Michael KreponWagah

There is no better place than Wagah to look for evidence of how badly India-Pakistan relations have eroded. Most people visit Wagah to sit in stands where they can watch an elaborately synchronized martial exhibition where extremely tall Indian and Pakistani soldiers in extravagant dress uniforms stomp the small bones of their feet beyond repair while lowering their national flags. Wagah is also the only legally permissible place where, between the hours of 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM, border crossings on foot can be made, with the proper visas. On Superbowl Sunday, I was at the only person on the Pakistani side waiting to cross when the gates opened.

I hired a car in Lahore and drove to the border, which takes less than hour, depending on traffic. A porter greeted me and took my bags. (see picture) A decent tip allows him to feed his family for a month. Three checkpoints and thirty minutes later, I set foot on Indian soil. Another porter, three more checkpoints, and one super-sized register book that looks like something out of Kipling, where my personal details were entered by hand, notwithstanding the computers employed by customs officials on both ends. Thirty minutes later, I’m in a taxi heading for Amritsar, another hour’s drive.The three hour journey is definitely worth it: I avoid the waste of an entire Sunday traveling by air via the Gulf, with awful connections, to reach India. Plus, I have the privilege of witnessing what must be the world’s largest soup kitchen at the Golden Temple complex. If you are looking for confirmation that you are, indeed, your brother’s keeper, and if you wish to see one of the world’s great pilgrimage sites, try Amritsar.

But I digress. Custom officials told me that perhaps fifty people make the crossing daily, except for the occasional tour bus. Prior efforts by Pakistani and Indian governments to simplify tourism, family reunions, and trade have come to this sorry state. The Punjab was divided by partition, and remains an excellent barometer of the state of Indo-Pak relations. After partition, it was a killing field. Indian Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee traversed this blood-stained soil by bus in February 1999 attempting to to normalize relations with Pakistan in the wake of the 1998 nuclear tests. In another highly symbolic gesture, Vajpayee then went to the Minar-e-Pakistan, the monument erected in Lahore to commemorate Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s famous declaration in 1940 of the need to establish a homeland for the subcontinent’s Muslims. There, Vajpayee, the leader of the Bharata Janata Party (think of Nixon going to China), penned these words in the distinguished visitor’s book:

From this historic ‘Minar-e-Pakistan’, I wish to assure the people of Pakistan of my country’s deep desire for lasting peace and friendship. I have said this before, and I say it again: A stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt about this. India sincerely whishes the people of Pakistan well.

Pakistan’s military chiefs were not on hand to greet Vajpayee at the border. The Army Chief, Pervez Musharraf, and a very select group around him, were already deep into the Kargil misadventure. Afterward, when Musharraf had a change of heart and was ready to take big risks to normalize ties with India, New Delhi was still feeling battered and bruised. Good timing is not one of the prominent features of Indo-Pak dialogue. Nor is sustained progress: when the possibility that modest gains might yield more meaningful results, look for big explosions to happen.

A cross-Kashmir bus service was instituted between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in April 2005. Few use it. Pledges were also made to simplify trade across the Kashmir divide. Not happening. A train service runs between Delhi and Lahore. The “Samjhauta Express” was attacked near Panipat in February 2007, killing 68 travelers. The Government of India has yet to identify the perpetrators, who are believed to be Hindu extremists. Forty-two Pakistanis were killed on the train. In November 2008, Muslim extremists linked to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a group that retains links to Pakistani intelligence services, attacked iconic targets in Mumbai, killing 164. The attackers were trained and equipped on Pakistani soil.

India and Pakistan have again agreed to resume what they used to call a composite dialogue at the February SAARC summit in Thimpu. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government is beset by scandals and has had a very long, tiring run. Popular views in Pakistan concerning the government of Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani are perhaps best summed up by an editorial cartoon in one local paper showing the PM admiring himself in a hand-held mirror that shows no reflection of his face.

