A recurring feature of U.S. policy toward South Asia is the invocation, usually pronounced in the aftermath of a crisis, that India and Pakistan should resume their diplomatic dialogue. Questioning this logic, Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, argued that the prospects for peace in South Asia are better advanced by concerted U.S. efforts to get Rawalpindi out of the terrorism business, rather than by promoting ritualistic dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Carnegie India hosted a talk by Ashley J. Tellis, bringing together scholars, diplomats, and key stakeholders interested in U.S. policy toward India and Pakistan. 

Discussion Highlights

  • History: The trauma of partition and subsequent wars have produced a deep antagonism that shapes the shared narrative of both states towards each other, Tellis explained. This tension implicates ideological, political, and territorial aims and engenders intense security competition that is hard to mitigate within current conditions. Tellis attributes this to incompatible objectives by both states.
  • Status-quo Power: India, Tellis said, is a status-quo power comfortable with Pakistan’s existence as India realizes its economic and geopolitical ambitions. However, he said, its willingness to negotiate outstanding issues is contingent on Pakistan abandoning its principal tactic of leveraging jihadi groups, under the nuclear umbrella, as instruments of foreign policy. This posture is intended to negate Pakistan’s attempts at securing territory through coercive negotiation, he added.
  • Revisionist Power: Pakistan, on the other hand, is an anti-status quo power, based on a historical narrative of unjust deprivation, Tellis continued. He argued that Pakistan aims to coerce India to negotiate on territorial issues, suppress India’s ascendancy to great power status, and avenge its vivisection as a consequence of the 1971 war. A combination of these drivers colors the Pakistani military’s passionate animosity towards India and underwrites its willingness to accept the costs of blowback to its own citizens, an approach that renders India’s objective of “ratification and normalization” and Pakistan’s objective of “revision and normalization” irreconcilable, Tellis concluded. 
  • Changing Strategic Aims: Given the civil-military divide in Pakistan, and the resulting lack of consensus regarding security and foreign policy, Tellis maintained that only changes in the Pakistani state structures or ex-parte changes by the Pakistani military can alter its strategic aims. However, he said, this is only likely when the costs of current strategy exceed benefits, when Pakistan faces coercion from external powers, or as a result of leadership willing to alter the very foundations of Pakistan’s engagement with India. Given the remote possibility of this occurring, Tellis stated that Pakistani reliance on jihadist terrorism is likely to persist, as abandoning this strategy would imply denuding itself of all options to shake the unacceptable status-quo.
  • Desirability of Diplomatic Engagement: Presuming that there is a desire to change, Tellis argued that continual diplomatic engagement could only modestly alter the Pakistani military’s strategic aims by providing tangible benefits that make bleeding India with a thousand cuts less attractive. Tellis said that engagement could also help balance power within Pakistan in favor of civilian authority in the long run only at the margins. While dialogue can indeed facilitate economic engagement, travel, and other confidence-building measures despite conflict on core issues, Tellis questioned the value these add to resolving the fundamental issues of security competition.
  • Stability in the Region: Tellis emphasized that while dialogue should be encouraged, it will not bring about the structural changes that are a necessary prerequisite for sustained peace and stability in the region. The solutions, he said, are self-evident. Either India alters its standing positions or Pakistan shifts its strategic aims or the means it employs to achieve them. While the former seems unlikely, Tellis maintained that the latter, while difficult, is possible. By focusing on dialogue, the United States is only reinforcing the Pakistani military’s “extortionary engagement.” Instead, he said, U.S. policy should focus on preventing the Pakistani state’s use of jihadi terrorism in order to further regional stability, protect the United States and its allies, and save Pakistan from itself.

This event summary was prepared by Arushi Kumar, a research assistant at Carnegie India.

C. Raja Mohan

C. Raja Mohan is director of Carnegie India. A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.

Ashley J. Tellis

Ashley J. Tellis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specializing in international security, defense, and Asian strategic issues.