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Let’s ‘Normalize’ Pakistan First

by Khaled Ahmed

File photo. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Restoration of ties between Pakistan and India requires both sides to set aside accusations of terrorism and focus on trade and regional cooperation

On April 1, 2021, the federal cabinet under Prime Minister Imran Khan rejected a proposal of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC)—also under Prime Minister Khan—to import cotton yarn and sugar from India. The proposal was moved by Khan himself at the ECC in his role as caretaker commerce minister. A minister later said that the ECC proposal would be re-examined to see the kind of economic, political and institutional effect resuming formal relations with India would yield. This put an end to the “optimistic” expectation in Pakistan about “normalization” of relations between the neighboring states.

On Pakistan Day, March 23, 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote to Prime Minister Imran Khan, saying: “India desires cordial relations with the people of Pakistan; but an environment of trust, devoid of terror and hostility, is imperative for it.” Pakistan Day commemorates March 23, 1940, when the All-India Muslim League demanded a separate nation for the Muslims of India.

On March 29, Prime Minister Khan wrote back saying: “The people of Pakistan also desire peaceful, cooperative relations with all neighbors, including India. I thank you for your letter conveying greetings on Pakistan Day. We are convinced that durable peace and stability in South Asia is contingent upon resolving all outstanding issues between India and Pakistan, in particular, the Jammu and Kashmir dispute.”

Earlier, March 18, Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar-Javed Bajwa, in an address to the Islamabad Security Dialogue, had said: “It is time for India and Pakistan to bury the past and move forward as peace between the two would help to unlock the potential of South and Central Asia. We feel it is time to bury the past and move forward. Our neighbor will have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Kashmir and any effort to improve ties without addressing the core issue would be vulnerable to external political factors. Without the resolution of the Kashmir dispute through peaceful means, the process [of normalization] will always remain susceptible to derailment through politically motivated bellicosity.”

Trade as normalization

In February, rumors started circulating that Pakistan might allow the import of 500,000 tons of sugar along with India’s cheaper cotton yarn through the land route. Prospects of gradual restoration of bilateral trade ties were thus brightened after the implementation of a new ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) between the two neighbors. Encouraged by this, the private sector joined in. Pakistan Readymade Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (PRGMEA) asked the government to duty-free cotton yarn import from India through the Wagah border. PRGMEA thought that the planned “import from Afghanistan and Central Asian States via Torkham land route” would not meet the industry’s raw material needs. In March, Islamabad added sugar to the items proposed to be imported from India.

Ex-foreign minister of Pakistan Khursheed Mahmud Kasuri, in his 840-page book Neither a Hawk nor a Dove: An Insider’s Account had discussed the pros and cons of Indo-Pak relations and had “imagined” what normalization would lead to after the opening of trade routes through Pakistan with Indian goods moving on them; he wanted the now-scrapped Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline to end up supplying Iranian gas to India as well. (Later a Turkmen gas pipeline from Central Asia through Pakistan to India was also proposed.) He was equally non-hawkish when it came to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor as a trade artery that would serve the entire region, an idea that China would appreciate. This statement of policy put the process of “normalization” above the Kashmir dispute: to begin with, Pakistan and India must first start behaving as normal states before taking up the disputes.

SAFTA as normalization

South Asia was once supposed to become a trading bloc with its states living peacefully together. In 1985, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was created as an economic and geopolitical organization to promote socio-economic development, stability, welfare economics, and collective self-reliance within its member nations. Its members—Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan—were to become a “single” entity in the ripeness of time. In 2011, SAARC even looked to be taking off. This happened without the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

More “normalization” took place when the members were ready to act on the South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) agreement signed by them in 2004. Then-foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar reached New Delhi and said her government would press ahead with granting India ‘Most Favored Nation’ status in an effort to break the longstanding deadlock in trade and investment. “In today’s world it’s not possible to not recommend freer trade to anyone. Pakistan wants to improve its regional connectivity with energy pipelines and roads. One day it would be possible for Indian trade with Central Asian nations to transit through Pakistan,” she had said.

State of being ‘abnormal’

Today, Pakistan is in dire straits economically which is why Pakistan Army chief Gen. Bajwa had to send a message of peace to India together with his prime minister. India is growing at a rate of 11.72 in contrast to the below-zero misery of Pakistan in the IMF oxygen tent. Bangladesh is not doing badly either, at 8 percent, clearly sending a message to Pakistan validating its independence in 1971. Recently, Bangladesh decided to “normalize” its relations with India with a visit from Prime Minister Modi to Dhaka amid widespread public protest, ignoring the anti-normalization opinion in the country.

What does the “messaging” mean in 2021 in this scenario? Should a habitually inflexible Pakistan think of it as a “reversal”? Anyone not immersed in politics of deadlock will probably praise a “revisionist” state for not threatening war to bring India to heel. Outsiders however draw a different conclusion: Pakistan tried the strategy of scare to bring India to the table and failed three (or four) times and should have concluded that Delhi would risk nuclear war but not budge on Kashmir. Having drawn this conclusion, Pakistan should have gotten scared of its own war option. But it didn’t. It went on rationalizing its war option by saying that a conventional conflict will not escalate to a nuclear stand-off. Pakistan’s theory of low-intensity war (named terrorism by others) has not worked as a solvent because its economy is dysfunctional and the use of “non-state actors” has undermined its own internal sovereignty.

The weak state syndrome

The weak state will overcompensate. This is the accepted theory when it comes to studying conflict. Pakistan was economically weak and politically in dire straits because of the subsurface civil-army struggle. India was economically strong but politically weak because of its succession of minority governments. That the weak overcompensates in nuclear proliferation is proved by the fact that India reacted to China (gone nuclear in 1967) and Pakistan reacted to India. (Research suggests that it is possible to see India’s bomb as inspired by Pakistan’s threat and to look at Pakistan’s bomb as a non-India-centric “Islamic bomb”.) Pakistan’s theory of low-intensity war also remains unacceptable because it too can lead to conventional and then to nuclear war.

India’s nuclearization is avowedly anti-China but it does acknowledge that Beijing’s support to Pakistan has included assistance in the nuclear sector and that China’s discretion about whether to enter an Indo-Pak war or not remains intact . But if China decides to intervene (which it has not so far) will India be prepared for a two-front situation? Looked at from this angle, India’s bomb is also Pakistan-centric. Pakistan’s Islamic aspect of the bomb is more abstract but came to the fore momentarily when a nuclear “warning” went to Iran from the Taliban in 1998. That, to say the least, violates the Islamic rubric!

Nuclear ‘equalization’ is not normalization

The most sensitive zone in Pakistan’s military thinking is the construction of a theory of defense under the constraint of an enormous resource disparity vis-à-vis India. (Note the current decision to import sugar and cotton yarn from India). But one must not ignore the domestic military “interventions” in the past to prevent the state from trading. Yet, armies commit such blunders under the spur of nationalism, at least those that don’t stay in the cantonments and have no desire to please the common man. (Argentina’s generals committed the same blunder over the Falklands because the people of Argentina emoted so strongly about the islands.)

Both India and Pakistan could have avoided references to “terrorism” and “Kashmir” before engaging in “normalization”. Coming to “normal” has nothing to do with the “conditions” of terrorism and Kashmir. It simply serves to delay and scuttle. Pakistan and India—both nuclearized—have to get back to being normal under SAARC and SAFTA before discussing the disputes.

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