What Washington Should Do to Help India–Pakistan Ties


On January 2, eight days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise Christmas Day stop in Lahore to visit with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, terrorists attacked an Indian Air Force base in Pathankot, Punjab. The next day, with fighting still raging in Pathankot, the Indian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan came under attack. These grim developments deflated the optimism generated by the Modi visit for renewed “comprehensive bilateral dialogue” between India and Pakistan. The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought four wars, and repeated efforts over the decades to bridge their differences have never overcome longstanding suspicions on both sides. Events of the past few days illustrate why.

Since 1998, when both countries tested nuclear weapons, a possible conflict has become more dangerous for the region and the world. Meanwhile, Pakistan continues to harbor a plethora of terrorist groups, and the country’s pursuit of miniaturized “tactical nukes” fuels an already combustible situation. If Modi and Sharif can lead their countries to durably improve their relationship, even modestly, they will realize a goal that has eluded their predecessors.

Given the complex politics of the India–Pakistan relationship, the United States does not play a role in their bilateral talks, but Washington can certainly take steps to help prevent spoilers from once again disrupting a dialogue process that deserves every chance to succeed. The single most useful thing the United States can do is to unequivocally pressure Pakistan to end support for terrorist groups — not just some, but all — that destabilize India and the region.

Looking Back

My own views on the region have been formed over more than two decades. In December of 1993 I decided to take a train trip from Lahore to Quetta over the Christmas holidays. Back then, this was a lot less adventurous than it sounds today. I was already in Lahore for the academic year to study Urdu, and previously had taken many long train journeys across India. Family friends in Lahore, however, fretted aloud about this plan, and arranged for their friends — part of an endless web of South Asian hospitality — to look after me in Quetta. I spent the train ride in a “family” compartment with an older religious couple, looking out the window at the ever-more barren landscape as we traveled from populous Punjab to the sparseness of Balochistan.

The friends of friends kindly met me at the station, and ensured that I saw Quetta. But they remained concerned about my safety the entire time — especially after I took a long walk alone one morning. At the time, I attributed this fear to a general overprotectiveness of women. But less than a year later, after a group of religious students who called themselves the Taliban took Kandahar just across the Afghan border, it became clear that Quetta was a base for one of the most regressive Islamist groups the world had ever seen.

By the fall of 1996, the Pakistan-backed Taliban had seized Kabul from warring rebels, strung up the former Soviet-backed strongman Najibullah from a lamppost, and declared themselves a new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. At the time, I was working for the International Committee of the Red Cross in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. I instinctively sensed the importance of the Taliban’s close-by march, but it didn’t immediately strike me as directly affecting developments in India.

This would soon change. In 1998, while continuing to struggle with a separatist movement in Kashmir, India elected a Bharatiya Janata Party-led government. Soon after the two countries’ tit-for-tat nuclear tests that year, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee took steps to stabilize ties with Pakistan. Vajpayee proposed a series of confidence-building measures to link citizens of both countries across the border. In February 1999, Vajpayee famously became the first Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan in a decade when he rode a new bus from the Indian city of Amritsar to Lahore, where he was greeted by Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Then, as now, an Indian prime minister’s inventive diplomacy, matched by his Pakistani counterpart’s willingness to talk, created an atmosphere of goodwill and optimism. But just a few months later, the goodwill evaporated in the furious fighting of what came to be called the Kargil War.

In the summer of 1999, what at first appeared to be a group of Pakistani mujahideen began to move into Indian positions — vacated during winter — high in the Himalayas. They were later revealed to be Pakistani troops. When an alert Indian shepherd noticed the incursion, the ensuing conflict quickly turned into a limited war. India mobilized its army and air force to toss out the intruders, and for a while, it looked like the two countries were teetering on the brink of a full-scale war. Finally, Pakistani forces vacated their positions after a dramatic July 4 intervention by President Bill Clinton. A few months later, the architect of Kargil — Gen. Pervez Musharraf — deposed Nawaz Sharif in a bloodless coup.

