On Feb. 25, senior Indian and Pakistani military officials issued a simultaneous statement after a scheduled weekly telephone call. In it, they declared that both the sides would adhere to "all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors."
Since 2018, the Line of Control, the heavily militarized 450-mile-long border dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan since a United Nations-mandated cease-fire between the two countries in 1949, has thousands of violations. That's despite a cease-fire agreed on by the two sides in 2003. Although the news about the cease-fire grabbed headlines, the more significant bit of the statement was that the two countries "agreed to address each other's core issues and concerns which have the propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence.
By agreeing to address each other's core issues—for Pakistan, Kashmir; and for India, Pakistan-backed terrorism—the statement clearly indicates that the cease-fire is meant as the first step in a longer peace process. The announcement could not have emerged without weeks of back channel diplomatic work by the two governments, including the buy-in of the top political leaderships of both countries and of Pakistan's powerful military leadership.
The question is: why now? Last month, New Delhi also announced a disengagement on its northern borders with China, ratcheting down a tense nine-month-long military standoff in the Himalayas. Within two weeks, in other words, both of India's restive borders have become calmer.
Although the two announcements seem disconnected, India's chastening experience along the border with China—where its military had to scurry and scrap for resources against a more powerful adversary—was one of the drivers for its move with Pakistan. U.S. President Joe Biden winning the November 2020 presidential election likely played a role as well, given expectations that he will lead a more consistent and coherent strategy in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific than the Trump administration. Finally, there may have been a third country with friendly ties to both India and Pakistan, pressing the two nuclear-armed neighbors for a deal.
The welcomed announcement of a cease-fire will prevent the further futile loss of lives of soldiers and residents due to firing and shelling on the Line of Control. On a deeper level, it also holds a promise for normalcy in India-Pakistan ties. But historical animosity, irreconcilable negotiating positions, and abiding mistrust leaves a process beset with risks. Talks can be derailed as much by a lone suicide bomber in Kashmir as by the powerful "deep state" in Pakistan or by the strident anti-Pakistan Hindu majoritarian electoral agenda of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These risks can be controlled and minimized if current engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad is supported by other countries that have a stake in ensuring peace in the region.
As early as 2009, the Indian political leadership formally asked its military to be prepared for a two-front threat from China and Pakistan, but the government seemed to operate on the unstated assumption that it could deal with Beijing through a combination of political, diplomatic, and economic engagement. The 2020 border crisis, where New Delhi was forced to scramble its soldiers, tanks, and guns to tackle multiple Chinese incursions into Indian territory in Ladakh, drove home the need for more military resources to deal with a belligerent Beijing. Soon, India made emergency purchases of ammunition and stores, and it reoriented some of its strike military elements from the border with Pakistan to the border with China.
The adjustments made evident that the Indian economy, just coming out of a recession following three years of pre-pandemic decline, cannot fund the military to fight a war on two fronts. Even worse, with no change in Pakistan's policies toward supporting armed militancy in Indian-administered Kashmir, it became clear that India's 2016-2017 military strikes inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir and 2019 airstrikes on Balakot in Pakistan had failed to deter Islamabad or alter its approach. Yet with China assessed to be the bigger strategic challenge, Modi's government was left with no option but to strike a deal with Pakistan to cool down at least one front. New Delhi must also have noted that the Pakistan Army held back during the Sino-India border crisis, not using it as an opportunity to threaten India—a fact, Indian generals even publicly acknowledged.
Given Pakistan's close relationship with China, any deal with Pakistan would have no meaning unless China was on board. In turn, it has been speculated that India may have effectively signed a composite deal for both borders, where Chinese disengagement in Ladakh was contingent on an India-Pakistan peace deal. Even if that isn't the case, China's incursions on India's northern borders provided a strategic reality check to New Delhi, adding incentive for a chastened Indian government to deal with Pakistan.
In interviews in early March, senior government officials on both sides confirmed that the first moves toward the latest India-Pakistan deal were made around October 2020. They gained momentum after Biden's election for several reasons.
First, unlike former U.S. President Donald Trump's in-your-face, anti-China rhetoric, the Biden administration was expected to be more nuanced, leaving New Delhi unsure of unstinting U.S. support against Beijing. Second, Biden may want to focus on an orderly military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is not possible without Pakistan's support. If he does, he may have to put pressure on New Delhi to mend its ties with Islamabad so as to get to a workable resolution in Afghanistan. Third, Modi had also cast his lot with Trump, organizing two well-attended public rallies in Houston and Ahmedabad, India, where he shouted thinly veiled slogans for Trump's reelection. Between that and the Biden campaign's stance on Modi's harsh policies in Kashmir, his new religion-based citizenship law, and other authoritarian moves, it has been unclear how much personal geniality the new U.S. president would share with India's prime minister. Indian fears may have been confirmed on March 3, when a U.S. state department spokesperson said, "what we have done is we continue to support direct dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and … other issues of concern. Of course, we've continued to call for a reduction of tensions along the Line of Control, returning to that 2003 ceasefire."
