Michael KreponPeeling or Trading Onions?

J.P. Donleavy used to be a popular author. He made a big splash with The Ginger Man, but many readers lost interest when it became apparent in The Saddest Summer of Samuel S and The Onion Eaters that he kept writing the same book. Donleavy comes to mind when following efforts over the past two decades by Pakistani and Indian diplomats to negotiate confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures.

Existing measures, such as prior notifications for certain military exercises and ballistic missile flight tests, have been useful, but regrettably sparse. The Stimson Center and others helped midwife these CBMs in the 1990s, thinking they would lead to progressively more ambitious and stabilizing measures. Instead, the process of negotiating CBMs has been like peeling an onion, one thin layer at a time. Diplomatic onion peelers have viewed these CBMs as devices to alleviate external pressures after a crisis, as trading material, or as add-ons when bigger issues, like Kashmir, are properly dealt with. If authorities in India and Pakistan had viewed CBMs as worthwhile steps in and of themselves, a cruise missile flight test notification agreement and an incidents at sea agreement would have been negotiated long ago. Deals on a mutual withdrawal from the Siachen Glacier and a settlement of the Sir Creek dispute have also been within grasp for many years.

An agreement to permanently demilitarize Siachen, home of the world’s most senseless and elevated forward deployments, appears stuck because Indian negotiators have heretofore insisted on, and Pakistani negotiators have rejected, recognizing in some fashion the positions seized by the Indian Army in 1984. The continuing dispute over Sir Creek – an estuary into the Arabian Sea – revolves around the extension of the land border seaward. Both countries capture fishermen that have crossed this imaginary, disputed line and then release them when they want to signal a warming trend. This ritual of rounding up and then freeing the usual suspects no longer counts as a CBM because it has become a thoroughly expected peel of the onion.

If India and Pakistan actually traded more onions, as well as other goods and services, this disappointing, familiar script might change. Increased trade could engage powerful cross-border constituencies to support more normal relations between India and Pakistan. Trade expansion would also proceed in stages, but it is likely to move at a faster pace than military-related CBMs because entrepreneurs have more clout and are in more of a hurry than diplomats. Increased cross-border trade is resisted by the privileged few who stand to lose profits if ordinary people and shopkeepers benefit from lower prices. Trade with India is also staunchly opposed by Hafiz Saeed and his followers. It would not be surprising if die-hard groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba seek once again to target iconic targets in India to halt improved bilateral ties.

The governments of Pakistan and India have been widely dismissed as being weak and beleaguered by scandal. And yet Islamabad has tried to lay the foundation for steps to increase direct trade with India. Pakistan has now given India Most Favored Nation trading status, and is switching the basis for trade from a “positive list” of approved items to a shorter “negative list” of prohibited items. This could become more onion peeling; after all, India accorded Pakistan MFN status in 1996, with negligible results. At least now, prospects for direct trade are better than before. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appears quite ready to reciprocate Islamabad’s moves.

Pakistan cannot hope to increase its rate of economic growth, which now lags behind population growth, without more normal ties and more direct trade with India. Instead, direct trade between Pakistan and India was $2.7 billion in 2010, less than India’s trade with Sri Lanka. Pakistan exports more goods to Bangladesh than to India.

This abnormal situation could now change if Pakistan’s military leadership is on board. Islamabad’s trade initiatives imply Rawalpindi’s consent, perhaps because Pakistan’s military will benefit from economic growth, and because a well-funded Army that resides within a weak economy will generate increased public resentment. But Pakistan’s Army retains an abiding distrust and deep grievances against India, and no large institution holds monolithic views. Since improved trade can be short-circuited by mass-casualty attacks in India, the test of the intentions and competence of the Army leadership is whether it gains advance warning of future attacks and takes effective measures to prevent them.

India, boasting an economy over eight times larger than Pakistan, also has much to prove. Generous terms of trade can serve New Delhi’s interests as well as Pakistan’s. But India’s civil servants and diplomats take a back seat to no one when it comes to onion-peeling. Political leaders who want to accomplish something important and unusual in India will have to ride herd over a government and civil-service bureaucracy that stubbornly resists change. The same holds true for Pakistan.

It is unclear whether Prime Minister Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari can follow through with real growth in direct trade. They have both expressed longstanding, oft-repeated desires to normalize relations. This is the most convenient way to do so. Direct trade may well be the most effective nuclear risk-reduction measure on the subcontinent.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani Daily, on May 14th.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    The Indian arms market is an extraordinary place even by the standards of the markets of the Gulf oil monarchies, which buy weapons indiscriminately, provided the batch is big and the price is high. But India, although it also buys many weapons, does so only after serious consideration and for far-reaching reasons. This is why arms talks with India are like a complex dance with a large number of partners, not unlike a Bollywood movie….