Fast forward to Christmas Eve 1999 when five members of a terrorist group based in Pakistan hijacked Indian Airlines flight 814 from Kathmandu to Taliban-ruled Kandahar. The hijackers brutally stabbed a newlywed Indian man to death and demanded the release of three terrorists imprisoned in India. After days of negotiations to free the passengers, the Indian government finally agreed to release the three men — Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, Ahmed Omar Shaikh, and Maulana Masood Azhar — in exchange for the Indian Airlines captives. The three vanished into thin air after leaving the Kandahar tarmac, but two would soon be back in the news.

Despite these setbacks, Vajpayee was willing to try again with Pakistan. In 2001 in Agra, Musharraf and Vajpayee came close to reaching an agreement. But later that year, Azhar returned to the headlines when his newly formed terrorist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad, mounted a terrorist attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, precipitating a massive troop buildup along the India–Pakistan border and once again raising fears in Washington and beyond of a nuclear conflict. The standoff also distracted the Pakistan military from providing critical counterterrorism cooperation to the United States, which had recently invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11.

Responding to U.S. pressure intended to help defuse the standoff after the parliament attack, Musharraf officially banned Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, and several other terrorist groups. The United States designated both groups foreign terrorist organizations in December 2001, after the attack on the Indian parliament. But in reality, Pakistan allowed them to continue operating under different names. The border standoff was not defused until October 2002, after a million Indian and Pakistani troops had been on alert on the border for much of the year.

After the 9/11 attacks, U.S. and Indian views on Pakistan’s support for terrorism in the region began to converge. In 2002, another of the men released from prison by India in Kandahar, Shaikh, resurfaced as one of Daniel Pearl’s murderers. The brutal killing tied together Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the United States.

Mumbai Burning

Six years later, the region was once again the focus of U.S. attention under tragic circumstances. The Mumbai attacks, which began on November 26, 2008 — Thanksgiving for Americans — were India’s first internationally televised live terrorist incident. Over three days, a group of 10 Pakistanis from the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Tayyaba murdered 166 people in Mumbai. Six of them were Americans. We all watched in horror as smoke and flames engulfed India’s most iconic hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace.

The Mumbai attacks were a major setback for the efforts of the then-Indian government, led by the Congress party, to quietly reach a comprehensive agreement with Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had continued the “composite dialogue,” which Vajpayee had agreed to resume with Musharraf in 2004 despite the earlier attack on the Indian parliament and ongoing evidence of Pakistan’s support for terrorism. Singh’s birthplace was in today’s Pakistan, and he hoped his country and its neighbor might at long last find a way to live in peace. He famously imagined a South Asia where people could have “breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul” — as you could during the time of Singh’s 19th-century Sikh forebears.

As information unfolded publicly about Mumbai, Pakistan’s support for Islamist terrorists was once again in the limelight. Mumbai showed in vivid detail how a purportedly banned terrorist group had been given wide latitude in Pakistan.

Pakistan wasn’t just reneging on its own domestic ban, or solely flaunting U.S. terrorism sanctions. Internationally, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba had been designated a terrorist group in 2005 by the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions committee. Later updates incorporated aliases as well as specific individuals, including the designation of the group’s leader, Hafiz Saeed. But these sanctions have had little impact. Saeed to this day remains at large, despite the UN sanctions and separate U.S. designations and incentives, including a $10-million reward, to try to secure his arrest. And following the Mumbai attacks, the trial in Pakistan of those accused in its planning has languished for years, with procedural delay after delay preventing any forward movement. The “mastermind” of Mumbai and an accused in the trial, Lashkar member Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, was imprisoned for a few years but released on bail in April 2015.

The terrorist group founded by Azhar, Jaish-e-Muhammad, made the UN Security Council’s sanctions list as an Al-Qaida affiliate in October 2001. In January 2002, under pressure from the United States, Musharraf identified Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba by name in a speech banning both groups. But despite the ban, they were operationally effective enough to mount an assassination attempt on Musharraf in December 2003. Azhar maintained a very low profile from that point until around 2014, although his group and its successive factions continued to exist. In early 2014, Azhar publicly “resurfaced” to deliver pro-jihad speeches in Pakistan. This is the group Indian officials hold responsible for the Pathankot attack.

