India and Pakistan: time to call time on proxy wars

India and Pakistan’s zero-sum game is hindering development and the proxy wars in which the two states have indulged need to come to an end. If they do, big dividends would follow.

Farooq Yousaf Imtiaz Gul
24 February 2014


Indian army truck and soldiers in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Srinagar--heart of a proxy war. Flickr / Jesse Rapczak. Some rights reserved.

During a recent interview with the Guardian, Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province and brother of the prime minister, Nawaz, recognised the damaging securitisation of all issues between India and Pakistan. Speaking about the “blockages” to liberalised trade arrangements, he said: “Security agencies on both sides need to really understand that in today’s world, a security-led vision is obviously driven by economic security.” 

Nawaz had gone even further in his meeting last year with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. According to his aides, he almost shocked Singh by suggesting: “We know what you are doing to us and you know what our people are doing to you. Why not sit together and talk it out?”

Behind these comments were Pakistan’s premier spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Since India’s partition in 1947, the two outfits have locked horns on various fronts, through clandestine and proxy operations.

The prime minister was also hinting at the alleged Indian role in Pakistan’s rebellious Balochistan province, as well as the revelation last year that the former Indian army chief General V.K. Singh had created a Technical Services Division (TSD) for covert operations in Pakistan. A Hindustan Times report chronicled this venture and quoted a former TSD officer: “Our main task was to combat the rising trend of state-sponsored terrorism by the ISI and we had developed contacts across the Line of Control [in Kashmir] in a bid to infiltrate [the Islamist] Hafiz Saeed’s inner circle.”

Given the history of mistrust, hostility and covert cross-border operations between Islamabad and New Delhi, one can safely assume that Singh’s TSD reflects only a small aspect of India’s possible involvement in Pakistan. Why wouldn’t Indian intelligence—and indeed Afghanistan’s too, given that further tense relationship—prick Pakistan where it hurts most, if it believes the ISI has been hurting it since the late 1980s?

The British historian William Dalrymple addressed the Indo-Pakistan proxy conflict in his 2013 Brookings essay, A Deadly Triangle: Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. He said itwas directly affecting Afghanistan too: The hostility between India and Pakistan lies at the heart of the current war in Afghanistan …. our troops are now caught up in a complex war shaped by two pre-existing and overlapping conflicts: one local and internal, the other regional … Beyond this indigenous conflict looms the much more dangerous hostility between the two regional powers—both armed with nuclear weapons: India and Pakistan.

Most Indian officials and observers dismiss Dalrymple’s proxy-war thesis. But US diplomats (former and serving), such as Tom Pickering, James Dobbins and Bruce Riedel, have alluded to the proxy games India and Pakistan have been playing. And it increasingly looks instructive for both to disenegage their proxies and agree to co-ordinate their strategies on Kashmir and Afghanistan. This could lay a solid foundation for solving more complex issues.

Détente essential

A détente between India and Pakistan is essential for the security and economic dynamics of South Asia, particularly because the Indian narrative on Pakistan also considerably influences, if not shapes, the Kabul and Washington view. An Indo-Pak synergy is of utmost importance against the horizon of this year’s withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan. If India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan continue to see each other as distrustful neighbours, prospects for a stable South Asia seem bleak.

During recent conversations in Washington, one could discern a friendlier US tone towards Pakistan. Officials and think-tank representatives agreed it was time Islamabad cashed in on this relatively favourable mood.

They, however, also opined that policy-makers and analysts would have to break out of Pakistan’s bitter past. They would have to stop talking of why others needed Pakistan and think of where Pakistan had gone wrong and how it had created its own demons. They would have to debate why Pakistan needed to end its political near-isolation and reassure external players—particularly New Delhi and Washington—of its sincerity in dialogue on peace and economic development.

Certainly, an end to Indo-Pakistan proxy wars would issue in immense political and economic dividends. 

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