Terrorism and its Impact on Pakistan-India Relations

30. Sep 2008

Let me start with the proposition that terrorism has had an adverse impact on relations between India and Pakistan – and for two reasons. First is the cross border movement of terrorists (who say they are motivated by oppression of fellow Muslims) from Pakistan to India. Second is the proxy war that is emerging between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan as the former seeks to limit the power of militant groups with an anti-Indian agenda (such as the Taliban) and the latter has reacted to this by supporting the anti-Indian activities of the Taliban in order to limit Indian influence.[1] A second basic proposition is that the international anti-terrorist agenda has always had much greater popular support in India than in Pakistan. Besides the lack of popular support for anti-terrorist activities, which is widely characterized in Pakistan as anti-Islamic, the Pakistani government has always had a somewhat Janus-faced policy toward terrorism since the Musharraf dictatorship decided to back the global war on terrorism in the wake of 9/11. A recent PEW public opinion study in 25 countries, for example, shows that a large majority of the Indian population has a favorable view of US foreign policy and the US. Only two countries had a higher ranking. This favorable Indian perception of the US is in marked contrast to the unfavorable view of the US in Pakistan, a fact that has forced the new democratically elected government in Islamabad to adopt a very cautious policy toward militant Islam and the activities of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Of course, a basic reason for this stark difference between the two neighboring South Asia states is that Indians consider themselves a victim of terrorist attacks over the past two decade, and the level of violence have surged over the past few years. This may explain why India was the first country to come out openly in favor of the US in the wake of 9/11. It took some American arm-twisting to get Musharraf to make a similar commitment and it was more a tactical move than a real commitment.[2] In fact, Pakistan has become the victim of terrorist activities as well, as the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad demonstrates, but there is a more conflicted popular response to such activities than in India.

Besides the lack of popular backing for the war on terrorism, Pakistan had several tactical reasons to be wary of backing it. Taliban control of Afghanistan suited Pakistan’s foreign policy interest in denying India influence in Afghanistan, recalling that the royal governments of Afghanistan had historically had good relations with India. Moreover, the Taliban might be able to provide Pakistan strategic depth against the historic enemy, a country several times larger, more populous, and more prosperous. Pakistan is a relatively long country that could be cut in two by Indian military action. Afghanistan would offer convenient strategic depth to meet this challenge. Finally, Taliban control might result in Afghan recognition of the Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan. It was a boundary drawn by the British over a century ago as part of a larger effort to separate Czarist Russian and Imperial British spheres of influence. Every Afghan government, including the present one, has denied the legitimacy of this colonial era boundary. The dispute is a standing invitation for Pakistan Pashtuns to separate themselves from Pakistan. In fact, there was historically a strong separatist movement among Pakistan’s Pashtun population, though it is much less vibrant now than before. However, there is a contest for shaping the identity of the Pashtun on both sides of the border. President Karzai (a Pashtun himself) and the Awami Party in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, which won the most recent assembly elections there, are pushing for a secular definition. The Taliban area seeking to give Pashtun nationalism a religious definition and Pakistan has historically supported an enhanced Islamic identity in part to undermine the separatist movement there.[3]

Pakistan was one of three states (Saudi Arabia and the UAE were the other two) which offered official recognition to the Taliban in the 1990s, and was reluctant to abandon it. The Taliban’s increasingly close ties to Osama bin-Laden’s efforts was to force Pakistan to abandon the Taliban, at least officially. It tried unsuccessfully soon after 9/11 to get the Taliban leadership to separate itself from al-Qaeda and then to get the West to accept the notion of moderate Taliban in the new government. Both were clearly aimed at preserving as much Pashtu influence as possible. The Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar, effectively blocked both Pakistani moves. Mullah Omar, the poorly educated but charismatic leader of the Taliban, had increasingly come under bin-Laden’s influence and came to accept his notion of a pan-Islamic world order, along with his views on the enforcement of a proper understanding of the Shariah, and an aggressive international effort against various designated enemies of Islam. Present evidence suggests the symbiotic relationship between the two organizations still exist. [4]At the top of that list of enemies are the US and Israel, but other nearby non-Islamic states like India and Russia are also targeted. The Shia’ dominated government of Iran has been a subject of its animosity, presumably because Shia’ Islam in interpreted as apostate by the militants. Denmark has apparently also become a target in this post-cartoon era. This is demonstrated by the bombing of the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, and perhaps other incidents where Danish interests have been targeted.[5]

The world is again now focused on Afghanistan because of the renewed Taliban activities in the southern Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and the increased danger that Taliban bases will serve as centers for international terrorist activity. [6] Taliban activities are supported by sympathizers in Pakistan. What is particularly worrying is the porous nature of the Afghan-Pakistan border and the movement of militants to safe havens across the Durand Line in the mountainous regions of northwestern Pakistan. A 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) representing the view of 16 agencies of the US government, concurred that al-Qaeda has re-established a safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.[7] The growing number of US and NATO troop deaths as a result of Taliban attacks is nudging the US to take a more unilateral approach to the issue of cross border activities, moving beyond “hot pursuit” to unilateral targeting Taliban/al-Qaeda centers in the border region of Pakistan when there is actionable intelligence. The danger of this policy, of course, is that it risks further alienating the Pashtun population and complicates the secular democratic government in Islamabad as it seeks to restore law and order in the troubled border regions. The better policy might be to build up Pakistani counter-terrorism capacity along with a regional approach to terrorism (more on that below).