This discursive backstory illustrates the conundrum Indian leaders face in dealing with Pakistan. Indian leaders see their country on a rise to power, are attentive to its increasingly global role, and would prefer to focus their full attention on pressing economic and social development needs. But it is difficult to chart a path to global power when the threat of regional conflict demands continued national attention. Successive Indian leaders have pursued peace and dialogue with Pakistan, despite a long timeline of terrorist attacks that have disrupted the process, and a known lack of action within Pakistan to constrain internationally designated terrorist groups. This history explains the deeply felt skepticism in India that every effort to build better ties with Pakistan provokes terrorist spoilers.

But New Delhi has little alternative than to seek dialogue in some form or another with Pakistan, in the hope that at some point an agreement can be reached, or that at minimum, clear communication lines might better manage or prevent crises. Both countries possess nuclear weapons. Pakistan does not have a no-first-use doctrine, nor do its officials shy from rattling the nuclear saber. Therefore, it makes sense to have some kind of ongoing dialogue, however minimal, rather than no communication at all. (Even at the height of the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union maintained high-level contacts.) Doing so, however, takes great political will in New Delhi especially given deep skepticism about Pakistan among sections of India’s very vocal media, which more often than not see a resumption of talks as a capitulation to Pakistan.

Looking Ahead: Narendra Modi and Nawaz Sharif

India elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 on a platform focused on economic growth and good governance. But Modi has made an indelible mark in diplomacy over his 19 months in power. He came into office making an expansive gesture to India’s neighbors — inviting all the region’s leaders to attend his inauguration — and got off to a notably good start with Nawaz Sharif, who graciously accepted the invitation. The two even exchanged saris and shawls for their mothers. Since then, however, India–Pakistan relations have lurched between bonhomie and rancor, with terrorist attacks punctuating efforts to improve ties. The Pathankot and Mazar-i-Sharif attacks are only the latest examples of this long-running pattern.

The past 19 months illustrate how volatile India–Pakistan dialogue can be. Two summers ago, the “sari and shawl” opening appeared poised to renew substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan, until the Pakistani High Commissioner in New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists days before scheduled talks, causing India to cancel them abruptly. With that, a new Indian red line emerged, and the India–Pakistan dialogue foundered once again.

It sent a positive signal, then, in July 2015 when Modi and Sharif met on the margins of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa. No one expected much from the meeting, but they surprised with a joint statement outlining plans for dialogue. The Indian and Pakistani national security advisors followed up and scheduled talks for late August. But once again, a late-July terrorist attack in Indian Punjab followed shortly thereafter by another in Jammu, both attributed to the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, changed the atmosphere immediately. India insisted that the talks should focus on terrorism, and Pakistan decided to cancel, stating that they “would not serve any purpose” if so narrowly focused and without Kashmir on the agenda.

That’s why the December re-engagement between New Delhi and Islamabad appeared so surprising. It began with unannounced talks in early December between national security advisors in Bangkok, which paved the way for India’s external affairs minister to travel to Islamabad for the Heart of Asia conference on Afghanistan. On the margins of that conference she met with Nawaz Sharif and Pakistani Foreign Policy Advisor Sartaj Aziz, and both countries formally declared a resumed “comprehensive bilateral dialogue.” Two weeks later, Modi’s surprise Lahore touchdown on Christmas Day mere hours after a successful visit to Kabul allowed him to give a new tone to cross-border relations, and set the stage for more meetings without the freighted expectations of outcomes.

Yet once again, an India–Pakistan opening has been followed by terrorist attacks. Indeed, the conditions that led to previous attacks, disrupting renewed attempts at India–Pakistan dialogue, appear unchanged. While Pakistan has mounted counterterrorism operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, it has left utterly unchecked the institutions and operations of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (as well as other groups like the Haqqani Network). Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief Hafiz Saeed routinely holds large rallies in Pakistani cities, unafraid of law enforcement. In late October, Saeed reportedly received upgraded police protection in the Pakistani province of Punjab over concerns for his safety. The Jaish-e-Muhammad, nominally banned, has not faced sustained law enforcement action of the sort that would mark a complete effort to identify and prosecute those responsible for terrorist attacks. As C. Christine Fair has argued, the notion that Pakistan has made a “strategic shift is pure fiction.” Terrorist groups in Pakistan with their sights set on India have been waiting out the U.S. withdrawal from the region, with a view to their own “pivot east,” as Stephen Tankel put it.

