Though India-Pakistan relations are going through a relatively calm phase, things can change quickly. We must therefore take advantage of the present atmosphere to lock in beneficial patterns of behavior.

One area where we believe that progress can be made is on the question of military confidence-building measures (CBMs). The idea behind CBMs is well-tested; military establishments agree to avoid actions which are threatening to the other side as a means to help avoid unintended conflicts. Of course, CBMs are not a panacea; if people want to have a conflict CBMs will not prevent it. But CBMs do provide a mechanism whereby states which want to avoid a conflict through accident or misperception can develop ways to help do so.

India and Pakistan have developed extensive CBMs over the years. Often, they have been developed in response to specific problems. There is nothing wrong with this. But we believe that it is time to develop a framework of such measures which can help to more systematically address some of the key issues the two sides face.

That is why we have been participating in a series of meetings involving senior, retired officers from both sides, which is reviewing existing CBMs and suggesting new ones. The process is being organized by the University of Ottawa and the Atlantic Council. We have met twice so far, in Dubai and Bangkok.

Over the course of our meetings, we agreed that most existing CBMs are sound and useful, but we noted a tendency for them to fall into disuse over time. Moreover, some existing CBMs have become dated because of new technologies and doctrines.

Thought must be given to ways in which these CBMs can be updated and we have made suggestions to the two governments.

Beyond the existing CBMs, however, there is a pressing need to re-conceptualize the way the two sides approach this topic. In particular, the ad hoc manner in which CBMs have been negotiated to address particular issues must give way to frameworks of CBMs.

The key issue is crisis stability. India and Pakistan have deployed weapons which dramatically reduce the time available for diplomacy in a crisis. Where sober second thought is essential, hair-trigger alerts brought about by lethal weapons close to the borders which can be launched quickly will become the norm in future crises.

Doctrines are evolving in ways which compress the time available for diplomacy and the all-pervasive media reality of South Asia could also push the two sides towards an early resort to force in a future crisis. This is a profoundly dangerous situation. It was therefore agreed at our Bangkok meeting that a useful area for CBMs is the elaboration of a framework for crisis management to provide the two sides with agreed steps that can be taken to prevent a crisis from spinning out of control. There was consensus that an interlocking network of CBMs should be developed which, in the event of a crisis, would:

  • Require a political commitment that the two sides’ diplomats and officials come together at the outset of the crisis for discussions on how to resolve it (all too often in South Asia, when a crisis erupts we respond by suspending diplomatic contacts when we should be doing exactly the reverse);
  • Require that in times of crisis both sides should take no military actions which could be construed as preparations for an offensive, and adhere to existing CBMs;
  • Discussions should begin on new CBMs relevant in these circumstances.

Beyond crisis management, it was agreed by consensus in Bangkok that a CBM should be agreed whereby both sides, including their respective military establishments, should regularly meet to discuss their respective concepts and doctrines with a view to elaborating measures to build confidence in the nuclear and conventional fields.

Also in Bangkok, we discussed intensively the disputes over the Siachen Glacier and the Sir Creek boundary. We will be further discussing these at our next meeting.

Finally, we discussed the question of terror and its impact on stability. Though terror is not a military issue per se, we do believe that intelligence-sharing is a key issue. Some suggested developing a list of terror groups which both sides wish to see stopped leading to the sharing of information on these groups and cooperation on investigations. Other suggestions included:

  • Revival of an effective Joint Anti-terror Mechanism at a higher level;
  • Hotlines between the interior ministries on terror issues;
  • An effort to revive the Saarc mandated Integrated Regional Database on terror;
  • Discussions between respective officials on national experiences on such matters as legal frameworks to deal with terror;
  • Greater maritime cooperation on terror at sea; and
  • Exchanges of views between the immigration, border services and customs authorities.

All of these steps will not end the difficult situation which exists between India and Pakistan. Much larger questions will have to be addressed for that. But these steps, if taken in a good spirit and diligently implemented, have the potential to help transform the atmosphere between the two countries and also to prevent future crises from spinning out of control. In our region, this would be a significant contribution indeed.

Gen Jehangir Karamat (retd) is the former chief of staff of the Pakistan Army and former ambassador of Pakistan to the United States. Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi (retd) is the former chief of staff of the Indian Air Force. This article was originally published in Dawn.