As the new Indian government settles in, questions arise about the future of the Indian-Pakistani relationship—questions prompted mostly by the new Indian prime minister’s history of Hindu nationalism. But a more revealing lens for analyzing this relationship might be to regard it from the perspective of Pakistan. Pakistan’s “dysfunctional civil-military relations” suggest an uncertain political future, leaving India in an essentially reactive role. That dynamic, may have an even more powerful impact than Narendra Modi’s politics.

Frederic Grare
Frédéric Grare is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on Indo-Pacific dynamics, the search for a security architecture, and South Asia Security issues.
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Modi’s decision to invite his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony together with all the other heads of state or government from the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, was considered a positive gesture on both sides of the border. The meeting between the two prime ministers was cordial and frank but—to no one’s surprise—not groundbreaking.

While Pakistani leaders are unanimous and sincere in welcoming warmer relations with India, civilians and military officials have opposing long-term objectives. It is doubtful that the Pakistani military supports such a change for any reasons beyond the narrowly tactical, and in fact will fight fiercely against such a change affecting its territorial claims. Sharif is pursuing an opposite strategy—trying to turn a tactical rapprochement into a more permanent arrangement.

India is likely to adopt a “wait and see” attitude. While the election of a new government may have elevated resolve to punish Pakistan in case of a terrorist attack, it has not increased India’s capacity to coerce its neighbor into any specific outcome. New Delhi will have to walk a fine line between ignoring Pakistan, which it can’t control and does not need economically, and keeping the door to better relations open enough to provide a real incentive for Islamabad to adopt meaningful new policies—all without making unilateral concessions to Pakistan.

Most-Favored-Nation Status

A year ago, then-candidate Sharif made the normalization of relations with India a central plank of his platform. Hopes were high, therefore, that Pakistan would finally extend India Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) status, removing tariff and other trade barriers. Sharif did not spell out any preconditions. But, twelve months later, the issue is still pending. Pakistan is now stipulating that the MFN status will be attributed to India only if New Delhi reopens the composite dialogue, a stalled executive-level negotiation process.

Awarding the MFN status to India is important in its own right. A substantial part of the business community, in particular small- and medium-sized enterprises, seem to fear being overwhelmed by a massive arrival of cheaper Indian products on the Pakistani market. Nontariff barriers to India’s market have also been invoked as a justification for Pakistan’s hesitations. Yet, the Pakistani government continues to insist on the need to facilitate bilateral trade between the two countries. It blames several Indian lobbies (the automobile, textile and pharmaceutical industries as well as the agricultural lobbies) for obstructing the negotiations and maintains that awarding India MFN status would benefit Pakistan.

However, the MFN issue provides clues to a larger domestic political dynamic in Pakistan. The main political parties support Sharif’s policy. Jihadi organizations, on the contrary, oppose any trade deals with New Delhi as long as Kashmir remains under Indian control. Here, as elsewhere, the jihadis are joined by the military—whose opposition Sharif seems to have underestimated. The nomination of Raheel Sharif as replacement for Ashfaq Parvez Kayani as Chief of Army Staff (COAS) did not usher a more receptive posture in Rawalpindi. It was the military that insisted that the government take the small- and medium-sized enterprises’ objections to heart. It also lent its explicit support to their cause, warning the Sharif brothers “against making rapid concessions, particularly in the run-up to India’s general election.” In February 2014, Shabaz Sharif, the prime minister’s brother, obliquely accused the military of obstructing trade normalization.

Awarding the MFN status to India would thus serve the interests of the civilian government, not to mention the country, whose economy would benefit from free trade with India. But such a move would only partly benefit the military. This relative convergence opens some diplomatic and political space that the government can exploit, providing it can keep its relations with the military under control. Yet, a spectacular advance in trade relations between India and Pakistan is unlikely. In the delay, Pakistan, whose economy is in shambles, has much more to lose than India does. New Delhi can afford patience. Its economic future lies in its integration in the global economy, not in any specific trade relation with its South Asian neighbors.