    Unlike Chinese reverse-engineering efforts, India honors [intellectual property]…. However, India also burdens arms acquisition contracts with so many requirements for localized components production, technology transfer and reinvestment of revenues in the Indian economy that any other client with such exacting tastes would have long been shown the door…. But the Indian market is so large and attractive that global arms corporations are fighting for a place on it.”

  3. magoo (History)

    Michael, The US and its Western allies go viral if they perceive any infringement of their “National Interests”, yet you happily obfuscate the “National Interests” that South Asian Governments perceive to be critical to their national being, by blinding the reader using onion fumes. These countries have as much right to go viral when these are perceived to be threatened as the US has in its case.

    You may consider Siachen deployments to be senseless, but I suggest that you review your comment in relation to the complexities of the Sino-Indian dispute in the Aksai Chin combined with the Indo-Pak imbroglio over the erstwhile J&K, and the ceding of the Shaksgam valley by Pakistan to China. Any suggestion on the trilateral implications of deployments in that region and resolving the problem thereof would be welcome.

    The strategic ramifications of Siachen to India are decided in New Delhi/Islamabad/Beijing and are exclusive of the perceptions aired by think tanks in Washington. – Magoo

    • krepon (History)

      Good to hear from you.
      Let’s agree to disagree on this. I have a hard time visualizing material gains at an elevation of 15,000-plus feet.

    • magoo (History)

      Its not a question of material gains, so looking for these is going up a blind alley.

      Its a matter of territorial sovereignty and looking at and dealing with ongoing and related disputes concerning three sovereign states wherein actions and responses to process bilateral negotiations generate a ripple effect that bears on a ‘third party’.

      Political leaders in Islamabad, New Delhi and Beijing are no less responsible to safeguard the sovereign rights of their peoples than the President of the USA is to his people.

      While I fully appreciate your inability to comprehend the utility of territories above 15,000 feet, the significance of altitude at Sea Level or at 21,000 feet remains the same raising specific geo-strategic compulsions.

  4. Aesop (History)

    It is good to trade in onions rather than peeling these. One can avoid watery eyes if an onion is refrigerated for some time. Can we refrigerate almost seven decades of animosity between Pakistan and India by trading in onions? If it was possible, it would have have happened by now. If EU’s offers any example, it would take centuries. Till then peeling the onion to reveal its core of three territorial issues (all about water: Siachen, J&K, and Sir Creek) would remain the order of the day.
    Whose fault is it? The Charcoal-Burner or the Fuller? Which role would Pakistan or India fill in the characters of Aesop’s fable? Recalling the fable: A Charcoal-Burner carried on his trade in his own house. One day he met a friend, a Fuller, and entreated him to come and live with him, saying that they should be far better neighbors and that their housekeeping expenses would be lessened. The Fuller replied, “The arrangement is impossible as far as I am concerned, for whatever I should whiten, you would immediately blacken again with your charcoal.” Question is, who is the Fuller and who is the Charcoal-Burner? At least, we know who is the mid-wfe 😉

    Like will draw like.

    • kme (History)

      Actually the European example is far more encouraging than you imply. France and Germany managed to bury seven decades of animosity pretty quickly when it was percieved to be in their mutual national interest. It didn’t take France and Britain long to overcome centuries of hostility following the defeat of Napoleon.

  5. Bill (History)

    Yet Franco-German entente did not come easily, putting it mildly. It took two world wars and the occupation of Germany before a political leadership emerged there that was amenable to cooperation with France. That’s not a useful model for getting a more peaceful South Asia.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      And I would add that a looming Soviet threat encouraged West European cooperation.

  6. Anjaan (History)

    1. Pakistan is a non-NATO ally of the western powers, a relationship that runs deep and goes back several decades.
    Pakistan, historically, is a pawn of the weatern powers that would happily carry out their dirty works in the region, in exchange of dollars and free weapons.

    2. India, in contrast is a nation that has made clear it intentions of not compromising on its strategic autonomy and national interests.

    3. In a fast changing world of geo-politics, the dilemma for the western powers is, they need Pakistan to continue with the role it played in the past, while they also need to rope in emerging India on their side, for obvious reasons. With the history of India Pakistan relations, and Anglo-American influence on Pakistan’s policies and behaviour, this is something like an oxy-moron.