Even though both governments are wounded, modest confidence-building and nuclear-risk reduction measures could be agreed to, as was the case after earlier crises. The no attack pledges against nuclear facilities might be expanded to other types of installations, such as dams and world historic sites. The pre-notification agreement for ballistic missile flight tests could be expanded to include cruise missiles, as Pakistan has previously proposed. The joint counter-terrorism mechanism, which was doomed to failure by appointing diplomats as co-chairs, can do no worse and might do better if led by intelligence officials. An incidents at sea agreement could be finalized, as could long-delayed deals on boundary disputes over the Siachen Glacier and Sir Creek. A SAARC-wide agreement on information exchanges related to monsoon rains, glacial melt, and early warnings of extreme weather — perhaps with the assistance of outsiders with greater access to satellite data — could help with land use and water management, as well as disaster relief.

Many analysts and NGOs have joined the Stimson Center in proposing these and other incremental steps. Identifying useful measures is relatively easy; the hard part is encouraging government officials to pursue them energetically, rather than to explain in minute detail why prospects for success are so remote. Change on the subcontinent comes from the top down, not from the ranks of civil servants.

If past is prelude, incremental successes may again be possible, along with big explosions. Small gains will not lead to breakthroughs unless there is a shift in the strategic culture of Pakistan’s military leaders. Distrust of Indian intentions is embedded in their DNA, and as the conventional military imbalance shifts increasingly in India’s favor, Pakistan’s military establishment grows more concerned about dictation from across the border — hence Rawalpindi’s increased reliance on nuclear weapons and it’s unwillingness to turn against the LeT. Even so, modest nuclear risk-reduction measures are possible, as long as these arrangements do not impinge on Rawalpindi’s perceived insurance policies. But if the Army leadership remains convinced that India constitutes a mortal threat, the normalization process will not proceed very fast or very far, to Pakistan’s continuing misfortune.

How, then, to proceed in such inauspicious circumstances? A breakthrough, if one is remotely possible, is likely to come from the Punjab, as Prime Minister Vajpayee intuited. India’s economy, shackled by Nehruvian dogma, was on the ropes when Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao opened up the country to market principles in 1991. National entrepreneurship flourished, and the world is now beating a path to India’s door. Pakistan is currently facing dire economic straits, which are compounded by the lack of trade with India, its most natural and largest market. Pakistan’s military has a very large stake in the national economy. If trade is wisely configured and could be greatly expanded across the Punjab divide, substantial benefits could accrue in both countries.

Prior efforts to expand Indo-Pak trade have failed. Figuring out why is crucial to avoid repeated failure. Perhaps prospects for success might improve if the initiative came from Chief Ministers in the Punjab, rather than from New Delhi and Islamabad. (The same notion applies to increased trade between Sindh and Gujurat.) The appointment of highly successful and respected entrepreneurs by Chief Ministers to map out a plan for vastly increased trade that can generate economic gains and job growth is likely to have a far greater chance of success than if such matters were left in the hands of timid politicians and civil servants.

Incremental successes by means of nuclear risk-reduction measures remain valuable in their own right and symbolic of responsible nuclear stewardship. While important, these measures are not game changers. Vastly improved trade between India and Pakistan, beginning across the Punjab divide, can be a game changer.


  1. ben (History)

    Trade will happen only when the traders can show to the paki army that there are huge profits for the army to be made. After all the only reason for the paki army to continue to project india as a mortal threat is other wise there is no need of them. They will become irrelevant. so traders from both sides of the divide should convince the army that they will continue to receive large money bags..

  2. Magoo (History)

    Michael, to quote you “Distrust of Indian intentions is embedded in their DNA” of Pakistan’s military leadership. That being so, one mulled over your suggestion, made over dinner, that that wall was un-breachable and the ball was in India’s court to affect a change in the mind-set of the Pakistani military leaders. That, my friend is a tall order and altering DNA requires genetic engineering in Pakistan not from Delhi. I doubt if your suggestion that “the initiative came from Chief Ministers in the Punjab, rather than from New Delhi and Islamabad” will have any takers in Delhi; considering Islamabad’s propensity to outsource terrorism to India and its track record vis-a-vis support to Bhindanwale’s ilk in the 1980s. Considering your expertise in the working of strategic thinking in Pakistan it should be clear of the continued nurturing of the Babar Khalsa across the border.
    Pakistan, as is recognised even by Washington, is a State Sponsor of Terrorism and continues in partnership with the US, President Bush’s declaration notwithstanding. You need to look closer to home for remedial action – Magoo

    • Alan (History)

      I’m not so sure. India can threaten Pakistan in an existential manner that Pakistan cannot reciprocate. The Indian policy in Afghanistan demonstrates the flimsiness of Pakistan’s strategic position. In Kashmir, I saw the Indian occupation recently described as “three times the size and three times as deadly as the US occupation of Iraq”.

