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U.S. and Kashmir: Left Out in the Cold

Can U.S. help end South Asia’s most complex conflict?

March 5, 2002

Can U.S. help end South Asia's most complex conflict?

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, proponents of battling terrorism militarily have held sway. And there is wide agreement that immediate threats such as al Qaeda must be eliminated.

But other voices argue that terrorism’s sources are vastly complex — and require considerable finesse in their handling.

The protracted dispute in Kashmir is just such a situation. Ethnicity, religion, nationalism, state repression, systematic human rights violations and terrorism are all important ingredients of this hot South Asia curry.

India and Pakistan’s battle over the province — which has been claimed by both countries since their 1947 independence from Great Britain — has many similarities to other global conflicts.

Religion’s role in the Kashmir, for instance, has echoes of the Middle East conflict, or the continuing standoff in Cyprus. There are also refugee issues that give the conflict a kinship with other global hot spots.

Two factors, however, bring a greater focus to the Kashmir in recent times. The first is geography. The war in Afghanistan has made Central Asia the world’s new fault line in the war against terror.

Yet, terror is in the eye of the beholder. India, which controls much of the province, sees the conflict as a battle against terrorism. Pakistan views it as a war of liberation.

The vast military implications involved are another crucial factor. Both India and Pakistan are fledgling nuclear powers. This fact makes the implications of new war over Kashmir very sinister — and a resolution all the more crucial.

A number of elements mitigate against resolving the Kashmir dispute. Foremost among them, perhaps, is the lack of an effective role for the world’s only superpower — the United States — in solving it.

In the Middle East, for instance, all of the parties involved recognize the centrality of the United States to any peaceful outcome. In Kashmir, the sense of the United States as a necessary broker is not quite the same.

Pakistan and Kashmiri “liberation movements” seek to internationalize the dispute — thus inviting third party arbitration from other Muslim nations, the United States or the UN.

By contrast, India opposes any third party involvement in the Kashmir dispute. It maintains that the dispute is a bilateral issue between itself and Pakistan. It is a stance that makes a U.S. role difficult to ascertain.

Would India accept a larger U.S. involvement in Kashmir? At present, its use of force wants to echo President George W. Bush’s rhetoric on terrorism — and legitimize its use of force in Kashmir. It wants approval from the United States, and not pressure to negotiate.

Relations between the United States and both countries involved in the Kashmir dispute were chilled by India and Pakistan’s tests of nuclear weapons in May 1998.

The price paid by both nations for entering the nuclear club was U.S. sanctions — imposed by the administration of then-President Bill Clinton.

The attacks on September 11 changed the dynamic. The security needs of the United States meant an end to sanctions. Yet while India and Pakistan both now that they are important to the United States, neither country may yet fully trust a U.S. role as a broker of peace.

Also, highly sophisticated Indian and Pakistani lobbies are interested in encouraging a partisan role for the United States. The Silicon Valley success of Indian-American software millionaires has translated into significant campaign contributions — and political clout. For instance, a pro-India caucus in the U.S. Congress now numbers 50 members.

Pakistani Americans also have developed similar political power. In 1996, Pakistan-American contributions helped defeat North Dakota Senator Larry Pressler — who took a very pro-India stance. Such influences will also impede the United States from acting as an honest broker.

The players in the Middle East possess two important assets for peacemaking. The first is the existence of a principle to serve as a foundation for peace — the notion of swapping land for security.

The second is the presence of an institutional framework. They may be bent and broken, but peace agreements have been signed between Israel and some of its neighbors.

At present, no such tangible assets exist to further peace in South Asia. Effective peacemaking will first necessitate the development of tools and frameworks.

Two potential peace making principles do exist — but there is conflict hidden within both of them. The first is a UN resolution from 1947 demanding a plebiscite in Kashmir. That resolution is accepted by Pakistan — and rejected by India.

The Simla accords of 1971 ended one bitter battle between the two nations over Kashmir. That agreement urged that conflicts be solved in a bilateral fashion — rather than in international forums. India sees this agreement as binding — and Pakistan disagrees.

Both India and Pakistan are developing democracies. This fact adds yet another complex layer.

Pakistan is currently undergoing an undemocratic stage. But its well developed infrastructure and media maintain a modicum of democracy. They are also an avenue of influence for Islamic militants.

Similarly, Indian politics have a strong nationalistic streak that makes foreign policy difficult. Thus, peace negotiations become a delicate game played on two levels — domestic and international. Islamic militants in Pakistan and Hindi nationalists will remain a significant challenge to peace making.

A further complication is the marginal voice given to Kashmiris themselves. India and Pakistan often pretend that Kashmiris have no say in the dispute, but any final status negotiations will have to incorporate Kashmiri concerns.

Unfortunately, Kashmiris do not speak with a single voice. The displaced Hindu minority, the Pundits, would like to return to their homes in Jammu. But the Pundits have no desire to either become independent or to join Pakistan. Muslims in the province espouse a range of views — including pro-India, pro-Pakistan and pro-independence factions.

Before they reach the negotiating table to claim a role in the process, Kashmiris must reach an internal consensus first.

If the United States sees a resolution to the Kashmir dispute as part of an overall strategy to combat terrorism, its challenge in doing so is quite daunting.

The United States will have to quickly develop a relationship of trust with two countries at odds with each other. It must build an infrastructure for peace. It must convince both India and Pakistan to allow an open dialogue within Kashmir itself.

In an atmosphere of violence, such tasks are difficult. Yet the long nuclear shadow posed by both nations, and the centrality of Pakistan and India to waging effective war on terror, make it absolutely essential.