    4. Therefore any article on India Pakistan relations from any western analyst is predictable. The underlying theme would always be the same. They want the animosity between India and Pakistan be resolved through Indian concessions to Pakistan. In other words, what Pakistan could not get through four wars, be offerd by India on a platter across a negotiating table.

    5. Now there is a glimmer of hope, the talk of trade between India and Pakistan. If this succeeds, perhaps the western dream of having both Pakistan and India on their side might become a possibility.

    6. India has a very tricky job on hand. While it wants peace with Pakistan, as well as healthy relations with the Anglo-American powers, it knows that it would be dealing with countries that are not friends, and are not trustworthy.

    • bradley laing (History)

      There is a British base on Cyprus, apparently there to keep Turkey and Greece apart.

      Can anyone think of a third power willing to patrol a neutral zone at Siachen, that high up in the air?

      Could a joint control organization be formed by Pakistan and India, and both sides simply agree to let robot sno-cats patrol the area?

      An absurd idea, but Britian and Argentina continued to sit at the same table looking after Antarctica, even during the 1982 Falklands / Malvenias war.

  7. Mantej (History)

    Yes, peace is possible between India and pakistan, and indeed steps are being taken in this direction. it is a slow process. no army is going to retreate, the best option is to stay where they are. U.S also has lots of unused swaths of land. would U.S be willing to give some tiny part of texas and arizona ( which are deserts ) to mexico if mexico contest it. India has it’s work cut out. one side is big communist china and on the other side is jihadi terror pakistan. I would love people to give suggestion.

  8. Anjaan (History)

    @ bradley laing,

    There is no question of India allowing anyone to patrol any neutral zone in Siachin or Kashmir or anywhere. Do you think the British would accept China or Russia to be a third party patroling a neutral zone in the Falkland Islands ?

    Turkey and Greece are both NATO members, which perhaps makes it viable for another NATO power as a mediator. This is not the case between India and Pakistan. Moreover how can India trust those very powers who are at the roots of the carefully engineered divide between India and Pakistan, and have all along been pulling the strings on Pakistan from behind the curtains ?

    Pakistan has, many times in the past, tried to push for involvement of the anglo-american powers for mediation and India did not take the bait, resisted all pressures for mediation, for obvious reasons. Argentina has no choice but to negotiate with the anglo-american powers, India by contrast stood its ground and survived over three decades of US led sanctions of all kinds and nuclear aparthied, for over three decades.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      Who, within India, has put pressure on the government of India, and asked for a mediation of Siachin? If it has never been asked for because outsiders were pressuring India for it, who within India would ask for mediation, if the outsiders would get out of the way?

      Also, in the case of Antarctica, is Britian and Argentina’s continued co-operation, even during wartime, a useful example, for resolving Siachin?

      There is an idea I have, that I call the firebox principle: if a house is on fire, and someone sees it is burning, they have a duty to pull the lever on the firebox, regardless of any dispute between the house’s owner and the person seeing the fire. An uncontroled fire is not in the public interest, and therefore is not in anyones interest. Kashmir seems very hard to resolve. But Siachan seems at least within reach of resolution, so long as both parties can agree that some specific things are not in anyones interest. It seems to me that Indian Army soldiers dying in avalanches is not in anyones interest. Therefore, finding ways to get them out of harms way, would be comperable to setting up fire departments to put out uncontroled fires.

  9. Anjaan (History)

    @ Bradley Laing,

    1. As I have already pointed out, your Argentina example is not applicable to India.

    2. Your firebox principle is also not applicable to India. In case of Pakistan, it is in India’s interest that the house burnes down once and for all. This is because it was never a house it should have been, in the first place.

    Can India, as a neighbouring house, survive the fire ? Ofcourse it can. India has demonstrated its resolve to fight any fire that might come its way. It has successfully and effectively fought a number of fires in the past several decades. India has been engaged in fighting Pakistan sponsored terrorism since 1989. The West chose to ignore the threat completely. It was not until the US and the UK had a taste of this Pakistani medicine, they turned around and acknowledged the threat.

    3. And finally, peace between Pakistan and India is possible, not through Indian concessions on any issue, but by stopping of all interference by the anglo-americans to pro-up Pakistan’s ability to bargain with India. In other words, stop all diplomatic and military assistance to Pakistan, and allow it to deal with India on a bilateral basis.

  10. bradley laing (History)

    Pakistan and India start new era of trade cooperation with a beer

    Murree Brewery, a Pakistani beer company, will soon start selling its lager in India, in hopes of building trade ties between the archrival countries. In 2001, only 1% of India’s trade was with Pakistan