How will India respond to civil war in Pakistan?

Author: Sunil Dasgupta, UMBC and Brookings Institution

In 1971, India intervened militarily on behalf of Bengalis in the civil war in East Pakistan, dividing the country in two and helping to create Bangladesh.

In 2013, prospects of another civil war in Pakistan — this time one that pits radical Islamists against the secular but authoritarian military — have led once again to questions about what India would do. What would trigger Indian intervention, and who would India support?

In the context of a civil war between Islamists and the army in Pakistan, it is hard to imagine Pakistani refugees streaming into India and triggering intervention as the Bengalis did in 1971. Muslim Pakistanis do not see India as a refuge, and Taliban fighters are likely to seek refuge in Afghanistan, especially if the United States leaves the region.

A more selective spillover, such as the increased threat of terrorism, is possible. But a civil war inside Pakistan is more likely to train radical attention on Pakistan itself than on India.

In fact, the real problem for India would be in Afghanistan. India has already staked a claim in the Afghan endgame, so if Islamists seek an alliance with an Afghan government favoured by India, New Delhi’s best option might be to side covertly with the Islamists against the Pakistani army. But this is unlikely, because for India to actually side with Islamists, US policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan would have to change dramatically.

Conversely, for India to back the Pakistani army over the Islamists, Indian leaders would need to see a full and verifiable settlement of all bilateral disputes with India, including Kashmir, and/or the imminent fall of Pakistani nuclear weapons into the hands of Islamists.

In the first case, a Kashmir resolution is not only unrealistic, but also likely to weaken the legitimacy of the Pakistani army itself, jeopardising the army’s prospects in the civil war. In the second case, Indian leaders would need to have independent (non-US/UK) intelligence, or alternatively see US action (such as a military raid on Pakistani nuclear facilities) that convinces them that nuclear weapons are about to pass into terrorist hands. Neither of those triggers is likely to exist in the near future.

As it is, India and Pakistan have gone down to the nuclear edge four times — in 1986, 1990, 1999 and 2001–02. In each case, India responded in a manner that did not escalate the conflict. Any incursion into Pakistan was extremely limited. An Indian intervention in a civil war in Pakistan would be subject to the same limitations — at least so long as the Pakistani army maintains its integrity.

Given the new US–India ties, the most important factor in determining the possibility and nature of Indian intervention in a possible Pakistani civil war is Washington. If the United States is able to get Kabul and Islamabad to work together against the Taliban, as it is trying to do now, then India is likely to continue its current policy or try to preserve some influence in Afghanistan, especially working with elements of the Northern Alliance.

India and Afghanistan already have a strategic partnership agreement in place that creates the framework for their bilateral relationship to grow, but the degree of actual cooperation will depend on how Pakistan and the Taliban react. If Indian interests in Afghanistan come under attack, New Delhi might have to pull back. The Indian government has been quite clear about not sending troops to Afghanistan.

If the United States shifts its policy to where it has to choose Kabul over Islamabad, in effect reviving the demand for an independent Pashtunistan, India is likely to be much more supportive of US and Afghan goals. The policy shift, however, carries the risk of a full-fledged proxy war with Pakistan in Afghanistan, but should not involve the prospect of a direct Indian intervention in Pakistan itself.

India is not likely to initiate an intervention that causes the Pakistani state to fail. Bill Keller of the New York Times has described Pakistani president Asif Ail Zardari as overseeing ‘a ruinous kleptocracy that is spiraling deeper into economic crisis’. But in contrast to predictions of an unravelling nation, British journalist-scholar Anatol Lieven argues that the Pakistani state is likely to continue muddling through its many problems, unable to resolve them but equally predisposed against civil war and consequent state collapse. Lieven finds that the strong bonds of family, clan, tribe and the nature of South Asian Islam prevent modernist movements — propounded by the government or by the radicals — from taking control of the entire country.

Lieven’s analysis is more persuasive than the widespread view that Pakistan is about to fail as a state. The formal institutions of the Pakistani state are surprisingly robust given the structural conditions in which they operate. Indian political leaders recognise Pakistan’s resilience. Given the bad choices in Pakistan, they would rather not have anything to do with it. If there is going to be a civil war, why not wait for the two sides to exhaust themselves before thinking about intervening? The 1971 war demonstrated India’s willingness to exploit conditions inside Pakistan, but to break from tradition requires strong, countervailing logic, and those elements do not yet exist. Given the current conditions and those in the foreseeable future, India is likely to sit out a Pakistani civil war while covertly coordinating policy with the United States.

Sunil Dasgupta is Director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County Political Science Program at the Universities at Shady Grove and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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