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The Roots of South Asian Instability

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Stability, according to Kenneth N. Waltz is defined as the durability of a system and its ability to peacefully adjust to changing circumstances.[1] Thus, the stability of a country, a region, and relations between states is achieved when, in any of these systems, there is an element of predictability and a high probability of peaceful, legal recourse for the resolution of any issues should the need to solve a dispute arise. Instability, then, is the converse of this description: it is characterized by unpredictability, an increase in violence and the use of force, and the decreased likelihood of order and cooperation.

As per this definition of instability, the region of South Asia is unstable on both the interstate and intrastate levels. There are several causes for this state of affairs in South Asia: interstate conflict is found in the form of continued tensions between India and Pakistan while intrastate conflict persists because Afghanistan and Pakistan both face terrorism and insurgency. These two causes of instability in South Asia are in fact related to each other and closely linked, primarily because the major source of militancy in the region is an insecure Pakistan, which often nurtured militants in Afghanistan and Kashmir in order to counter its rival, India.

The root cause of instability in South Asia is the conflict between Pakistan and India, which itself feeds numerous other types of conflicts in the region. This conflict is rooted in a territorial dispute over the region of Kashmir but has acquired a more general strategic dimension. One aspect of the conflict between India and Pakistan which causes instability is the nuclear weapons competition between both countries. Of course, it should be noted that nuclear weapons do not necessarily lead to instability; it is possible that rival states with nuclear weapons will continue to carry on normal relations.[2] This is the case with India and China, which, despite nuclear and strategy rivalry, have not been engaged in destabilizing each other and have been increasing their volume of trade over the past decade.[3] However, Pakistan’s nuclear program has been a destabilizing factor in South Asia, as noted by S. Paul Kapur.[4] Kapur noted that Pakistan’s nuclear program has made it more likely to pursue aggressive behavior since nuclear weapons shield it against all-out retaliation.[5] In fact, soon after Pakistan’s first nuclear test in 1998, Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Kargil in Indian Kashmir in 1999 with the intention of using their newly nuclear weapons status to their advantage by restraining India’s response and drawing international attention to the Kashmir issue.[6] Pakistan’s nuclear weapons have also shielded it against Indian retaliation in 2001-2002 in the wake of terrorist attacks against India’s Parliament traced to an extent back to Pakistan as well as during the 2008 Mumbai attacks.[7]

In response to Pakistan’s nuclear program, India has adopted measures that further destabilize South Asia. Pakistan as a state feels deeply insecure because of its comparative disadvantages vis-à-vis India in terms of population, resources, and military might.[8] This insecurity has been exacerbated by Indian strategies such as operation Cold Start which are designed to counter Pakistan’s potential nuclear use by striking swiftly at Pakistan in the case of war.[9] As a result of these fears, Pakistan has turned to alternative strategies to balance the scales between itself and India. Unfortunately, however, these strategies have destabilized both Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pakistani concept of strategic depth requires that Pakistan acquire extra strategic depth by having the option of retreating into Afghanistan in the case of a war with India.[10] This requires that any government in Afghanistan be friendly to Pakistan, if not controlled by it. As a result, certain elements of the Pakistani government have been supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has been destabilized since the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. Certainly, one of the major factors in the continued conflict in Afghanistan has been the support of Pakistan; however, there is no doubt that the conflict in Afghanistan has taken on a life of its own for other reasons. One reason is the continued American presence in the country which galvanizes a segment of the population into supporting the Taliban. However, the main cause for continued violence in Afghanistan is the opportunity for armed groups within Afghanistan to continue to have the ability to perpetuate their violence due the structural weakness of the Afghan state, which does not have a monopoly on violence within its country. When states weaken, power struggles among leaders intensify, regional leaders become independent and run parts of the country as warlords, and ethnic groups assert themselves.[11] Individual groups also feel compelled to provide their own security.[12] In such a scenario, according to Stathis N. Kalyvas, sovereignty either is segmented and fragmented, both of which denote that the central government lacks full control over its territory, as in the case of Afghanistan.[13] There are large pockets of northern Afghanistan where sovereignty is segmented- where several political actors exercise full sovereignty over distinct territorial parts of the state- as ethnic Tajik, Hazara, and Uzbek militias essentially control various fiefs.[14] On the other hand, much of the rest of the country including the south and east where the Taliban are most active fall under the category of fragmentary sovereignty, where both the central government and the Taliban partially exercise limited sovereignty over the same part of the state.[15] The result is that neither is able to fully take on the functions of a state in controlling violence or building social institutions, resulting in continuing violence.

The continuing war in Afghanistan has negative security implications for Pakistan as well because the Taliban operate on both sides of the border between the two countries and their respective branches on both sides of the border aid each other. Coupled with the rise of Taliban related militancy, Pakistan has had to deal with the exponential increase in domestic terrorist groups, a problem partially of its own making as Pakistan long nurtured jihadist groups as potential weapons against India.[16] These groups were originally intended to either cause trouble for India in Kashmir or, in the case of the Haqqani Network in the Waziristan area along the Afghan-Pakistan border, to continue to supply and aid the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to guard against Indian influence there.[17] However, according to the noted Pakistan scholar Ahmad Rashid, at the behest of the United States after its invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan lost control over some militant groups because of it conducted counter-terrorism military operations in its tribal areas aimed at disrupting Taliban safe havens.[18] This in turn led to internal militancy against the Pakistani government in Waziristan, which then provided a safe haven for training extremists from other parts of Pakistan, who have now begun fanning over the country and disrupting the country through sectarian attacks and attacks on secular institutions.[19]

