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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Imran Khan has a real opportunity to end India-Pakistan conflict

Success, following his party's election win, will depend on how a powerful military establishment responds

Indian security officers stand guard during a surprise search operation at a busy market in central Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Friday, July 27, 2018. Dar Yasin / AP
Indian security officers stand guard during a surprise search operation at a busy market in central Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Friday, July 27, 2018. Dar Yasin / AP

It is said that even a limited nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan would usher in a decades-long global “nuclear winter”. Their bombs would destroy up to 50 per cent of the ozone layer, leaving half the globe defenceless against solar radiation, while surface temperatures would fall to 1,000 year lows. The result, experts argued in 2014, would be a global famine capable of killing 2 billion people.

India and Pakistan have been in conflict since 1947, when partition separated them along religious lines. But it is a status quo that Pakistan’s next prime minister, Imran Khan, is seeking to overturn. Despite lacking enough seats to rule without a coalition, Mr Khan’s PTI party won four million more votes than its nearest rival, the PML-N. And Mr Khan’s victory address, in which he expressed his intention to address the “core issue” of disputed Kashmir and improve economic ties, has received widespread praise.

Mehbooba Mufti, the former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir herself welcomed Mr Khan’s remarks and asked India to respond in kind.

Mr Khan’s acknowledgement that Pakistan’s considerable potential cannot be reached without harmony with neighbours is a sound one, because peace and prosperity are inextricably linked.

Despite entering politics two decades ago, Mr Khan has managed to sell a vision of change. And in the face of a string of deadly terror attacks, a vast military presence on the streets and the blistering summer heat, more than 50 million Pakistanis turned out to cast their vote.

Mr Khan will be well aware that cross-border trade with India would ease the economic pressures on many Pakistanis – and help him fulfil his weighty economic promises. Meanwhile, insiders suggest the man who led Pakistan’s cricket team to World Cup glory fancies the idea of making history by ending decades of hostility.

One major obstacle stands in his way. Over decades, intense paranoia towards India has gnawed at Pakistan’s powerful military establishment. Having ruled the country periodically since independence, the army understands well the impetus of new prime ministers to make overtures towards New Delhi.

Analysts suggest Mr Khan could face a baptism of fire should he try to weaken the military’s grip on foreign policy, security and defence.

As a result, whether Mr Khan can break new ground on a prolonged conflict will depend on the strength of his popular mandate.

It is hard to overstate the significance of an India-Pakistan peace for its neighbourhood and the wider region. Although he might be hamstrung by a powerful military, Mr Khan’s clear intention to reset ties with India is welcome.

The two nations fought three serious wars after 1947. But both have since acquired considerable nuclear arsenals. Suffice to say a fourth could be utterly catastrophic.