In 2003, after decades of tensions and sniping along the Line of Control, the de facto international border in disputed Kashmir, India and Pakistan finally agreed to a cease-fire. The agreement came in the aftermath of a major crisis in 2001-2002, which had brought the two states to the brink of war.
That meltdown started with an attack that Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based terrorist organization, launched on the Indian parliament in December 2001. In response, India undertook a massive military mobilization along its borders with Pakistan to force it to end its support for a range of terrorist groups operating from its soil. Pakistan made some nods toward reining in various terrorist groups, but it was clear that it was not prepared to bow to Indian pressure.
The 2003 accord lasted a mere three years, but it nevertheless proved to be robust during that period. According to reliable sources, neither side violated its terms during that period
Now, after a couple of years in which Indian-Pakistan relations have taken a nosedive over a series of bloody border clashes, the two sides have agreed to strike another deal. Both will hold their fire and continue negotiations to end the long-simmering conflict between them. There is reason for optimism; even a fragile peace is better than continued conflict. That said, given the fraught history of peace agreements between India and Pakistan, there is ample reason for caution as well.
The Line of Control was created in 1972 in the aftermath of the third India-Pakistan war. The original intention was to create a working border while efforts continued to secure a permanent one. Ever since, the Line of Control has seen periodic clashes between the two warring parties.
In April 1999, the Pakistani military infiltrated the Line of Control in the region of Kargil, precipitating yet another war over Kashmir. This fight, which took place following the nuclearization of both countries in May 1998, attracted considerable international attention because it was only the second-ever armed conflict between two nuclear-armed states. The world breathed a sigh of relief when the dispute remained contained and was brought to a peaceful close through U.S. intervention.
In the 20 years since, neither side has taken actions along the Line of Control to initiate another war, but a range of crises have nevertheless punctuated India-Pakistan relations. Besides sparring in 2001-2002, in November 2008, following a major terrorist attack on the city of Mumbai, which was traced to another Pakistan-based terrorist organization, the two sides came perilously close to war once more. With some prodding on the part of the United States, though, they moved to another cease-fire.
It was not to last, though. And, last week, after years of escalating tension and strife along the Line of Control, the two sides again agreed to an indefinite cease-fire in the area. Since August 2019, when India revoked the special status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, violations of earlier cease-fires had become commonplace. According to a report presented in the Indian parliament, there were over 5,000 cease-fire violations last year alone. The report, released by Indian Minister of Defense Rajnath Singh, attributed them all to Pakistan. A more dispassionate source, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, confirms a high number of violations in the last several years, but it finds attribution a bit murkier. Pakistan's director-general of military operations, meanwhile, asserted there were nearly 1,300 Indian infractions in 2017.
It is tempting to blame the dramatic growth in cease-fire violations on the rise of the right-wing, hawkish, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party government in India in 2014. But that does not provide a full account.
For one, according to the Indian scholar Happymon Jacob, who has conducted what is probably the most complete analysis of the sources of cease-fire lapses, local commanders on both sides of the border have considerable latitude to undertake military actions. When one side bolsters its position through the construction of new bunkers or other fortifications on its side of the border, the opposing side often initiates fire. These actions rarely have the formal imprimatur of either higher commanders or political authorities.
Then, there are also other politics at play. In 2013, after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to office, he was apparently keen on improving relations with India. The Pakistani military establishment, however, had little interest in pursuing any such overtures. Consequently, they chose to stir up trouble along the Line of Control, thereby undermining Sharif's peace overtures.
In 2014, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed office, his government gave greater leeway to local commanders to use force as they deemed appropriate. As far as it is possible to tell, Indian cease-fire violations ticked up after that point. Further, in pursuit of their counterinsurgency strategy in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir, in 2016, the Indian Army killed Burhan Wani, a local commander of the insurgent group Hizbul Mujahideen. Wani's killing prompted a further infiltration of insurgents from their sanctuaries in Pakistan as his compatriots sought to avenge his death. Cease-fire violations on both sides then spiked.
Over the past five years or so, Indian-Pakistani relations have deteriorated sharply, especially after a suicide bomb attack on an Indian military convoy near the town of Pulwama in Indian-controlled Kashmir in February 2019. Jaish-e-Mohammed, which carried out the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, claimed responsibility for the incident. Following the attack, for the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, the Modi government authorized the Indian Air Force to make an incursion across the international border and strike at what it said was a terrorist training camp at Balakot. Within days, Pakistan retaliated with a mostly symbolic strike near Srinagar, the capital of Jammu and Kashmir. Despite much heated rhetoric from both capitals, the crisis fizzled out.
With all the tension of the last few years—yet in the absence of a looming war—it might be surprising that India and Pakistan moved now to conclude another cease-fire. It seems, though, that both sides believed it was in their self-interest. Given that India has barely stabilized its northern border with China since a series of clashes last year, it can ill afford to have another escalation with Pakistan.
Pakistan, in turn, has its own imperatives to reduce tensions. Under U.S. President Donald Trump, Washington had adopted a tough stance toward Islamabad, largely because it had concluded that Pakistan was not assisting the Afghan peace process and was still supporting various terrorist networks. But now that there is a new U.S. president, it is in Islamabad's interest to demonstrate that it can be a responsible partner in the region.
The question is, what happens next? To make this cease-fire hold longer than the others, Islamabad will have to find ways to rein in the activities of any terrorist organization that exists within its borders. As long as Pakistan faces international pressure from the United States and others to crack down on terrorist groups within its borders, there is some possibility that it might actually comply. New Delhi, in turn, will have to convince its commanders to exercise suitable restraint along the Line of Control. To demonstrate its seriousness about the cease-fire, India's leadership may make a good faith effort to that end.
Peace remains a long shot, but both parties can seize this moment to create a more conducive milieu for addressing the underlying sources of this protracted conflict.
Sumit Ganguly is a Foreign Policy columnist. He is also a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington.
Disclaimer: This opinion first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.