The Kashmir Dispute

The situation in Kashmir can be explained from a similar civil-military perspective. The Pakistani army is in no position to challenge India along the Line of Control (LoC) that divides Kashmir, since the bulk of its forces are positioned on its western front. The Pakistan military seems bent on curbing any temptation by the civilian government to rush into a detente. To stave it off, it provokes India, to make rapprochement politically difficult on that side of the border.

Skirmishes in Jammu and Kashmir resumed in August 2013, shortly after the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) told the newly elected prime minister that rapprochement with India was acceptable, but should not proceed too quickly. But the incidents remained limited, so as to avoid any escalation. The appointment of a new COAS, Raheel Sharif, did not alter the military’s position on Kashmir.

The military’s hardening of its position on Kashmir did not prevent Nawaz Sharif from attending Modi’s swearing in, but the predictable absence of tangible results on the Kashmir issue after Sharif’s trip to New Delhi was used by the military and its allies to attack the prime minister on his return to Pakistan.

A serious escalation in the military buildup on either side of the LoC is unlikely. The significance of the Kashmir issue does seem to be changing, however. Kashmir has become as much an indicator of the evolution of civil-military relations in Pakistan as of the Indian-Pakistani relationship. But this evolution does not make a settlement of the issue any less complex and uncertain than it was in the past.

Indian Perspectives and Options            

For India, the primary question is far less about Islamabad’s irredentist claims on its territory than about the uncertainty of Pakistan’s political future. For many Indian officials across the political spectrum, the lack of a unified Pakistani center of power with a single policy makes meaningful negotiation and settlements impossible. India is, therefore, condemned to remain essentially reactive until Pakistan can resolve the tensions in its foreign policy. True, New Delhi can favor or close any possibility of dialogue. It can also raise the cost of potential aggression. But it cannot coerce Pakistan into any peace agreement against Islamabad’s will. The decision to normalize the relationship belongs ultimately to Pakistan.

There is real anxiety in New Delhi about the possibility that Pakistan’s security establishment may be tempted to test the new Indian government. In a recent article, journalist Praveen Swami enumerated five possible Indian responses to an attack originating in Pakistan: doing nothing, coercion through Indian-army mobilization along the LoC and the international border, strikes on jihadist training camps, using artillery and infantry along the LoC, and the use of covert means.

None of these options, however, are totally satisfactory. Calculated inaction, for example, characterized New Delhi’s response to the Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. This approach earned India goodwill with major powers and brought pressure to bear against Pakistan. No major Lashkar-e-Taiba attack on Indian territory has taken place since then. But even though a restrained strategy paid dividends in 2008, it is highly dependent on third parties, such as the United States.

Similarly, coercion modeled on India’s 2001-2002 response to the Pakistani-sponsored attack against the Indian parliament, has its drawbacks. India coerced Pakistan into mobilizing its forces along the international border. This response weakened Pakistan’s economy, but also proved very costly for New Delhi. Limited strikes on Pakistani jihadist training camps or shelling targets across the LoC are also possible options, but it is uncertain whether they would produce meaningful results and they carry a high risk of escalation, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.

The best guarantee of stability lies, therefore, in Pakistan’s exercising restraint due to its domestic-security situation. The intensification of terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil compels Islamabad to reduce its force levels along the LoC and the international border, heightening its disadvantage vis-à-vis the Indian military and forcing Pakistan to exercise greater caution.

The Modi government will have to define a level of engagement with Pakistan that is sufficient to prevent the temptation of sponsoring terrorism, but limited enough to force Islamabad to make real concessions in antiterrorism to secure greater gains. Should New Delhi make significant concessions early in the process, the incentive to renounce terrorism as a way of achieving foreign-policy objectives will be nil or limited. The continuation of the back-channel negotiations that walk this fine line could offer, once more, the most effective instrument in advancing the relationship.

Rivalry in Afghanistan

But even back-channel negotiations are unlikely to prevent the rivalry from playing out once again in Afghanistan. With the departure of U.S. forces slated for the end of 2016 at the latest, chances are that Afghanistan will again become the backdrop for a proxy conflict because few core interests on either side would be at stake, thus diminishing the risk of a nuclear escalation.