      Pakistani paranoia there may well be, but the Indian threat exists. Even if that threat isn’t as profound as some think, the merciless Indian exploitation of the paranoia is.

  3. Magoo (History)

    Alan, Your observation on the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Kashmir are flawed for the following reasons.

    Firstly Iraq has been invaded by a foreign power i.e. the USA, which has been in occupation for the past decade. Kashmir is an integral part of India wherein the Government is fully justified in deploying its military forces anywhere in its territorial jurisdiction. The latter cannot be defined as an occupation. Especially as a foreign power is waging a ‘proxy war’. Defence of its territorial jurisdistiction is an internationally accepted norm. Even the US has created and deployed its Northern Command and made provisions for imposition of martial law to ensure that its territories are secured.

    Secondly, there is a question of rules of engagement. The US has unleashed unrestrained military forces using long range missiles, air power, tanks and artillery against inimical elements in Iraq. India, on the other hand has restricted its military to using small arms fire to fight the insurgents supported and inducted into Kashmir by Pakistan. The difference is phenomenal.

    Thirdly, force levels deployed in both instances in terms of ‘boots on the ground’ are questionable. Unlike the US, India does not employ civilians (mercenaries) in conflict, internal or external. At times the US ‘civilian security component’ in Iraq has been equal to, if not more, than its uniformed forces.

    Therefore, the report you have seen that Indian forces in Kashmir are “three times the size and three times as deadly as the US occupation of Iraq”, is highly questionable.

  4. Alex (History)

    You may be interested to know that the changing of the guard ceremonies are a rare field of Indo-Pak cooperation. Apparently, the organisations on each side (the Border Security Force for India and the Pakistan Rangers) not only coordinate, but they rehearse the show together on an airfield somewhere.

  5. neel123 (History)

    @ Michael Krepon,

    Your suggestion of Indo-Pak trade across Punjab borders indeed has great economic potentials to boost Pakistan’s ailing economy, apart from swelling India’s coffers. And this is particularly relevant considering the increasing strain on American ability to pump in tens of billions of dollars into Pakistan, and prop up the most valuable ally in the region. Moreover this would further brighten prospects for American arms sales in the region.

    Therefore your suggestion has all the hallmarks of ingenuity, characteristic of an American strategist, and is a potential win-win-win for the US, Pakistan and India.

    But can you explain why should India encourage trade with Pakistan and harm its own security interests, as any economic benefit accrued from such activity would only strengthen Pakistan, and by extension the Pakistani army’s ability to harm India ….?

  6. Anon (History)

    MK: how do you think the revelation that Raymond Davis was a spy will affect US relations?


  7. Nikhil (History)


    Trade! surely, but what sort of trade may I ask?

    So you know, there is a booming trade between both sides of Punjab of illicit drugs. The Indian state of Punjab is drowning, especially in the last 4 years, in the supply of illegal drugs coming from Pakistan. There is nexus of handlers, carriers and drug peddlers that are terrorizing the society through this drug trade. As a result, three quarters of Punjabi youth today are drug addicts causing severe social problems in that Indian state.

  8. Nikhil (History)


    If paranoia is made profitable and reasoned with, every mediocre state should start going the Pakistan way.

    For instance, let Cuba, Mexico or Nicaragua also acquire nuclear weapons beyond their means. In addition, let them have the right to be rentier state of the top order given their geographical strategic locations. Knowing the past behavior of American govts with these nations, they’ve a right to amass weapons and blackmail the world if they choose to. It’s reasonable for them to do so because the US does pose an existential threat to them, doesn’t it? It may not be as profound as some may think, the merciless exploitation of American paranoia is real.

    Let them also have their share of terrorists or pirates too. If that ever happens, it will not be a too much of a disaster because trade between North and South America will solve the problems.

    • Alan (History)

      and your point is ….??

  9. gun cabinets (History)

    Yeah! I have also visit The WAGAH BORDER. i really like the exhibition of the Pakistani and Indian military.:) thanks for the post

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