JANUARY 28, 2023
Former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s disclosure that Pakistan and India had gotten closer to a ‘nuclear conflagration’ in February 2019 and that only Washington’s intervention prevented an escalation between them makes it more urgent for the two nuclear states and the international community to pre-empt any future outbreak of the catastrophe that is liable to threaten life on the Subcontinent.
On the other hand, two other fresh statements, one from Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif and another from former President Asif Ali Zardari, have, addressed the importance of good fraternal relations between the two neighbors, whose people otherwise have a history of shared culture and social values, baring the past 75 years, during which political expediency made them bitter enemies.
“I do not think the world properly knows just how closely the India-Pakistan rivalry came to spilling over into a nuclear conflagration in February 2019,” Pompeo wrote in his memoir, Never Give an Inch, citing the outbreak of hostility four years ago following an Indian airstrike, which the Indian media had described as ‘deep inside Pakistan.’
In retaliation for a suicide attack on a bus carrying 44 Indian Central Reserve Police Force personnel in Kupwara district of Kashmiri Valley earlier this month, India struck what it described as a Kashmiri militants’ training camp in the Balakot area of Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Jaish-e-Muhammad, the militant group led by Maulana Masoud Azhar, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Pompeo, who has also served as CIA chief, narrated how both India and Pakistan had started to deploy their nuclear warheads and how the then-Trump administration mobilized both to de-escalate. Media reports about the disclosure have not been disputed either by Islamabad or New Delhi. It is understandable in the light of the past wars and rivalries between the two countries that none of them would refrain if they could cause harm to the other.
However, in the long history of antagonism between the two countries, there have also been occasions when good sense has prevailed on both sides, and they have come quite close to striking agreements. During the tenure of former President Pervez Musharraf, India and Pakistan agreed on several confidence-building measures (CBMs), including restoring bus service between the two parts of Kashmir and Samjotha train service between New Delhi and Lahore. Besides the resumption of people-to-people contacts and trade interactions, the two countries had also gotten closer to signing a deal on the status of Jammu and Kashmir.
Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, the then Foreign Minister, had even been airing the glad tidings of the two countries being on the brink of signing an agreement. But as expected in such an equation, the hawks finally prevailed over the doves, and the talks collapsed in Agra in July 2001. Earlier in February 1999, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had invited his Indian counterpart, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to the Lahore Summit, during which both sides signed the historic Lahore Declaration, agreeing on several steps to normalize relations. But negativity won once again and the process of normalization was subverted. Signs of positivity are once again visible on the ground now. “We have three wars with India and it only brought more misery, poverty and unemployment to the people. We have learned our lesson, and we want to live in peace, provided we can resolve our genuine problems,” Shahbaz Sharif said, speaking of Kashmir as the core issue.
Much water has flown into Indus and Ganges since the 1971 and 1965 wars while the added years of miseries and impasse are perturbing those dreaming of a prosperous South Asia, serving as the hub of connectivity between Central Asia and South-East Asia.
In a recent video interview, Asif Ali Zardari recalled the good old times when ‘people used to travel from India to Europe’ urging the need for openness between the regional countries. While the political standoff between India and Pakistan has caused a sharp divide between South Asia and the Eurasian heartland, the decades of wars in Afghanistan and the big powers’ hegemonic wrangling for regional supremacy have put a stumbling block to Asia’s dream to pursue the suit of Europe, which, after centuries of savage enmities, finally realized the need to live in peace and harmony.
The fact that India and Pakistan are the central players, along with Afghanistan, in the unification of Asia, the two countries have a burden of history on their shoulders to look beyond their political expediencies and resolve problems amicably. There have been multiple proposals for Kashmir settlement in the past, one being the holding of separate regional plebiscites in Jammu, Srinagar and Ladakh and another to make Jammu River a permanent border between the two parts of Kashmir. Other options might also emerge when the two sides sit around the negotiation table.
But the first step in that direction is to restore trust between Islamabad and New Delhi. Trade and economic relations need to be instantly restored between the two countries, besides promoting people-to-people contacts, and cultural exchanges, and easing visa restrictions for businessmen, media representatives, professors, lawyers, students, and civil society activists. To allow that to happen, the two countries first need to clip the wings of their browbeating hawks, which see their vested interests best materialized in wars and destructions. End
He writer is an independent freelance journalist based in Islamabad covering South Asia/ Central Asia.