While Pakistani authorities issued a notice in early November forbidding electronic media from broadcasting coverage of proscribed groups in the country, a more substantial crackdown on designated groups targeting India has not occurred. Pakistan may have taken action against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, but when it comes to Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, it looks instead like they are not even trying. If it indeed turns out that Jaish-e-Muhammad is responsible for the Pathankot attack, as Indian officials have stated, the world will demand to know why Pakistan has not taken any real steps against them despite Pakistan’s own ban and numerous international sanctions.

How Washington Can Help

Which brings us to what, if anything, Washington might be able to do. Longstanding U.S. policy encourages India–Pakistan dialogue and welcomes talks when they do occur, while emphasizing strongly that the “pace and scope” of negotiations rests with the two countries. (India, in particular, bristles at the idea of U.S. involvement in its relationship with Pakistan.) Events over the past 16 years, however, show that more significant action in Pakistan has occurred when Washington has taken much firmer positions with Islamabad.

What will happen next? Naturally, tempers are running high in India as television images of the funerals of seven Indian soldiers killed in Pathankot are beamed into millions of living rooms. For its part, Pakistan’s foreign office has condemned the attack and pledged to cooperate with India, but it’s not clear if this will be enough to keep talks on track. Many of Modi’s more hawkish supporters are calling for the talks to be canceled, and for India to retaliate directly against terrorism camps based in Pakistan.

Should New Delhi and Islamabad continue their revived dialogue process, the single most important step Washington can take to support the environment for peace would be to press Islamabad even more firmly to get serious about curbing all terrorist groups, not just the ones that attack Pakistan. This is important not only for regional stability, but also for maintaining U.S. consistency and credibility in the fight against terrorism.

And Pakistan’s counterterror operations in the tribal areas have not sufficiently addressed the terrorist groups that continue to threaten regional stability, including the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. U.S. members of Congress have become increasingly exasperated by what they see as a selective and incomplete focus on terrorism by the Pakistani government. The introduction in Fiscal Year 2015 of a non-waiverable condition on assistance to Pakistan that withholds $300 million in Coalition Support Funds unless the U.S. secretary of defense can certify that Pakistan has “significantly disrupted” the Haqqani Network illustrates congressional displeasure.

A longer and wider-angle lens on the region shows us that terrorism designations and reward incentives have not been enough to change Islamabad’s behavior, and it is time for Washington to use more specific leverage. A recent bipartisan Independent Task Force on U.S.-India relations, on which I was privileged to serve, came to the consensus that Washington should continue encouraging New Delhi to improve its ties with Islamabad, but in parallel, Washington should “demand that Pakistan meet its obligations as a state to tackle terrorism emanating from its territory.”

To give some leverage to that demand, the Task Force recommended that Washington be prepared to end U.S. taxpayer-financed support for defense equipment sales to Pakistan if it is “not willing to rein in terror.” Similarly, the Task Force recommended putting Coalition Support Funds reimbursements on the chopping block if Pakistan does not act against all terrorist groups. This is not a call to “cut off” Pakistan, but it is a call to review in a more nuanced way the efficacy of our military assistance in line with actions Pakistan is obligated to take to fight terrorism. We should be focused on providing support for counterterrorism training, democracy, governance, economic growth, and the crucial human development needs for Pakistan’s citizens.

As India and Pakistan enter another cycle of dialogue, they share the prospect of ushering in a more positive and prosperous future for their citizens. The United States can and should use additional leverage with Pakistan to limit terrorist spoilers. Doing so will not guarantee a successful outcome for the complex dialogue India and Pakistan will undertake — that is up to them — but at the very least, it can help give this round a better shot at success.


Alyssa Ayres is senior fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. She served previously as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia from 2010 to 2013. Follow her on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa.


Photo credit: Narendra Modi