The Karzai Government for its part has blamed Pakistan for doing little to crack down on the Taliban and al-Qaeda that now control a considerable part of the border region. Karzai’s complaints go beyond this, however, to include Pakistani backing of terrorist
activities to advance Pakistan’s foreign policy interests. Senior Indian figures, including the External Affairs Minister, have echoed these charges of Pakistani involvement against Karzai and Indian targets in Afghanistan, most prominently attacks on Indian highway construction workers and most dramatically the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, in which senior Indian officials, including the defense attaché, were killed. The situation is further complicated by the widespread belief in Afghanistan that Islamabad was involved in some way in efforts to assassinate President Karzai.

A third basic proposition of this paper is that a transformation of Pakistan-Afghanistan ties can only take place in the overall context of improved Pakistan-Indian relations (more on that below). That diplomatic path may require considerable American – and perhaps Chinese — effort. In recent decades, Indo-Pakistan hostility has mainly revolved around the Kashmir dispute. Pakistan’s support to militant groups fighting in Kashmir in the 1990s and into this century was aimed at forcing India to the conference table to negotiate the status of this disputed state. The situation in this Muslim majority state of India has recently deteriorated in the wake of a controversial land deal providing accommodations for the significantly larger number of Hindu pilgrims to a religious shrine located at the core Vale of Kashmir. Along with this there has been a surge of firing incidents along the Line of Control that threatens the cease first that went into effect in November 2003. India charges that Pakistan border troops engage in firing to serve as cover for the infiltration of militants in Kashmir.

It is Afghanistan, however, that constitutes the new battleground on which Indo-Pakistani hostility is playing out. Credible American media leaks indicate that US officials in mid-July confronted Pakistani officials with information linking Pakistani military intelligence to the July 7 2008 car bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul. A meeting in July 2008 between Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh resulted in Gilani pledging to investigate the claims of Pakistani intelligence involvement in the bombing. Perhaps the long run solution of this issue is to separate Pakistan’s military intelligence from military control, a proposal that was seriously considered by the new civilian government, but abandoned, presumably because the new army chief of staff opposed the idea. Continued Pakistani ambivalence toward the Taliban stems in part from its concern that India is trying to encircle it by gaining influence in Afghanistan. Pakistani security officials may calculate that the Taliban offers the best chance of countering India’s growing regional influence. Pakistan believes that ethnic Tajiks and other ethnic constituents of the former “Northern Alliance” in Afghanistan that opposed the largely Pashtun Taliban prior to 9/11 continues to receive support from India and that India foments separatism in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province from its multiple consulates in Afghanistan.

India in fact has increased its presence in Afghanistan significantly since the fall of the Taliban structure in late 2001. It is one of the major donors for the reconstruction of the country, with over a billion dollars pledged for a wide variety of projects all over the country. Many of these projects are in the Pashtun south, a clear effort to revive links to the Pashtuns that were once so close in the last days of the British Empire in South Asia. India is also paying for the construction of a splendid new parliament building in Kabul as part of its support for the democratic process in Afghanistan. It is building a major highway project in the west bordering on Iran. An estimated 4,000 Indians are in Afghanistan working on development projects, including highways and bridges, cold storage facilities, health centers, and electrical generating facilities. This does not count the return of thousands of Indian families, mainly Sikh and Hindu, who traditionally had been a key part of Afghanistan’s urban mercantile middle class and who had fled to India in the wake of the Taliban takeover. An increasingly globalizing India is concerned about the well-being of its diaspora here and elsewhere. India has dispatched some 500 paramilitary Indo-Tibetan border police to guard its workers following attacks on them such as an April 12, 2008 suicide bombing that killed two Indian highway engineers in Nimruz Province. There are also news reports of Indian offers to train senior personnel of the Afghan armed forces in India. India is the largest donor for educational training and provides scholarships for hundreds of Afghan students and officials to study in India each year.