On the other side of the border, Pakistan also seems to have been undergoing reconsiderations, claiming to have "shifted its geopolitical priorities into geoeconomic priorities." The $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship project of Chinese President Xi Jinping's Belt and Road Initiative, is envisaged as the linchpin of that shift. It has emanated from global pushback against Pakistan's hard security moves for its support of nonstate violent actors in Afghanistan and against India, which has resulted in sanctions from the Financial Action Task Force and the suspension or reduction of U.S. aid. The shift, which includes seeking a detente with India, is forced by Pakistan's domestic compulsions of sustained economic growth for greater development and providing employment to its burgeoning young population.
Finally, senior government officials on both sides confirmed that an unlikely third country, the United Arab Emirates, played an important role in bringing the two countries together once discussions started in October 2020. It was one of the few countries in the world to issue a statement welcoming the cease-fire announcement, where it highlighted the "close historical ties" it has with both India and Pakistan, which did not go unnoticed.
The UAE may seem like an unlikely candidate to play mediator between India and Pakistan, but it has had historically close ties with Pakistan. And India and the United Arab Emirates have become closer in the last few years, as evidenced by a recent report by a U.N. working group on arbitrary detention. The report noted that Modi's government had conducted a "de facto swap" of wanted persons by seizing the daughter of the UAE prime minister off the Indian coast in exchange for extraditing a British arms dealer, Christian Michel, to the UAE. India and Pakistan provide the bulk of the UAE's working population, which is an important source of remittance earnings for these two countries. Islamabad has historically had strong security and political ties with the UAE while New Delhi has forged closer ties in trade and counterterrorism intelligence sharing in recent years. The UAE also sees itself as an important geopolitical player, eclipsing the role played by the Saudis in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and seems to have taken this role in the peace process as an assertion of its status.
Any move that has a chance of bringing peace and normalcy to two countries who have fought many wars since their independence from British colonial rule in 1947 has to be welcomed.
This is, however, not the first time these two countries have stirred hopes of peace and normalcy. But their negotiating positions, particularly on Kashmir, have always been irreconcilable. Historical and emotional narratives are too deeply embedded in public consciousness to be overturned quickly. On the Indian side, the sustained effort required to build a pro-Pakistan narrative may be an even bigger challenge for a leader like Modi, who has contested even state-level elections on an anti-Pakistan and implicitly anti-Muslim platform. For Modi, it would be difficult to execute a sudden U-turn in his politics, especially devoid of any positive electoral agenda.
Meanwhile, Modi's quick military retaliation after terror strikes linked to Pakistan, conducted twice since he became the prime minister seven years ago, have created a precedent that's raised the bar for the response to any future terror attack. A lone wolf, young Kashmiri suicide bomber, with some links to Pakistan, could derail the whole process. A Hindu extremist group could create similar chaos to derail the peace process between the two countries, as was allegedly done in the Samjhauta Express train bombing of February 2007 when 68 people, including 43 Pakistan citizens, 10 Indian citizens, and 15 unidentified people, were killed in a blast on a train traveling from India to Pakistan.
On the Pakistani side, even though the Pakistan Army is clearly on board with the peace plan, similar thaws in the past have been undermined by the country's "deep state." For example, the country's intelligence agencies and corps commanders may argue that Pakistan has conceded too much without gaining anything in return. The issue of Kashmir, which has been portrayed as essential to the idea of Pakistan since its creation in 1947, cannot be discarded so easily. Modi abrogated the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir in 2019, bifurcating the would-be independent Kashmir and making it a federally controlled territory. Any Pakistani acceptance of the new status quo is bound to be seen as letting down the Kashmir cause. Unless there are major tangible gains in return, murmurs from security officials will become too loud to ignore.
Over the years, India and Pakistan have had numerous rounds of focused engagement, talks, summits, and photo opportunities, but none of it has led to a breakthrough. The structural reasons for earlier failures have not vanished, but geopolitical realties have. Given China's rise, economic challenges, international pressure, and outside brokering, it is now up to India and Pakistan's political leadership to decide whether this latest gambit ends up as a short-term palliative or the start of historical shifts in narrative and ideology.
Sushant Singh is a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. Twitter: @SushantSin
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on foreignpolicy.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.