Michael KreponCatch and Release

Two decades of Stimson Center Research Assistants and interns have compiled a chronology of confidence-building measures between India and Pakistan. I asked the most recent keeper of this database, Drew Stommes, to help me discover patterns in these data points. In a nutshell, here is what we found:

1. Every year, there are usually multiple CBMs to improve the atmosphere, such as the release of fishermen captured in disputed waters. “Atmospheric” CBMs are a low-cost way to signal a desire to improve relations. They have not had cumulative effect and typically do not provide lead-ins to more substantive measures that require greater political capital.

2. Formalized military- and nuclear-related CBMs have been sparse. They, too, have not yet had cumulative effect because progress has been easily interrupted by mass-casualty attacks carried out by those who wish to interrupt progress. These measures still have utility, in part because of recurring crises, which helped prompt their negotiation in the first place. Sound circular? New military- and nuclear-related CBMs could be teed up quickly, but they have been treated as trading chips for bigger deals that are too hard for national leaders to reach.

3. A new category of CBMs, dealing with trade and investment, is taking center stage. Just this weekend, Pakistan and India greed to liberalize the issuance of visas for trade and other purposes. Increased trade holds significant promise, but will require concerted high-level attention, which has been lacking for other CBMs.

A longer version of our analysis follows after the jump. It appeared in the August 20th edition of Dawn, a Pakistani newspaper.

Pakistan recently released Indian fisherman captured in disputed waters as a goodwill gesture when India celebrated Independence Day. Releasing fisherman has become a common practice on the subcontinent to signal readiness for improved bilateral relations. Other atmospheric CBMs are the release of political prisoners, cultural and sporting exchanges, visits by Parliamentary delegations, and the provision of humanitarian assistance after natural disasters. These steps are always welcome, but they have not led to breakthroughs in the past.

Atmospheric CBMs can be unilateral or reciprocal. They are informal and usually do not require complicated implementation procedures. Prior to the 2008 Mumbai attacks, New Delhi initiated more atmospheric CBMs than Islamabad. Since the Mumbai attacks, Islamabad has initiated more goodwill gestures than New Delhi.

Atmospheric Pakistani and Indian CBMs may occur, on average, two or three times annually, although after a severe crisis, more than a year might pass without a single gesture to improve bilateral relations. Atmospheric CBMs are particularly useful to signal readiness to improve relations after a severe crisis. In May 2003, twelve months after the 2001-2 “Twin Peaks” crisis, New Delhi released 70 Pakistani fishermen and 60 political prisoners. These initiatives followed Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee’s remarks in Srinagar that, “We once again extend the hand of friendship but it should be reciprocated by both sides.” President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali of Pakistan welcomed these gestures, joining India in restoring diplomatic ties.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has employed atmospheric CBMs often, including the offer of help after the 2010 millennial floods — twenty months after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. President Musharraf also employed atmospheric CBMs, starting in 2003, one year after the Twin Peaks crisis subsided. President Asif Ali Zardari has continued this practice, including the release of Indian fishermen in September, 2010 shortly after New Delhi offered flood aid to Pakistan. In 2011, Islamabad released prisoners before and after high-level talks. In June, 2012, Islamabad released hundreds of fishermen and an Indian national convicted of spying and imprisoned for nearly 30 years.

The frequency of atmospheric CBMs suggests that they require minimal investment of political capital by national leaders. In contrast, formal CBM agreements on military- and nuclear-related matters are infrequent occurrences. Atmospheric measures have not typically facilitated formal measures, and both types of CBMs have not prevented severe crises. Those who seek to prevent cumulative gains from CBMs by carrying out mass-casualty attacks have succeeded in doing so.

Formalized nuclear- and military-related CBMs between India and Pakistan require a much higher threshold of political will and capital. Military-related CBMs have accompanied the advent of nuclear weapon capabilities on the subcontinent. They are usually prompted by crises. Formal CBMs serve multiple purposes. They are useful in controlling escalation during periods of heightened tensions, they demonstrate responsible nuclear stewardship, and they reassure domestic and foreign audiences after crises have passed.

Formal military and nuclear-related CBMs have been in finalized in 1988 (non-attack pledges against nuclear installations and facilities), 1991 (airspace violations and advance notifications of certain military exercises), 1992 (prohibiting chemical weapons), 2005 (advance notifications of ballistic missile flight tests and the creation of a hotline between maritime security agencies), and 2007 (nuclear accidents). In 2011, the ballistic missile flight test and nuclear accident measures agreements were extended. A 2003 ceasefire agreement along the International Border and the Kashmir divide falls somewhere between a formal CBM and an atmospheric measure.

This is a meager list of accomplishments for a quarter-century of diplomatic engagement. In the same timeline, the United States and the Soviet Union went from a fierce nuclear arms competition to deep cuts in nuclear forces. Other military-related CBMs between Pakistan and India can easily be envisioned — such as a cruise missile flight test notification agreement, an incidents at sea agreement, and a withdrawal from current positions on the Siachen Glacier – but the timing is not yet ripe for these accords.

High-level efforts are now focused on trade and economic investment. In September 2011, India and Pakistan announced plans to increase bilateral trade. Pakistan granted Most Favored Nation status to India soon thereafter, and Manmohan Singh announced his intention to move toward a Preferential Trade Agreement with Pakistan. In August, New Delhi decided to allow Pakistani citizens and companies to invest in economic sectors other than defense, atomic energy, and space. India is improving facilities for trade at the Attari crossing, and promises have been made to liberalize visa regimes.

These CBMs are encouraging, but if past is prologue, they will encounter the usual delays by cautious civil servants and by spoilers who will try to disrupt them. The connective tissue between atmospheric CBMs and formal military- and nuclear-related measures is weak. Adding economic measures to this mix might provide greater adhesion and concrete results – but not without concerted and persistent efforts by national leaders.


  1. Anjaan (History)

    1. The study would be incomplete without analysing the database of decades of Anglo-American influence on Pakistani behaviour and actions, and how it shapes and sustains Pakistani policies towards India. The fact is, the Pakistani saga starts well before independence from the British. Pakistan is an entity, engineered by the British, the Americans picked up where the British had left.

    2. In Pakistan, the elected Govt. has no powers on the defence and foreign policies, which lies in the hands of the military establishment. Therefore all the bilateral talks and confidence building measures are tentative and cosmetic, the political leadership on both sides of the borders know that. There will be no real change in Pakistan in the short term. The picture will be clear only after 2014, when the Americans would leave Afghanistan, and would depend on American policies towards Pakistan post 2014.

    3. Peace is possible only when there is a genuine desire for it in Pakistan, and not based on Indian concessions on any issue. Any peace move due to compulsions would be tactical at best.

  2. Seb (History)


    When you cast doubt on the very idea and motivation for a Pakistaini national identity in the first place, I don’t think you can credibly sit there and insist the problem lies entirely with them and expect that perspective not to be taken with a very big grain of salt.

    *(who actually opposed the Pakistan movement… arguably one could say a united India was engineered by British colonial rule),