weakening those hawkish (nationalist as well as Islamist) elements within the Pakistani state and society that disapprove of increasing ties with India. For this trade-centered approach to work, New Delhi must try to make the project a success to empower its negotiating partners in Islamabad, so that those opposed to warmer India-Pakistan relations cannot sabotaged the initiative.
The U.S. Angle
The delicate nature of this process, however, also means that India cannot afford to end the pressure on Pakistan. This pressure was aided in part by the United States announcing a bounty on the Pakistan-based founder of the most prominent anti-India Islamist militant movement, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.
Washington's move is informed by two needs. First, the United States has to address India's concerns as it moves forward with Pakistan on Afghanistan — part of the traditional U.S. balancing act on the subcontinent. Second, Washington needs to counter Islamabad's push for redefining of U.S.-Pakistan ties, especially given the democratization of policymaking in Islamabad. By announcing the bounty on Saeed, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping it can achieve both.
While it does help the United States in its relations with India, it is not likely to give Pakistan pause in its attempt to redefine relations with the United States on Afghanistan. Pakistanis are unlikely to take action against Saeed unless some hard evidence linking him to the 2008 Mumbai attacks is unveiled by the Obama administration. Pakistan's democratic government does not want to be seen as bending rule of law to cater to American demands, especially when the LeT founder has already been acquitted twice by Pakistani courts on what they deemed a lack of evidence linking Saeed to the Mumbai attacks.
The Pakistani military's less pronounced role in the government has led, somewhat surprisingly, to an opportunity for better relations with India through the trade deals while making ties with the United States increasingly tense. Though focusing on economic matters provides a foundation India and Pakistan can build on, the basic security dilemma that has defined their relationship — India's overwhelming economic and military power and the Islamist militant networks operating in Pakistan — remains.