South Asia Approaches a New Political Equilibrium

The political order within South Asia is fast approaching a new equilibrium. Washington must ensure that it is not a temporary, but rather a permanent equilibrium. Temporary political equilibriums pave the way for escalation of tensions, creating room for conflict and loss of innocent lives.

The annulment of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has led to a rise in tensions between Iran and the United States (U.S.). Emboldened by the hawkish national security advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump unilaterally annulled what he claimed to be a bad Iran deal. This action has severely strained the already tenuous relationship between the two countries, increasing the prospects of war.

Tehran understands that in the event of a U.S.-Iran conflict, U.S. attacks from Baluchistan, Pakistan’s South-Eastern province bordering Iran, remain a possibility.

Therefore, to prevent Pakistan from subleasing Baluchistan’s check-posts to the United States, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani issued statements seemingly in support of Pakistan on Kashmir. Moreover, this could also be an indication of Tehran’s readiness to resuscitate its cordial relations with its nuclear technology provider.

However, the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which revoked special status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, could usher in an era of prolonged instability in the region.

India’s Kashmir move has clearly taken Pakistan by surprise. With billions of dollars of aid from the Arab world and a ‘successful’ U.S. visit of its Prime Minister, Pakistan thought it was smoothly climbing the regional leadership ladder. It did not read Modi’s cards at all.

Taken by complete surprise, Islamabad approached the Arab World, hoping for the Muslim brotherhood to come to its support as it had done in 1948 and 1957.

However, Islamabad’s efforts to lobby the Muslim World have not yielded positive results. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have played by the script. They have presented Modi honorary civilian awards. This has made Pakistan’s foreign office understand that ‘International Relations are above religious sentiments’. Arab states will not give precedence to religious sentiments over economic ties. Their economic ties with India are far more fruitful than with Pakistan.

Now, Islamabad is left with two options. It will try to use its leverage over the Taliban to ask for U.S. assistance in Kashmir before any U.S.-Taliban deal is reached in Qatar. Or, it will use its insurgent-led guerilla warfare strategy in Jammu and Kashmir, a skill it learned from the CIA during the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. However, there are two risks to this approach. First, using proxies could lead to a full-fledged conventional war between the two countries. Since Pakistan did not predict Article 370’s abrogation, it can be reasonably inferred that Pakistan’s armed forces have not prepared for an all-out conflict with India. Moreover, using insurgents in India can hurt Pakistan’s already dwindling economy. Any evidence of financing and equipping the insurgents can potentially place Pakistan on Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) blacklist, something Pakistan desperately seeks to avoid in its present economic crisis.

Therefore, the only reasonable option was gaining international support and endorsement of Pakistan’s narrative from friendly countries. However, it did not happen as expected. Now, Islamabad will either buy time until the FATF decision comes out in October or engage a trustworthy ally in reaching a deal with India over Indian Occupied Kashmir.

On the other hand, India must be happy about the present situation, but anxious about the future. It knows Pakistan’s expertise in insurgent-backed guerrilla war. India must also understand that the magnitude of operation will be different this time, because the curfew-locked Kashmiris are more likely to side with Pakistan-backed fighters. The massive human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir have given the Kashmiris a solid rationale to turn against the Indian state. Therefore, a rise in insurgency within Kashmir, voluntarily helped by the enraged Kashmiris, could lead to prolonged chaos and an anti-India separatist movement in the valley.

India needs to understand that any conflict with Pakistan would harm it the most. A full-fledged war would severely damage India’s growing economy. Moreover, China’s military support of Pakistan could not be ruled out. Therefore, with present gains in hand, India must be ready to make reasonable concessions to reach a solution to the present crisis in Kashmir.

Washington has been closely following recent developments. It understands Pakistan’s leverage over the Taliban. Any U.S.-Taliban agreement and its implementation would require Islamabad’s support. But, Trump’s ecstatic meeting with Modi at the G7, and designating Kashmir to be a bilateral issue might have created a trust deficit amongst Pakistan’s rulers.

Therefore, if Trump wants to fulfill his State of the Union address promise of ‘extricating’ his troops from Afghanistan and wants to isolate Iran, he needs to have Pakistan’s complete support. He can only win Pakistan’s support if he mediates to arrest the deterioration of peace in Kashmir–either directly or indirectly.

A round of talks between Pakistan and India can either be organized in Washington or Riyadh. Alternatively, either of them could be interlocutors between Islamabad and New Delhi. A legally binding agreement acceptable to both the parties could be reached. This would stem the deterioration and perhaps enable both countries to focus on alleviating their people’s poverty rather than engaging in warfare.