Since early this year, I have written in this column that after the Balakot air strikes by India in response to the terror attack at Pulwama organised by a Pakistan-based terror group, the end game in the 70-year-old Kashmir dispute was near.
I have argued this, because the way India operates in this battle had dramatically shifted, and have used Game Theory to explain this. Fundamentally, my argument has been that India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his most trusted lieutenant, the home minister, Amit Shah, operates in a different way from what had been seen, and expected, in the past.
If there was any doubt about this theory, it has been erased with the decision of the Modi government to work around the constitutional special clauses giving autonomy to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and making it an unambiguous part of India.
The question is what happens now? Will nuclear-armed India and Pakistan be able to thrash out a peace deal? A lot depends on how the next few days pan out, but a few things are clear.
The United States, the most prominent international factor in this entire saga, clearly knew what was coming, and, in essence, does not care. There are many reasons for this. What Donald Trump wants most are better trade deals with India, more orders of weapons and other logistics agreements, and to get out of Afghanistan. He wants to win the next election in 2020, and for that he wants to showcase some breakthrough moves. Trump knows that Pakistan has no choice but to help America get out of Afghanistan. The Pakistani economy is in shambles and any help it can get from America, monetarily or militarily, is a boon. He concedes in all probability the Indian argument on what is going to happen once America pulls of Afghanistan–Pakistan will simply redirect jobless jihadists towards Kashmir.
Trump cannot expect India not to defend its core security interests and this cannot be done without taking full control of the territory which is under threat of attacks. Kashmir is critical to the defence of the Indian capital and any risk to that is a core strategic concern for India.
Also, America needs India as the only country which can effectively be positioned as a counter to China in Asia and the Indo-Pacific.
Whatever hopes Pakistan had of Chinese outrage has disappeared with the Middle Kingdom tied up with a number of issues: a slacking economy, mass protests in Hong Kong, constant controversy over its treatment of Uighurs in the Xingjiang province, and its billions of dollars of investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). As I had written earlier this year, all India needs is to make China doubt the security of its investments in CPEC. That will do the trick.
It is still not well understood that the outcome of the Balakot bombing inside Pakistani territory was not just how many terrorists were killed (still disputed) but also where the bombs fell. Hint: too close for Chinese comfort from their CPEC assets. Balakot is part of Mansehra district through which the 118 km-long Thakot-Havelian (estimated cost $1.3 billion) passes. The CPEC website says it would be completed by March 2020. The Chinese want more than ever to protect their assets in Pakistan, and the best this can be done is by India taking full control of its side of Kashmir, followed by a peace settlement between India and Pakistan.
What could be the contours of such a peace agreement? Almost all considered opinion suggests that a simple solution could be to convert the existing Line of Control between the two countries into the international border. India has, after all, with the latest announcements, merely finalised the kind of federal control for its side of Kashmir that Pakistan already applies on its side in Gilgit-Baltistan. If this happens, a formal merger of the region might happen with the rest of Pakistan. Some of these are more formalities than any real change of power structure.
Any such peace deal would have to have the participation of the U.S., in some form or the other, as has been true in negotiations between India and Pakistan in the past too, including in the Kargil conflict in 1999. With the status of Kashmir changed, there ought to be less objection to a U.S.-brokered deal in India, even overtly.
Neither India, nor Pakistan, can usurp territory from one another, indeed no serious model of analysis accounts for such a scenario. But, if, and no doubt this is a vital if, the change in the status of Indian Kashmir is cleared by the Supreme Court–which is where the battle will now be fought–and depending on the situation on the street in Kashmir which has been under a military lockdown (unsustainable for a long period of time), a historic opening to settle the Kashmir dispute permanently may have opened up for India and Pakistan.
A note of caution is necessary at this juncture: any jingoism can only hurt and derail a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to solve one of the most intractable contestations in world politics. A solution would be remembered for all time; a derailment, too.
Views are personal.