Cauldron of proxy wars
By Imtiaz Gul
The Express Tribune, February 18, 2014
In an interview with The Guardian, Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, seems to have hit the nail on the head when talking about the roadblocks to trade between India and Pakistan.
“Security agencies on both sides need to really understand that in today’s world, a security-led vision is obviously driven by economic security,” he said. “Unless you have economic security, you can’t have general security.” Shahbaz also warned that distrustful ‘security agencies’ in both Pakistan and India were one of the two main ‘blockages’ holding back plans to liberalise trade, which many believe will provide a desperately needed boost to Pakistan’s moribund economy.
In his meeting last year with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif went even further and almost shocked Singh by suggesting that: “We know what you are doing to us and you know what our people are doing to you, why not sit together and talk it out,” according to close Nawaz aides.
Nawaz’s reference was the alleged Indian role in Balochistan as well as the revelation last year that former Indian army chief General V K Singh created a Technical Services Division (TSD) for covert operations in Pakistan. A Hindustan Times report chronicled this venture and quoted a former TSD officer as saying: “Our main task was to combat the rising trend of state-sponsored terrorism by the ISI and we had developed contacts across the Line of Control in a bid to infiltrate Hafiz Saeed’s inner circle.” Given the history of mutual mistrust, hostility and cross-border covert operations between Islamabad and New Delhi, one can safely assume that General Singh’s TSD reflects only a small aspect of India’s possible involvement in Pakistan. If the CIA had been running alleged espionage networks through private security contractors (such as Raymond Davis), why wouldn’t India do the same to map, profile and counter India-focused groups? Also, why wouldn’t Afghan and Indian intelligence prick Pakistan where it hurts the most if they believe the ISI has been hurting them since the late 1980s?
In this context, William Dalrymple, the British historian, spoke of the Indo-Pakistan proxy war in his Brookings essay: “A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.” (June 25, 2013), saying that this was directly affecting Afghanistan’s peace process too.
“The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan…. our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional. Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers — both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan. Their rivalry is particularly flammable as they vie for influence over Afghanistan.”
Most Indian officials and observers dismiss Dalrymple’s proxy war thesis. But US diplomats (both former and serving) such as Tom Pickering, James Dobbins and Bruce Riedel have all been alluding to the proxy games both India and Pakistan have been playing. In their writings they often also sounded empathetic to “legitimate concerns of Pakistan with a 2,560 kilometre border with Afghanistan.”
That aside, it increasingly looks instructive for both Pakistan and India to disenegage their proxies and agree to synergise their strategies on Kashmir and Afghanistan.
A détente between India and Pakistan is absolutely essential for the security and economic dynamics of South Asia, particularly because the Indian narrative on Pakistan also considerably influences, if not shapes, the Kabul and Washington view on Pakistan.
During recent conversations in Washington, one could discern the relatively friendlier US tone towards Pakistan, with officials and think-tankers agreeing that it was time Islamabad cashed in the favourable mood in Washington.
They, however, also opined that think-tankers, academics, officials in Pakistan shall have to break out of the bitter past. They shall have to stop talking of why others need Pakistan. They must dilate and debate as to why Pakistan needs to end its near political isolation and reassure external players of its sincerity in dialogue on peace and economic development with New Delhi and Washington. Without doubt, an end to Indo-Pakistan proxy wars promises immense political and economic dividends.
Imtiaz Gul is the executive director of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, and the author of the recently released book Pakistan: Before and After, published by Roli Books, India