India-Pakistan: Two Decades After the Cease-Fire Agreement

Two recent books from different perspectives arrive at the same dim conclusion for the prospect of improved India-Pakistan bilateral ties in the near future. 

Flags of India and Pakistan

November 2023 marked two decades since India and Pakistan, two nuclearized neighbors that fought four wars since independence from the colonial British Raj in 1947, agreed to a cease-fire agreement (CFA). The CFA, arguably, represents one of the most significant agreements between the two states to further peace in the region since the turn of the century.

The CFA led to a dramatic decrease in violence along the contested shared border for a few years, with the number of cease-fire violations dropping from 2,841 in 2003 to 4 in 2004, per Indian data. This agreement tracked alongside a back-channel process between the two states that came stunningly close to resolving a host of bilateral issues. 

Two decades on, India-Pakistan ties remain mired in hostility. A reaffirmation of the CFA in 2021 was one of the rare bright spots in a decade otherwise marked by tensions and crises. Two decades after the CFA, it is worth asking: What enabled an agreement on a cease-fire between the two countries, and, relatedly, what are the prospects for dialogue going forward?

A potential answer to these difficult questions can be found in two recent books on India-Pakistan ties. “The Difficult Politics of Peace,” by Christopher Clary, and “In Pursuit of Peace,” by Satinder Lambah, focus on the bilateral history of conflict and cooperation. Written from two very different perspectives, the books converge on something of a shared theory as to what explains peace in bilateral ties: the centralization of foreign policy decision-making in both India and Pakistan. 

Clary’s rigorous academic study and Lambah’s insider’s account also hold insights for the future of India-Pakistan ties. If dialogue can occur primarily when there is strong leadership in both states, the near future bodes poorly for bilateral ties. In India, foreign policy decision-making is centralized under the prime minister. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in power since 2014, has centralized decision-making but has seldom found a counterpart with comparable control over foreign policy matters in Pakistan.

In the absence of strong leadership in both India and Pakistan, it appears that the two nations will continue in their present state of stasis. It is unlikely that India and Pakistan will engage in any substantive way to improve ties until there is leadership that has the ability to undertake tough political decisions in both nations. 

What Explains Peace 

In his book, Clary presents a “leader primacy theory” arguing that “leaders have the latitude to attempt conciliation if strategic incentives favor it” when foreign policy authority is concentrated. His aim with this book is to craft a theory of “foreign policy for rival states.” Compared to other theories at hand, Clary offers an argument that is tested against the universe of major crises and conciliatory initiatives in India-Pakistan ties from 1947 to 2019. Time and again, he makes clear, leader primacy theory is best suited to understand “the likelihood of peace and the dangers of war.”

In his book, “In Pursuit of Peace,” diplomat Satinder Lambah recounts navigating and handling India’s Pakistan policy under six prime ministers. As he notes, for India, engagement with Pakistan is a “political choice” and not a diplomatic one. Thus, when it comes to India’s policy toward its neighbor, “the prime minister is the final arbiter.” 

Lambah’s book makes clear that Indian leaders with a centralized command over foreign policy were able to make peace overtures, even in the face of opposition. Examples include Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s offer of a peace treaty in 1982, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s back-channel talks with Pakistan in the 1980s, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s willingness to go to Pakistan despite the Pakistani army’s maneuvers in Kargil, and Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014 for his swearing-in ceremony. 

The idea that centralized leadership determines outcomes of, and maneuvers betweenwar and peace is not new. What is novel is the academic treatment meted out to the history of India-Pakistan ties by Clary, a professor at the University of Albany with experience working as country director for South Asian affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and insider revelations by Lambah, a career Indian diplomat who worked on the bilateral relationship in various capacities for five decades. 

It is remarkable, given the different frames of reference for Clary and Lambah, that their respective works highlight the centrality of leader primacy to explain peace initiatives between India and Pakistan. In line with this theory, the 2003 CFA, and the parallel back-channel talks, were borne out of initiatives led by leaders with a strong grasp over foreign policy matters. 

As Clary underlines, Prime Minister Vajpayee and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were able to initiate dialogue in the early months of 2003 and take steps that eventually led to the implementation of the 2003 CFA. This is all the more noteworthy, considering that the 2003 initiative came on the heels of a serious crisis that sparked concerns over another war between India and Pakistan. 