India has a soft diplomacy advantage in the popularity of its film and music industry. None of its neighbors has anything comparable to compete, and the Afghan film and music industries were virtually eliminated during the austere Taliban period. Within days of the defeat of the Taliban in late 2001, for example, billboards advertizing Indian films sprang up all over Kabul. CDs of Indian film music appeared on the shelves of shops as if by magic all over the city. The craze for things India has spilled over into clothing, food and art.

India in addition is investing significant sums in the Iranian port at Charbahar to gain entry to trade with Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. It is also assisting in the construction of road and rail links from Charbahar to the Iranian border with Afghanistan and the Central Asian republics. These Indian links to Afghanistan also have the advantage of avoiding the unstable Pashtun areas of Afghanistan south of the Hindu Kush mountain chain that runs through the middle of the country. This investment is necessitated because of Pakistan’s refusal to permit India cross-shipment rights across Pakistan to Afghanistan and beyond. The purpose of this Pakistani policy of exclusion is almost certainly for use as a lever on issues of dispute, like Kashmir. However, it has had limited success so far and undermines a basic US policy. I think it would suit US interests in the region to pressure Pakistan to lift this prohibition against India trade.

The strategic implications of this Indian-financed port/road/rail system to Afghanistan are significant. For the first time, Pakistan would be deprived of a veto power over Indian trading with Afghanistan. This could have implications for US efforts in Afghanistan if Pakistan would follow through on threats to block US resupply of its troops in Afghanistan.

Terrorism in South Asia is a regional problem, as is becoming increasingly clear by the demonstrated links among Islamic terrorist groups whose tentacles reach across state boundaries. Transforming regional security perceptions among the Afghans, Pakistanis and Indians will be a monumental challenge, but constitutes the only way to stabilize and secure Afghanistan so that it does not again become a terrorist sanctuary. The US in particular will have to focus on promoting regional cooperation among all three countries and defusing conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad, on the one hand, and Kabul and Islamabad on the other. More specifically, the US will have to consider other initiatives that reduce Pakistani fears of Indian hegemony and how the US can improve its own ties to New Delhi without setting off alarm bells in Islamabad. China, which is also trying to improve its relations with India and also faces the growing menace of terrorism that has roots in South Asia, confronts a similar dilemma as it reformulates its South Asia policy. The task of calming Pakistani fears of a dominant India is complicated by India’s economic prosperity and Pakistan’s recent virtual economic collapse. India as the larger and stronger party will need to take the initiative.

Indian policy toward Pakistan, while complicated by Kashmir and the cross border terr
orist menace, has shifted somewhat over the past decade as the country has become a more self-confident player on the world scene. More specifically, India’s preferred strategy seems aimed at reconciliation and stability, thus allowing it to play its “predestined” role as a global power. This policy is favored by the major national political actor (e.g. the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party). However, given the reality of instability in Pakistan and to guard against its future irresponsible behavior, India is also working on a parallel strategy of containing, or even bypassing Pakistan, a policy that some of India’s most important strategic thinks have supported for years. The other dilemma with Indian policy on this regard is its historic policy of keeping “outside” powers “outside” South Asia, though, at least with the US, this policy seems to have softened somewhat, given the American support for the Indian position during the 1999 Kargil crisis and the American push to make India an exception to its own nuclear non-proliferation laws and international protocols on the subject, an exception required because India is not a signatory to the 1970 Nuclear Non-proliferation accord – and it possesses nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them (as does Pakistan).[8] It may thus be willing to permit the US as a good faith interlocutor on Indo-Pakistani relations. It would not provide a similar opening to the Chinese.

If a major effort is not launched to achieve regional stability, the danger of course is a revival of Indian Pakistani tensions, always dangerous for two countries possessing nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. There is fortunately an institutional basis for negotiations, the Composite Dialogue that was initiated in early 2004 (and was to address the big outstanding issues), which followed a cease fire along the Line of Control in Kashmir that has by and large held since then. This Dialogue, however, has so far had limited achievements, in part because of political fragility in each country. The replacement of General Musharraf, who Indians largely distrusted, by a civilian government may help in the Dialogue. The departure of the communists from the Manmohan Singh coalition may similarly give his government greater room for maneuver in handling its own foreign policy. A major area for building links would be trade, which is presently at a very low level. Enhanced trade would build a constituency in each country for a stable relationship. The projected Iran/Pakistan/India pipeline would be another economic factor binding the two energy short countries. That pipeline is now more notional than real largely because of the high prices that Iran is demanding and the difficulty in finding international financers, in part because of American and Western objection to any large scale project that could enhance Iran’s economic situation.

