August 2, 2000
Within the last week or so hope for peace in Kashmir, a region fiercely contested among India, Pakistan and Kashmiri separatists for decades has been raised by a couple of events few observers had expected. Abdul Majid Dar, commander of the militant Hizbul Muhajideen, generally viewed as being sponsored by the Pakistani government, announced a unilateral cease-fire and its willingness to enter into negotiations with Indian authorities on July 24. Four days later the top Indian army general in Kashmir, Maj. Gen. Basant Singh, announced that he would reciprocate and suspend operations against the militants for three months.
This comes on the heels of the Indian government having expressed, in the last couple of months, a preliminary willingness to talk with the local government in Kashmir about the possibility of at least some measure of autonomy for the region. The provincial legislature adopted a resolution June 26 that would restrict the Indian government’s authority in the region to defense, foreign affairs and communications and that the Indian Supreme Court and federal service would no longer be necessary. The Indian government didn’t accede to the proposal but said it was willing to negotiate.
All these developments have led the international intelligence Web site Stratfor.com to suggest the possibility that "it appears that India and Pakistan are edging toward negotiation over Kashmir probably with help from Washington."
Don’t start celebrating just yet, warns my friend Muazzam Gill. Born in Pakistan and now a U.S. citizen who heads the Center for Economic and Religious Freedom, Dr. Gill was highly placed in the Pakistani government before he emigrated in 1980. "When you’re talking about India and Pakistan," he cautions, "peace is simply a time between wars. Of course one must be hopeful, but I don’t see much evidence that anything fundamental has changed yet."
With both India and Pakistan having tested nuclear weapons, Dr. Gill believes, the Kashmiri conflict has more than regional implications. While President Clinton might want a resolution in the Indo-Pakistani conflict as a legacy, all parties are aware that he is a lame duck who can’t make long-term promises or commitments.
The parties in the region, he says, might agree to a short-term cease-fire to throw a fig to Uncle Sam, he says, or for their own reasons. ("Remember, these are the Himalayas and a cease-fire in August could be a good way to dig in for the winter.") But Gill is skeptical that real peace is about to break out any time soon.
Before the independence of India from Great Britain in 1947 and the almost immediate breakaway of Muslim-dominated Pakistan and the bloody war that followed, Jammu and Kashmir were more or less self-governed regions under only loose British control. The area is mostly Muslim but the political leadership was Hindi. The hereditary Maharajah of Kashmir agreed to Indian domination in return for Indian support against a Pakistani-aided Muslim rebellion.
Since 1947 India and Pakistan have fought three major wars and have engaged in dozens of smaller conflicts, often enough over Kashmir. The current conflict has been active (at varying levels of overt violence) since the Hizbul Mujahideen was founded 11 years ago by Pakistan’s intelligence service. Both Pakistan and India still covet the region, and in recent years a fairly vigorous movement for outright Kashmiri independence from both countries has emerged, with exiles in Great Britain and the United States active in the movement and, according to Muazzam Gill, some pan-Islamic overtones.
The border between India and Pakistan cuts the traditional Kashmiri region more or less down the middle. The Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest guerrilla army in the region, wants Kashmir to become part of Pakistan. Other militant groups support Kashmiri independence and were said to be dismayed at Abdul Majid Dar’s unilateral declaration of a cease-fire. As Muazzam Gill puts it, "to an outsider it might look simple, but don’t be fooled. There are wheels within wheels among all factions. It rivals the Middle East in complexity and in the emotional depth of hostility on all sides."
Stratfor.com says that the developments suggest that "India and Pakistan are taking diplomatic baby steps toward each other, which may bring the two sides together by fall. Indian diplomats in Pakistan are hinting about the possibility of official negotiations as soon as October, according to The Dawn, a Pakistani daily.
"The conflict is more than 50 years old and will not be solved easily. Nevertheless, these are some of the most positive signs to come out of the region in years. The status of Kashmir is a delicate subject for all parties, and the ongoing conflict has been a major drain on the resources and military readiness of both sides…" So perhaps—just perhaps—there is reason to entertain the possibility that India and Pakistan are seeking something resembling a resolution.
On the other hand, even though India and Pakistan have not overtly escalated hostilities or tested nukes again since their mutual nuclear shots across respective bows a couple of years ago, the tensions still run deep and military preparation continue. The Pakistanis in June opened a second major naval base in Ormara, in the western part of the country, far from the Indian border.
During heightened tension over Kashmir last year, the Indian navy had bottled up the Pakistani fleet at the other naval base at Karachi, less than 120 miles from the Indian border, which also had a deleterious impact on commerce.
Having a second major base is said to be a way to make it more difficult for India to do a formal or informal blockade in a future conflict. China is helping Pakistan beef up its navy, while India seems to be courting closer relations with Russia. While China and Russia have been making brave noises about a new alliance vis-à-vis NATO and the West, their interests in Central Asia do not always coincide. China and Pakistan seem to be working together to help end the Afghan civil war, but Russia would like to be the main player there.
The situation is fluid, but in general Russia would seem more interested in ousting the Taliban regime (which it claims has been allowing Chechen rebels to be trained in Afghanistan) but in instability until that happens. Instability keeps its former Central Asian satrapies dependent on Russia for military support. China, meanwhile, sees the possibility of economic links among Central Asia, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Just to complicate matters, the United States has agreed to start training Pakistani military personnel in what U.S. officials describe as counter-narcotics tactics and missions. Pakistan is a major drug-smuggling route, but most of the smuggling is by land or by air, not by sea. Stratfor.com thinks the real reason is to re-establish military ties with Pakistan. Pakistan got hundreds of millions in U.S. military aid during the Cold War, but that aid slowed to very little in the 1990s. A modest training program was canceled in October 1999 when Gen. Pervez Musharraf ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup. The United States seems to want to get its hand back into the "Great Game" in South Asia.
The best hope for an eventual if unfortunately unlikely resolution might be for the United States to temper its eagerness either to re-establish a military presence in the region or to create a legacy for the outgoing Groper-in-Chief. The conflict is probably more of a drain on Pakistan than it is on India, but Gen. Musharraf, for domestic political reasons, might not have an interest in resolving it too quickly. The cease-fire declaration might suggest otherwise, of course, but longer-range considerations suggest caution.
The existence of a movement for Kashmiri autonomy complicates the matter considerably. It is almost impossible to judge just how powerful this movement is just now, but the willingness of the provincial legislature to endorse some form of autonomy suggests considerable political support although it may be a maneuver to get a seat at the negotiating table as tensions cool.
Complicating matters even more, according to Muazzam Gill, is the fact that Iran wants to sell natural gas to India but would need a pipeline through Pakistan to do so. Before a pipeline can be built, however, a stable civilian government would almost have to be in place. Gen. Musharraf might sincerely want to reduce tensions (and there could be an economic payoff for Pakistan), but he doesn’t seem eager to relinquish power.
It is difficult to see how the United States can play an especially constructive role in this long-standing dispute. Better to offer open trade relations with all concerned but to keep out of the complex and sticky political and military conundrums.
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