Lambah, with a ringside view to bilateral developments, recalls how an olive branch offered by Vajpayee through his “Friendship with Pakistan” speech in April 2003, caught many, including the then-external affairs minister, by surprise. The prime minister’s initiatives, reciprocated by his Pakistani counterparts, led to a number of steps, including the 2003 CFA and an eventual decision to restore ambassadorial-level dialogue in 2003.

It is worth considering existing explanations for peace in 2003. A prominent thesis is the role played by external actors, notably the United States in South Asia. As Ayesha Jalal notes in “The Struggle for Pakistan,” Musharraf’s peace overtures during this period “drew the ire of the opposition parties, who attributed the stance to American influence.” While it is a documented fact that the United States pushed for dialogue between India and Pakistan—especially with heightened concerns around terrorism after 9/11—there were clear limits to American influence in the region, especially over the Kashmir issue. Howard Schaffer, in “The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir,” points out that it was the “unanticipated warming in India-Pakistan relations that began in the spring of 2003” that gave the United States an “opportunity to play the helpful if modest role that [former Secretary of State Colin] Powell had proposed.” In 2003, conciliatory efforts emerged from within the subcontinent, and not due to external mediation.

Beyond the role played by third parties, there are few other arguments explaining India-Pakistan rapprochement during this period that stand up to scrutiny. As Happymon Jacob outlines, the 2003 cease-fire offer came from Pakistan following a “rather tense period of bilateral relations.” While it was publicly stated that the Pakistani offer of a cease-fire was unilateral, India’s Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW, the external intelligence agency) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had sketched out a CFA behind the scenes, which was “accepted by the two political leaderships who asked the respective armies to implement it.” A former lieutenant general of the Pakistani army relayed to Jacob that after Musharraf took over, “there were very concerted efforts to improve our [Pakistani] relations with the Indian Army.” 

A look back at the 2003 CFA and the succeeding composite dialogue makes clear that the push for peace flowed from leadership in both India and Pakistan. As the two books reviewed here make clear, strong leadership in both India and Pakistan enabled dialogue and led to peace processes. Peace held on the border for a while following the 2003 CFA, until Musharraf faced serious domestic challenges, eventually losing power in 2008. This was followed by the devastating November 2008 attacks (26/11), in which terrorists with clear ties to the Pakistani state wreaked havoc across Mumbai. 

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, both states sought ways to continue the dialogue. However, little progress was made as political leadership in both New Delhi and Islamabad faced domestic political headwinds. 

Potential for Peace 

Even as Indian foreign policy has been centralized under Prime Minister Modi since 2014, he has had no counterpart with comparable control over foreign policy issues in Pakistan. Coming to power in 2014, the current prime minister attempted to facilitate dialogue in his initial years in office. However, these moves led nowhere, primarily due to efforts seemingly designed to derail exactly these peace overtures. For instance, attacks on an Indian airbase in January 2016 occurred a mere week after Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan, where he met with Prime Minister Sharif. 

Over the past decade, and notably since 2018, Pakistan has witnessed significant “domestic political tumult.” At various points, civilian leaders in Pakistan have been prepared to reach out to the Indian side only to be undercut by the army. Similarly, at times the Pakistani military appeared much more inclined to restore dialogue with India, to discover that the civilian leadership had different ideas. The “hybrid regime” that persists in Pakistan seemingly disallows for centralized command over foreign policy—particularly in regard to India. 

What does this mean, especially in light of the theory proposed by Clary, and revelations made by Lambah on bilateral peace processes? In his concluding chapter, Clary made clear that there is “ample evidence for continued pessimism.” Even as Modi retains control over foreign policy, domestic leadership in Pakistan is, and remains, fractured. Writing in a similar vein, Lambah notes that the two nations are at a “point where the prospects for dialogue, engagement and a broader peace process have never seemed so distant.” As things stand, dialogue between India and Pakistan appears unlikely until there is centralized foreign policy-making authority in both nations. 

The argument that rapprochement is improbable doesn’t rest solely on a theory of leader primacy. There are a number of confounding factors that impinge on India-Pakistan ties, including the growing disparity between India and Pakistan, and an evolving security landscape for India. Pakistan itself is dealing with a number of serious long-term challenges, notably an economic crisis and continued tussles between the civilian and military leadership. 