Both sides deny this possibility. Pakistani officials keep claiming that the era of interfering in its northern neighbor’s internal affairs is over. As evidence of such ostensibly responsible behavior, Islamabad has reached out to its erstwhile foes from the former Northern Alliance, facilitated a reconciliation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government, and cooperated in the Afghan elections, assuring everyone that it did not support any particular group. Some believe, however, that Pakistan is still trying to promote the emergence of an Afghan government it can influence or control, and expedite the return of Afghan refugees to prevent their potentially violent involvement in Pakistani politics. What Pakistan presents as a wholesale reversal of its old strategy is merely a tactical readjustment designed to meet changing realities on the ground. Interference is still a reality, despite some genuine rethinking in some government circles.

The participation of the Taliban in the Afghan government (or their control of some provinces) is antithetical to New Delhi’s primary goals of preventing the return of the Taliban to power, while also weakening the connection between the Taliban and the Pakistani security establishment. To thwart such an outcome, New Delhi has established around Afghanistan a quasicontainment policy with all of Kabul’s neighbors except Pakistan, and unfailingly supports the Afghan government.

But the announced U.S withdrawal will inevitably weaken India’s position. New Delhi knows that its support to Kabul will at best slow down the erosion of the government authority. More importantly, the political chaos or even simply the additional tensions that could possibly result from the accusations of fraud in the second round of Afghanistan’s elections will further diminish the legitimacy of the next government at a time when the insurgency is showing a new vigor in the east and the south of the country. So far, Pakistan’s preoccupation with anti-Islamabad militants offers India the best protection against excessive interference in its Afghanistan affairs, but it makes New Delhi dependent on a situation it does not control.


Although India and Pakistan officially profess their goodwill towards one another, none of the conditions for a real rapprochement are met.

Despite Pakistan’s assurances that it is ready to seek an agreement with Modi, as it did under the last BJP government, the consensus between civilian and military is only superficial. It would, however, be a mistake to assume that the military is resolutely opposed to all kinds of rapprochement with India. The military still needs the civilian government to break the vicious cycle of economic regression and international isolation in which successive governments (including military regimes) and adventurist policies of the security establishment have locked up the country. It therefore wants the prime minister to improve relations with New Delhi in service of that goal, but to do so without creating the kind of organic links that would emerge from the development of a strong economic relationship. Moreover, peace with India would challenge the narrative that the military’s outsized role in Pakistani government and society is essential to the country’s security, and would, therefore, seriously challenge its influence on Pakistani politics.

Still, it is clear that the military is no longer politically omnipotent. The relative unity of the mainstream political parties on the issue of noncooperation with the military limits the latter’s capacity to manipulate politics. This opens some space for the government to maneuver, including in relations with India: Nawaz Sharif can initiate a rapprochement with India provided it does not lead to the abandonment of any of Pakistan’s traditional claims.

On the Indian side, Modi does not consider Pakistan a priority. India would benefit from better relations with Pakistan, but its economic future does not depend on it. Yet all previous attempts to ignore Pakistan ended up with the resumption of terrorist attacks, a situation that India wants to avoid, not least because a possible escalation into even a conventional conflict with Pakistan could impede the new government’s program of economic reform.         

Pakistan, although the weaker of the two actors, controls to a large extent the evolution of the relationship. But the choice facing Islamabad involves more than its bilateral relations with India. Pakistan must decide between joining the development bandwagon, or becoming increasingly marginalized in the international community. Making this decision will require that Pakistan speak with a single voice, including both the government and the security establishment. Given the configuration of Pakistan’s polity, only a consolidation of democracy in the country will allow for substantial improvements in the relationship with India. But this will be, at best, an incremental process.

Bilateral relations are, therefore, likely to fluctuate between periods of appeasement and occasional crisis. There is little chance of a major conflict, but the worsening of the security situation on both countries’ fringes in Afghanistan and Kashmir could revive the risk of terrorism, possibly in connection with violent extremism.

This article originally appeared in National Interest.