FOR most of its existence, Pakistan has struggled with establishing strong civilian governments. Repeated interruptions in the democratic process have made the military notorious for maintaining an outsized role in policymaking, especially when it comes to foreign relations, security and defence. India, on the other hand, has ostensibly made bigger strides in this regard and is routinely praised for its democracy. Conventional wisdom has held that the country's civilian governments control its military, not the other way around. But confidential US diplomatic cables obtained through WikiLeaks suggest that the extent of this independence has been overstated. As this paper reported yesterday, the Indian army has been a key impediment to resolving the deadlock with Pakistan over Siachen. American officials have reported in these documents over the years that while the Indian prime minister has wanted to show flexibility in negotiations, pressure from the army has not allowed him to do so. While the resistance of opposition politicians and hardliners within the Congress party is also reported, that is part and parcel of a functioning democracy. What was less expected was the extent to which army buy-in would be needed for India to move forward on Siachen.
But this glacier is an uninhabited area with no economic significance. The deadlock has only resulted in increased defence expenditure and climate-related deaths of both Indian and Pakistani troops. If the Siachen issue has resulted in this level of military interference, what hope can there be for Kashmir? Extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions in India-administered Kashmir are one manifestation of the hold that the Indian security forces have on the area. The use of excessive force during protests last summer has been well-documented. And if the confidential material on Siachen is any indication, the civilian government may well be unable to move forward on Kashmir in the face of pressure from the Indian defence establishment.
The implications are clear: despite justified criticism of the role of Pakistan's military in setting foreign policy, the reality is that the civilian governments on both sides have military pressure to stand up to. Both administrations also have a real desire for dispute resolution that is clearly being held back by this pressure. In these shared realities lies an opportunity: they should become a basis for establishing common ground between the two governments rather than roadblocks on the path to peace. They also indicate that both countries have work to do domestically to boost their democracies further, so that their relationship can be strengthened to more accurately reflect the true aspirations of their people.