The Pulse | Security | South Asia

India and Pakistan: More of the Same Ahead?

Whether the February 25 recommitment to a ceasefire by both sides yields lasting peace remains to be seen.

India and Pakistan: More of the Same Ahead?

‘Beating of Retreat’ Ceremony at the India-Pakistan international border at Wagha, 2010.

Credit: Flickr/Koshy Koshy

On February 25, after talks between director generals of military operations (DGMOs), India and Pakistan reached a ceasefire agreement on the Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir from midnight of February 24-25. Exchange of artillery fire had become commonplace over the last few years as India-Pakistan relations came under increasing strain. Terror attacks by the Pakistan-based terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed in Pathankot and Uri, both in 2016, and in Pulwama in 2019 led to military operations by Indian forces across the disputed border in Pakistan-administered Kashmir and in Pakistan in the shape of special operation and air strikes on terrorist launch pads and camps.

These events had subsequently led to a growing number of ceasfire violations (CFVs), as both sides prefer the use of this low-intensity option to express their differences under the ostensible safety of the nuclear umbrella. India’s defense minister, Rajnath Singh, stated before parliament that there had been 5,133 instances of CFVs along the LoC in 2020 with Pakistan last year, which had resulted in 46 fatalities. This was the highest number since a ceasefire agreement was reached in 2003. The recent agreement therefore brings much needed respite from the competitive excesses of the rivalry.

But what does this agreement really augur for bilateral ties? Should it be viewed as a significant breakthrough? Recent history does not inspire confidence. In 2018, both armies had similarly agreed to adhere to the tenets of the 2003 ceasefire agreement in “letter and spirit” to maintain peace and tranquility on the disputed border. The prominent concern then was for civilians who had been inadvertently caught in the crossfire. Later, in September 2019, Indian news outlets reported “2,050 unprovoked ceasefire violations in which 21 Indians [had] died.” The last agreement did not endure.

There are two reasons for this. First, in the absence of enforcement mechanisms or even a written agreement there isn’t much to hold both parties to their commitments. The ceasefire offer was first made by Pakistani Prime Minister Zafarullah Jamali on November 23, 2003 and reciprocated by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs a few days later. But it has never been formalized. In these circumstances, the sanctity of the agreement is only tenuously held in place by expedience, and is greatly susceptible to political pressures at the domestic level. Also, since it does not create dependencies, there isn’t much at stake for either party. Second, as Happymon Jacob highlights, CFVs “are generally not planned, directed, or cleared by higher military commands or political establishments, but are instead driven by the dynamics on the frontlines.” When signaling from the political leadership is ambiguous, local military factors have a more autonomous function in terms of performing CFVs.

Perhaps it is better to wait and watch. As Jacob has argued, ceasefire agreements have typically been followed as part of a “tit-for-tat” strategy, in periods when peace dialogue between both countries is seen as progressing. These are periods in which the political leadership is arguably more attuned to the conditions at the tactical level. While the current ceasefire agreement is somewhat consequential in itself, if we see more positive signs and conformity with the agreed terms in the near future, it may speak to real progress and a genuine appetite in leaders on both sides to make headway. Earlier, Pakistan’s Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa did claim he was “extending [the] hand of peace in all directions.” The joint statement mentioned that both states had “agreed to address each other’s core issues and concerns.” This could mean that cross-border terrorism and the Kashmir issue could be back on the negotiation table to accommodate both India and Pakistan’s interests.

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But there isn’t much to justify such optimism. Mainly, since it is unlikely that perceptions of enmity have changed, material weaknesses could be driving conciliatory behavior. Pakistan’s  annual economic growth rate has shrunk from 5.8 percent in 2018 (when Imran Khan took over as prime minister) to 0.98 percent in 2020 and could decline further. Additionally, it remains on the Financial Action Task Force’s “grey list” for terror financing. India’s GDP on the other hand, contracted by an astounding 23.9 percent in the first quarter of 2020 and only now seems to be on the mend. Also, although there is no evidence of the China factor playing a direct role, the rise in tensions on the Sino-Indian border could have softened India’s stance on CFVs on the Indo-Pak border. In essence, if the current agreement has been produced by specific pay-off structures, it will weaken as these inevitably change in the future.

If the ceasefire agreement does not hold, it will be clear that it was a momentary respite in a routinized escalatory/de-escalatory dynamic. Certain fault lines are evident already. India’s Ministry of Defense clarified that the DGMO level talks took place “at the behest of Pakistan.” The statement specifically mentions flagging terrorist infiltration in the north of Pir Panjal mountain ranges. Furthermore, the Indian Army added that “no let-up in counter-terror operations” would occur due to the agreement, and that they “retained the right to respond in case there is a terror attack in the future.” The message to domestic publics was clear: this does not change India’s stance on terrorism or Pakistan.

Similarly, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted to commemorate the anniversary of Pakistan’s response to India’s air strikes, which he referred to as “reckless” and “irresponsible military brinkmanship.” He welcomed the ceasefire agreement but added that the “onus of creating an enabling environment for further progress” now rested with India. Khan believes India must “take necessary steps to meet the long-standing demand and right of Kashmiri people [for] self-determination.” The message to domestic publics here: this does not change Pakistan’s stance on Kashmir or India.

In the end, it may not be the achievement of a ceasefire agreement, but rather what the two states do in its aftermath that will provide the clearest indication of where the India-Pakistan rivalry is headed. Although less discussed, occasional cooperation in areas that look to reduce risk of inadvertent escalation have been nearly as predictable as CFVs in India-Pak relations. For example, India and Pakistan already keep their nuclear arsenals disassembled, have a moratorium on nuclear testing, and under a 1988 agreement, routinely exchange lists of nuclear sites on the first day of every calendar year. They also have flag-staff meetings and regular military contact at the DGMO level, which are of an ad hoc character and serve as ready mechanisms to de-escalate tensions in crisis situations. But none of these measures have been able to alter the substantial nature of the rivalry and streamline peace dialogue. While risks of needless escalation and saber-rattling may have been lessened, the prospects for genuine progress are still dim.

Ameya Pratap Singh is a Ph.D. student in Area Studies (South Asia) at the University of Oxford.