Kashmir does remain a major stumbling block. It generates terrorist cross border activity from Pakistan, often with government backing. Terrorism makes any Indian move towards an innovative solution impossible politically, and it will take innovative thinking to get over the present impasse. General Musharraf had made a radical departure from Pakistan’s stated position on Kashmir by suggesting that it would give up its territorial claim over Kashmir (and by extension the traditional demand for a plebiscite) in exchange for demilitarization and some forms of all Kashmir managerial functions. India never responded meaningfully to these out-of-the-box proposals. If the present Pakistani government were to raise them again, the chances are better for a positive Indian response. The problem is that a democratic government in Pakistan must be alert to any move that suggests that it is giving up Pakistan’s historic demand for Kashmir. It must of course do so to get traction with India, but the challenge is to put this effort in a larger bilateral context that makes Kashmir more of a joint undertaking without transfer of sovereignty, a difficult proposition to sell.

I would like to close with six basic points on the issue of terrorism and its impact on Indo-Pakistani relations:

1. Terrorist violence attracts only a small part of the Muslim communities of South Asia. Islam is not a single unified religion, but is characterized by major cultural and theological differences. It would be both wrong and dangerous to tar the whole community with the violence of a small minority. What is dangerous about this is that a backlash against the whole community could in fact generate popular support for the militants.

2. Terrorist violence in the name of Islam probably has more to do with the voicing of dissidence than religious reformation. In Pakistan, for example, the widespread poverty and lack of opportunity in the rapidly growing urban sprawls is an attractive source of militant recruitment. The militant leadership may be from the urban middle class, but the foot soldiers are not. One could say the same for India and Bangladesh.

3. Terrorist violence has both an official and an informal face and there is often a linkage between them. There are dozens of militant groups in Pakistan, for example, that function, and several are popular because of the charity they carry out in a country virtually devoid of social security benefits. However, some of them, particularly those that focus on Afghanistan or on India, have been supported officially because they advance the country’s foreign policy goal of weakening India. It is these officially supported groups that have brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war a few times over the past decade and this kind of linkage must cease if there is to be lasting peace.

4. Terrorist violence in India increasingly is carried out by home grown groups and thus in some ways represents a greater danger than the expatriate groups that operate from Pakistan. They can blend in the local population more easily and they are in a better position to mobilize discontent. Surveys show that Indian Muslims are near the bottom of that country’s socio-economic system and perhaps some kind of equal opportunity effort is needed to improve their situation.

5. Terrorist violence is more regional in nature than ever before and will not be contained without a regional solution, which requires the good faith participation of India, Pakistan and Afghanistan (and possibly other South Asian states, especially Bangladesh). The US, as by far the most important regional player, will probably have to get directly involved to make this happen given the high degree of distrust among regional states and likely bureaucratic resistance to innovative proposals. The foreign ministries of at least India and Afghanistan are very conservative institutions.

6. Democracy and economic growth are probably the best long term cures for terrorism, and may be the best hope of preventing Pakistan from becoming a failed state. Closer economic ties between India and Pakistan would go a long way to achieve a better economic situation in Pakistan.


Drafted for presentation at the Danish Institute of International Relations in Copenhagen (and slightly revised subsequently to incorporate some recent events):

Walter K. Andersen

South Asia Studies

School of Advanced International Studies

Johns Hopkins University

Washington DC

[1] Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which may have had backing of the intelligence arm of Pakistan’s military, according to a statement of a senior US CIA official, whose statement was accompan
ied by the release of corroborating evidence.[2] Musharraf in his autobiography talks about the stern lecture delivered by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to the head of Pakistan’s military intelligence service, who by chance was visiting Washington DC on 9/11, about backing the US – or suffer consequences.[3] At the time of the departure of the British from South Asia in 1947, the dominant political force in the Northwest Frontier Province was against joining Pakistan, conceived as a homeland for Muslims of the subcontinent.

[4] The situation is complicated by the rise of distinctly Pakistani Taliban, drawing almost exclusively from the Pashtun population in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province. This indigenous Taliban itself has a close web of ties with their Afghan counterparts and with the al-Qaeda.

[5] The September 2008 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad may have had Denmark as one of its targets. According to press reports, the mastermind of this bombing was also the mastermind of the bombing of the Danish Embassy. If these reports are accurate, Denmark had an intelligence unit, apparently monitoring anti-Danish activities, located at the Marriott Hotel.

[6] It is clear that in the current US presidential election, Afghanistan is the “good war” and Iraq the “bad one”, and both presidential candidates proclaim their intent to send significantly larger numbers of troops to defeat a Taliban/al-Qaeda surge in Afghanistan.

[7] See report of this in Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus, “Al-Qaeda’s gains keep US at risk, report says,” in Washington Post (July 18, 2007) A useful source of data on terrorist violence in South Asia is the South Asia Terrorism Portal, www.satp.org.

[8] The board of the International Atomic Energy Agency on August 1, 2008 backed the exception for India, as did the Nuclear Suppliers group on September 6, 2008. The bill to permit US involvement in supply fuel and technology to India’s civil nuclear reactors is being debated before the US Congress as this piece is being revised.