As a result, Pakistan’s already corrupt and overstretched state is finding it even more difficult to put resources into economic growth and education, which may reduce the appeal of militancy for segments of its population. Instead, in addition to the disproportionate amount of money it puts into its military, it must divert further resources to fight counterinsurgency, a problem that it shares with Afghanistan. According to some academic literature, developing countries with large young populations- a youth bulge- could use their large pool of cheap labor to climb on the path towards prosperity if there are ample educational and economic opportunities, as is the case with India and China.[20] On the other hand, failure to invest in human capital combined with a youth bulge can lead to an increase in youth violence.[21]

Thus, as demonstrated, South Asia’s security problems stem both from interstate factors and intrastate factors. However, of the two, interstate security issues are the key to understanding the root causes of instability and conflict in the region. This may seem surprising at first, given the immense internal security problems faced by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Furthermore, when two countries become strategic rivals, such as China and India, or China and the United States, the nature of their interaction is often along the lines of competition rather than the sponsoring of deadly, destabilizing internal conflict as is the case in South Asia. By this logic, Indo-Pakistani rivalry ought to be continuous hedging and strategic countermoves against each other, while the insurgencies have the potential to destroy Afghanistan and Pakistan. International competition is the potential for conflict in many circumstances. However, because the internal and international security issues of South Asia are so closely linked, the internal issues cannot be solved unless international issues are solved. Pakistan will continue to sponsor militant groups as long as its relations with India remain unresolved and as long it continues to disrespect Afghan sovereignty.

The chief policy recommendation for solving security issues in South Asia would involve turning what is essentially an international terrorist and insurgency issue spread across India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan into three distinct local conflicts to be dealt with internally by all three countries. This can be accomplished only by removing the international element of the problem so that each country can deal with internal issues without worrying about interference or reaction on the part of the other country. Thus in India’s case, this would involve dealing with the insurgency in Kashmir without Pakistani influence, which would make its efforts easier and reduce the possibility of international or nuclear war. Pakistan would have to stop using militants to further destabilize its neighbors India and Afghanistan, but in doing so, it also reduces the fuel on the fire of militancy which has come back to haunt Pakistan itself. Instead of focusing on its neighbors, Pakistan could dedicate its resources on providing security, education, and economic opportunities in its own country.

Therefore, in order to reduce the international factors that feed Indo-Pakistani tensions, the best solution would be to encourage the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Other countries such as the United States can encourage this process, but ultimately for there to be true peace between India and Pakistan, both countries and their elites must fully accept a permanent resolution through the mutual acceptance of an international border satisfactory to both sides. Both sides must accept that as facts on the ground stand, neither will be able to claim all of Kashmir; rather both sides ought to accept making the de facto border the de jure border. Hopefully this will assuage Pakistan’s immediate security concerns and turn the Indo-Pakistani rivalry into something more benign, such as strategic competition without a militant dimension that undermines the security of both countries. Reducing conflict in Afghanistan too will involve Pakistan ceasing its support of militant groups such as the Taliban. Pakistan is less likely to do so though, if it does not feel as threatened by India. If the Taliban do not have the guaranteed support of Pakistan, they may move more strongly in the direction of negotiation. It will be a long time until violence is monopolized by the Afghan government; however with a decrease in violence, other possibilities such as political favoritism, containment, and divide and rule can be used to reduce violence there. [22] To conclude: more stability will come about through better international relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan and India.


[1] Nuno P. Monteiro, “Unrest Assured: Why Unipolarity is not Peaceful,” International Security Vol.36 No. 3 (Winter 2011-2012): 9.

[2] Peter R. Lavoy, “The Strategic Consequences of Nuclear Proliferation,” Security Studies Vol.4 No.4 (Summer 1995): 697.

[3] Thomas J. Christensen, “Fostering Stability or Creating a Monster,” International Security  Vol. 31 No. 1 (Summer 2006): 90.

[4] Kapur, Paul S., “Ten Years of Instability in a Nuclear South Asia,” International Security Vol.33 No.2(Fall 2008): 72.

[5] Kapur, 72.

[6] Kapur, 72.

[7] Kapur, 83.

[8] Kapur, 90.

[9] Kapur, 89.

[10] Kapur, 90.

[11] Michael E. Brown, “The Causes of Internal Conflict,” from Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: A Revised Edition (September 2001): 6.

[12] Brown, 6.

[13] Stathis N. Kalyvas, “The Logic of Violence in Civil War,” Cambridge Press, New York (2006): 88, 89.

[14] Kalyvas, 89.

[15] Kalyvas, 89.

[16] Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War,” Foreign Affairs Vol.90 No.4 (July/August 2011): 15.

[17] Bergen, 15.

[18] Ahmad Rashid, “Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,” Viking, New York (2012): 48-51.

[19] Rashid, 48-51.

[20] Jack A. Goldstone, “The New Population Bomb,” Foreign Affairs Vol.89 No.1 (January/February 2010): 34.

[21] Henrik Urdal, “A Clash of Generations? Youth Bulges and Political Violence,” International Studies Quarterly 50 (2006): 608.

[22] Paul Stainland, “The Future of Violence in Afghanistan,” The National Interest (July 18, 2012): 1.


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Written by Akhipill

May 5, 2013 at 10:07 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , , ,

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