India, Pakistan strike friendly tones, but Afghan endgame likely to affect relations

Recent improvements in ties between India and Pakistan might be jeopardized as both compete for influence in post-2014 Afghanistan. Nepal's political parties conclude a deal over reintegration of former rebels. Britain allows armed guards on vessels to fight pirate attacks, and the United States and South Korea strengthen ties to meet future challenges from the North. All this in today's security briefing...
Radu Nikolaus Botez
2 November 2011

Last month, an Indian helicopter, strayed into Pakistani territory near the border in the disputed region of Kashmir because of bad weather conditions, was forced by authorities to land there and the crew detained. However, ‘the helicopter and four officers on board returned […] after a contact between the director-general military operations of the two countries,’ according to Pakistani military spokesperson, major-general Athar Abbas. The move was welcomed by officials in New Delhi with ministry of external affairs spokesperson Vishnu Prakash saying that India greatly appreciated ‘the manner in which Pakistan worked with us in resolving the matter.’ Adding to the positive comments about the handling of the situation, BK Pandey, a retired air marshal of the Indian air force, wrote in a commentary that ‘the Pakistan government displayed a remarkable, though unexpected, level of maturity and understanding in a situation they could have easily exploited to their advantage pushing India on to the back foot.’ The return of the helicopter was also welcomed by the United States.

Further indicating an ease in tensions between the two neighbours, Pakistan, recently elected to become a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council in January next year, said last week it appreciated India’s support in the bid for a seat. Referring to the vote in the UN General Assembly, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, stated that ‘many of the countries that Pakistan had considered as friends were no longer friends of the country. But India supported us in becoming a non-permanent member of the 15-member Security Council and played a major role.’ 

Last month, Pakistan agreed, in principle, to granting India the most favoured nation (MFN) status under which New Delhi would receive the same trade advantages as any other country Pakistan has granted MFN status. Talks on the issue will continue when the countries’ commerce secretaries meet in New Delhi later this month. 

The openSecurity verdict: Relations between India and Pakistan have been slightly  improving over the last months, especially in the economic realm, and while the recent episodes have a largely symbolic character, the fact that the helicopter incident was resolved without the usually sabre rattling is noteworthy. However, as the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014, is approaching, relations are likely to suffer as both countries vie with each other for influence in Kabul. For Islamabad, an Afghan government that is friendly towards New Delhi amounts to nothing less than an existential threat as it ultimately would face India on two fronts, while India fears a return to power of the Taliban, close to Islamabad, which would lead to an increase in Islamic fundamentalism in the region.

Reactions in Pakistan to the strategic partnership agreement between New Delhi and Kabul concluded last month illustrate the Pakistani concerns about Indian influence in Afghanistan, although the government in Islamabad has limited official statements denouncing the deal to saying that ‘at this defining stage […] it is our expectation that everyone, especially those in position of authority in Afghanistan, will demonstrate requisite maturity and responsibility.’   

But Pakistan is taking steps to ensure that its interests are taken into consideration in the Afghan endgame. As a report  on the eve of the gathering of regional and international leaders on the future of Afghanistan held in Istanbul today is indicating, Islamabad is likely to oppose a regional solution that would foresee an important role for India. Part of this, and likely to be discussed at the Istanbul meeting, is a model for regional economic cooperation, the so-called ‘New Silk Road’, proposed by the US and aiming at connecting countries in Central and South Asia. However, commentators are divided over whether or not Pakistan should join the initiative. The Istanbul conference is seen by many as a prelude to the international conference on Afghanistan’s future to be held next month in Germany. As the former is unlikely to lead to any breakthrough and displays considerable differences and mistrust between the regional players, the expectations for the latter will have to be lowered.

While the Afghan factor is not new to India-Pakistan relations, the endgame will force both states to step in for their interests more strongly. This, coupled with the perception in Islamabad that both actors are engaged in a zero-sum game and that India seeks influence in Kabul with Pakistan in mind, is likely to affect bilateral ties between the two neighbours. Confidence building measures related to Afghanistan, as proposed by Turkey but opposed by Pakistan and some other countries during the meeting in Istanbul, are needed at both bilateral and multilateral levels. 

Nepalese parties conclude agreement over reintegration of Maoist combatants

Yesterday, Nepal’s political parties reached a deal on the future of around 19,000 former Maoist combatants that fought a decade-long insurgency between 1996 and 2006. The agreement comes after more than three years of wrangling between Nepal’s main political parties. Under the deal, a maximum of 6,500 former rebels will be integrated into the Nepalese army, while the others will receive packages worth up to around 800,000 Nepali rupees ($10,190) depending on their rank. Those joining the armed forces will be integrated into a directorate that will not engage in combat operations but undertake activities in the fields of construction, development, forest- and industrial security, and natural disaster relief. Moreover, former Maoist fighters will hand over remaining weapons to the state. The deal also foresees the establishment of a peace and reconciliation commission, and a commission to investigate the disappearance of nearly 1200 persons during the insurgency within a month.

Most commentators in- and outside Nepal welcomed the agreement. However, a small hardliner faction of the ruling Maoist party opposed the deal, saying that it was against the people and the nation.

UK to allow armed guards on vessels as response to piracy attacks off Somalia

On Sunday, British prime minister David Cameron announced that UK ships will be allowed to have armed guards on board to deter and respond to pirate attacks when crossing areas such as the waters off the coast of Somalia. This step is a response to a worrying increase in pirate attacks over the past years: the International Maritime Bureau, which has a Piracy Reporting Centre monitoring the situation on the seas, registered 219 attacks in 2010, compared to 25 in 2005. In the first nine months of this year alone, 199 attacks were reported - a new high. At the moment, around one in ten vessels are believed to carry security personnel.

While it appears that no ship protected by armed guards has been attacked so far, experts are concerned about the pirates’ response to the presence of guards on ships, potentially resorting to heavier weapons and other means to overcome new defences. In the past, pirates have expanded their area of operations as a reaction to more naval presence in the Horn of Africa.

US, South Korea foster ties to counter provocations by Pyongyang

On Friday, US defence secretary Leon Panetta and his South Korean counter-part, Kim Kwan-jin, said the two countries will enhance the ability of their forces to operate jointly and strengthen their combined military exercise programs to increase readiness as ‘North Korea remains a serious threat’, adding that a joint operational plan for responding to provocations from the North would also be established. In November 2010, North Korea killed several civilians of the South when it fired artillery shells at a border island between the two countries, while 46 sailors died in March of the same year following an attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean war ship, by what investigators say was a torpedo fired from a North Korean submarine. Panetta, who was visiting Seoul to attend the annual Security Consultive Meeting (SCM) between the two countries, further stated  that ‘we will ensure a strong and effective alliance deterrence posture, including from the United States’ nuclear umbrella, so that Pyongyang never misjudges our role and our capability to respond decisively to nuclear aggression.’  

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