The fortieth anniversary of a significant clash of arms in the subcontinent is an appropriate juncture for reflection on regional security. Four decades on, it is clear that the security dilemma of the two protagonist states, India and Pakistan, remains in place—but this time around under a nuclear overhang. The additional factor is a superpower at war to the region’s north-west. In effect, the region is no more secure now, despite, or perhaps because of, the nuclear shadow.

The states expectantly await outcome of the endgame of Obama’s ‘AfPak’ strategy. The strategy requires taming of the Taliban, even as the ANSF are trained to levels to enable them to autonomously take on the Taliban. A possible outcome can be anticipated: continuing insurgency and its counter in Afghanistan.

Portents therefore are for Afghanistan ending up as a site for the region’s longstanding cold war. Equally easily, it can be predicted that the sparring will spread and engulf Kashmir, after having appreciably receded there over the past half decade. The region would thus be poised for the proverbial spark.

The Indian prime minister has acknowledged as much. On his way back from Male he said that, while the second round of dialogue is set to start, he could not predict its outcome since, in his words, “Indo-Pak relations are subject to accidents”. The spark could result in “a big setback”, a scenario best avoided.

Clearly, leaving the region’s destiny in the hands of their mutual friend and “strategic partner” is not enough. The U.S. has its own agenda; that of ending any possibility of Afghanistan serving as base for terror directed against it. This has substantially been fulfilled, and it is rightly seeking a face-saving way out. As seen, it has a plan that, firstly, may not work; secondly, can at best leave instability behind; and worse, is subject to modification in case it, under economic and electoral compulsions, decides, in the manner of the early nineties, to depart precipitately.

Therefore, there is a case for the regional powers, India and Pakistan, to step forward. There are three strategy choices they have: firstly, the two states could first engage with each other in mitigating their threat perceptions and then address the problem at hand in Afghanistan; secondly, they could turn the problem in Afghanistan into an opportunity for cooperation that will help alleviate their mutual hostility; or, thirdly, they can simultaneously engage over their mutual suspicion and in conflict resolution, the two prongs mutually reinforcing each other.

The threat perceptions they have are rooted in the strategic posture towards each other. At the subconventional level, India believes that it has been target of Pakistan’s proxy war for a quarter century. At the conventional level, Pakistan apprehends a threat from India’s military power, one that it has unmistakably witnessed forty years ago. At the nuclear level, both states are offensive. While Pakistan does not subscribe to the “No First Use” tenet, India intends to go “massive”, or at least to inflict “unacceptable damage” in nuclear retaliation.

The answer seems quite simple. Both states must simultaneously step back from an offensive posture at respective level at which the other perceives it as such. Pakistan must end proxy war, while India defuses its advantage in conventional military power. At the nuclear level, Pakistan must agree to NFU and India must move away from any intention to “finish” Pakistan.

The difficulty is in Pakistan’s army thinking it needs to offset India’s military advantage by tying down India’s power in countering insurgency and India believing it needs its military advantage to dissuade Pakistan. At the nuclear level, Pakistan wants to deter India exercising this advantage and India wants to keep Pakistan from doing so.

Resolution is held up by the “chicken or egg” question: whether Pakistan rolls back “terror infrastructure” first and India ceases to pose a “threat”, or vice versa. Till this question is disposed off, the nuclear level remains consequential, as is, forbiddingly, the proverbial spark.

Clearly, a strategic dialogue is the answer. The two states have a strategic dialogue with their respective strategic partner, the US. It is curious that they don’t have such a dialogue with their adversary with whom dialogue is more significant. Instead, they have had six rounds of “talks”, so far since the process started in 2004 reaching nowhere, as against a strategic meeting of minds in a meaningful dialogue.

This impasse can only be broken by a strategic dialogue either preceding the next round of talks or proceeding apace along side. On this track, the strategic elites need to discuss the “chicken or egg” conundrum. While the “big setback” from an “accident” might yet derail the second round of talks, this track must be immune from buffeting by terror.

How should it be sequenced with the regional try at conflict resolution in Afghanistan? An India-Pakistan dialogue prior would help in building trust necessary for a cooperative solution. But such a dialogue is at all possible only after the experience of working together makes it plausible. Shades of “chicken or egg”?

The short answer is to keep the dialogue going alongside interaction in and over Afghanistan. The problems on ground can be unraveled in the high level dialogue and the progress on the table can facilitate cooperation on ground. It’s equally possible in light of the trust deficit that problems on the table can hold up things on ground; but then that is the state of the current status quo in any case.

A try is warranted. It’s the only way the golden jubilee of the military tryst of forty years ago, can possibly see a secure South Asia.