Furthermore, a theory of leader primacy is not infallible. Clary devotes limited attention to terrorist outfits with demonstrated links to the Pakistani state. This is worth pointing out as these outfits have disrupted dialogue between India and Pakistan. However, Clary’s theory is useful as a framework to understand why bilateral peace processes have fared the way they have. In this sense, Lambah’s account supports Clary’s leader primacy argument as the diplomat demonstrates how strong leaders drove peace processes. 

Prospects for Dialogue in an Election Year 

With elections looming large in India and recently concluded in Pakistan, there will be limited bandwidth for dialogue between the two nations over the next few months. Short of a major crisis (typically appearing in the form of a serious terrorist threat or attack), assuming a continued stasis between the two states over the short term is a safe bet.

Pakistan’s domestic politics remain in flux. Where many expected three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to return to power, with the Pakistani Army’s ‘support,’ the election results from the recently concluded polls have surprised many. No party has secured the requisite votes to form a government by itself, and negotiations for a coalition government are underway. Contrary to expectations that Sharif, who recently advocated for better ties with India, would emerge victorious, independents backed by Imran Khan’s PTI have secured the most votes. 

In India, as things stand, most experts predict a third mandate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024. Given the probable continuation of foreign policy centralization under Prime Minister Modi, if he were to win the 2024 elections, and a likely coalition government in Pakistan (forming against the backdrop of substantive allegations of electoral rigging) the question is what comes next? 

Prime Minister Modi surprised many with his overtures toward Pakistan early in his first term. As noted above, this included extending an invite to then-Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif for his swearing-in ceremony, and making a surprise visit to Lahore in late 2015 (an Indian prime minister had last visited Pakistan more than a decade earlier, in 2004). Notwithstanding these gestures, India-Pakistan ties worsened following a spate of terrorist attacks in early 2016. The bilateral relationship hit a new low after the BJP government revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, granted under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, in 2019. 

Despite Pakistan’s consternation with respect to India’s moves over Kashmir in 2019, both nations did manage to reaffirm the CFA in 2021. Then-Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa reportedly played a key role in strengthening India-Pakistan ties, even pressuring then-Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to “develop friendly ties” with India. Bajwa frequently called for better ties between the two states and was credited with reopening an India-Pakistan border crossing in 2019 for Sikh pilgrims. Bajwa’s role in bettering India-Pakistan ties has also been attested to by India’s former High Commissioner in Pakistan. Avinash Paliwal noted that Bajwa had gained a fair bit of trust and respect among Indian officials. This “trust quotient,” as Paliwal puts it, is missing with the current Pakistani Army chief, Asim Munir. 

In the scenario that the BJP, under Prime Minister Modi, returns to power in 2024, one cannot discount potential peace-building efforts by the Indian government. However, given Clary’s theory and Lambah’s historical account, a sustainable bilateral dialogue depends equally on the emergence of strong leadership in Pakistan that can shape foreign policy. This appears unlikely. Notwithstanding how elections play out in India and how Pakistan configures its government, the medium- to long-term state of the bilateral relationship will largely be determined by the degree of foreign policy consolidation within both states. 

The two books reviewed here, one an academic work and the other a diplomat’s part-memoir, are important to understanding the state of India-Pakistan ties. Crucially, 20 years of the CFA should prompt questions about what enabled dialogue and prospects for peace. As Clary and Lambah demonstrate, conciliatory measures were feasible when there were leaders with centralized foreign policy authority in both India and Pakistan. 

It was such leadership that brought about the 2003 CFA two decades ago. Looking back, the CFA represents a high point in a relationship that has otherwise been marred by tensions and crises. The India-Pakistan relationship today remains mired in hostility, notwithstanding the 2021 reaffirmation of the 2003 CFA. This perhaps explains why an Indian official stated that “no one is thinking about Pakistan.” Surely, however, no Indian security or foreign policy official can afford to dismiss its neighbor that holds nuclear weapons and historical grievances. This is especially the case when there remain non-state actors that exist solely to prevent dialogue and foster conflict. 

While Clary’s analysis and Lambah’s revelations make for sobering reads, their respective works also reveal that some of the most momentous peace processes have arrived on the heels of serious crises. This is crucial to highlight as peace processes have been instituted even in the bleakest of times. As the 2003 CFA demonstrates, even in the aftermath of an almost-war, if there is strong leadership in New Delhi and Islamabad, and a genuine desire for rapprochement, there are pathways to peace.

Shreyas Shende, Published courtesy of Lawfare

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