As Pakistan and India work on building trust…

Flag ceremony, a highly dramatized daily ritual at Wagah border. (Joshua Song / Flickr)

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent trip to India has received lots of media attention in both countries since it’s the first visit by a Pakistani head of state to India in the past seven years. Although President Zardari claimed that he was making the trip as a private citizen, his 40 minutes meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is quite symbolic. During this meeting Zardari and Singh discussed some key issues such as normalisation of trade ties, terrorism and Kashmir.

Last year Pakistan decided to grant india the Most Favored Nation status and recent reports show that Pakistan will be importing petrol and energy from India, while India will allow foreign direct investment by Pakistan. The two countries will be collaborating on higher education programs as well. A new checkpost for trade has opened at Wagah border and prisoners, especially fishermen who unknowingly end up in the other country’s waters,  are expected to be released.

After looking at the coverage of these events in South Asian and in Western mainstream media, I realize that there seems to be little analysis of what a normalized India-Pakistan relationship means in context with Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan and the United States. For instance, a New York Times article and a Washington Post article both mention that Zardari’s visit to India came in the aftermath of the $1 million bounty for the arrest of Hafiz Mohammad Saeed of Lashkar-i-Taiba who was allegedly responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. However, it seems as if Pakistan and India’s relations are treated as completely separate from Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and relations the United States. The India trip is also significant as it comes at a time when Pakistan’s parliament unanimously proposed that the U.S. must immediately end all drone strikes and CIA operations in the country if they expect Pakistan to reopen NATO supply routes. On the one side, Pakistan is openly expressing its disapproval of U.S. presence in the region, and on the other side they are looking to improve relations with India.

Some points to keep in mind as India and Pakistan (once more) begin to work towards peace:

– First, while Pakistan’s civilian government has been making consistent moves towards better relations with India, the rapprochement is centered currently on economic relations with the expectation of resolving political disputes. Although the Pakistani military establishment is supportive of reconciliation with their Enemy Number 1, it remains to be seen just how much concession they are willing to make as peace with India shakes the foundations of the military’s raison d’être which is based on the ideology of India posing an existential threat to Pakistan. If India does not continue to pose a real or imagined threat to Pakistan, the Pakistani military cannot justify the large chunks of money that it receives from the country’s budget and foreign sources as well as its extended power over the domestic and foreign policies. It would also mean cutting down on support for the militant organisations that fight the military’s proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and are sometimes involved in small scale attacks in India.

– Second, improvement in Indo-Pak relations are important for stability of the entire region especially in terms of the role Pakistan plays in Afghanistan as international forces prepare to leave. Vali Nasr speaking at Asia Society recently pointed out that the absence of any coherent Pakistan policy by Washington has been a major factor in America’s strategic failure in Afghanistan. Washington’s extremely narrow focus on dealing with Pakistan only  on a military level, has contributed to damaging Pakistan’s domestic political and economic arenas. For a peaceful and stable future of Afghanistan, it’s not enough to just get Pakistani military to support the U.S. in dealing with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Pakistani military’s attitude towards militant jihadis in Afghanistan and western regions of Pakistan is very much connected with Pakistani fears over India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

– Third, over the last 60 years there have been a number of attempts at improving relations between the two countries in-between periods of war and animosity. However, unlike in the past, the move towards peace may actually last longer this time as democracy in Pakistan seems to be gaining more strength, especially since last year when the military faced strong set backs in the aftermath of the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbotabad. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s judiciary and civil society have been gaining more strength recently and the pressure on civilian leadership might finally push them towards more transparency and accountability for taking more charge of the future political, economic and social direction of Pakistan.

[Unrelated note on the image above: Indian and Pakistani officers perform the flag ceremony with exaggerated (and loud) gestures of gate slamming, feet stomping and head shaking expressing hate. However, the Indian and Pakistani military guards can be seen exchanging jokes and smoking cigarets together by the metal gates before and after the ceremony is attended daily by hundreds of spectators on both sides.]

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