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Kashmir peace key to fixing Afghanistan

ALTHOUGH the war in Afghanistan has come to prominence over the past decade, the neighbouring conflict in Kashmir has almost totally dropped off the radar. Despite the omission, Kashmir has more to do with the battle against the Taliban than most would suspect.

According to one report, failed New York bomber Faisal Shahzad was trained by Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Pakistan-based militant group blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, to fight in Kashmir before deciding to target the US instead. The veracity of that claim is unknown. But it is clear that events in Afghanistan and Pakistan are inextricably linked to Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Many of the young men fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan cut their teeth against Indian forces in Kashmir. Before the September 11 attacks, several groups fighting in Kashmir trained their cadres in Afghanistan. Like so many of these militants, al-Qa’ida’s chief military commander in North Waziristan, Mohammad Ilyas, is a Kashmiri who learned his trade against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Pakistan’s leaders, particularly its military establishment, have from the founding of the nation in 1947 used the Kashmir issue to rally popular support and justify a bloated budget that starves the economy of resources necessary to alleviate poverty. Even when Pakistan has been richly patronised by the US first as a bulwark against communism and latterly Islamist militancy, much of the largesse has instead been put towards deterring India.

Many in Pakistan view Kashmir as a rightful part of the nation owing to its majority-Muslim population. That has created significant popular support for militant outfits such as Lashkar-e-Toiba, especially in the Punjab, which shares geographic and cultural ties with Kashmir. Punjab is the political and cultural heartland of Pakistan, and most of its soldiers are recruited from there. This makes it politically difficult for Pakistan’s leaders to crack down on Punjab-based militants in the same fashion as those from the Pashtun tribal areas.

In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, however, it is safe to say the strategy of supporting asymmetrical warfare in Kashmir has finally backfired for Pakistan. Atrocities committed by Pakistan-based militants have obscured Indian abuses in Kashmir including a brutal crackdown of pro-independence rallies last year, extra-judicial detention of activists and widespread allegations of torture and intimidation.

But the militancy merely represents one aspect of a long-running feud between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. Both countries have traded barbs over their alleged support for separatists in each other’s territory. India says Pakistan is not doing enough to curtail jihadists who target Indian interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan, where Indians have been attacked. Some Indian analysts claim Pakistan is also supporting a Maoist insurgency in India’s rural heartland. Pakistan has retorted with vocal claims of an Indian hand in the recent spate of bombings that have rocked major cities and support for ethnic separatists in the restive and strategically pivotal Balochistan province. .

Along with this clandestine war, access to water will probably be an impediment to improved Indo-Pak relations. India routinely restricts Pakistan’s access to water as several key rivers flow from Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir.

Both countries are also vying for US patronage. Pakistan recently implored Washington to normalise ties over the country’s nuclear power program, citing the double standard under which India is recognised as a nuclear power despite its earlier breaches of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. India complains that US strategy in Afghanistan is far too reliant on Pakistan, effectively sidelining India’s successful trade and development programs in that troubled Central Asian country. It also notes that Pakistan has a history of misappropriating US military aid to fight India instead.

As high-level diplomacy restarts this year — it ended after the Mumbai attacks — there is hope that the subcontinent’s two largest nations may just be back on the long road to normalised relations. But the perennial obstacle is knowing who speaks for Pakistan.

With its overriding influence over the state, the army overrules Pakistan’s elected government on matters of security, including policy towards India. As a result, even if relations continue to improve, it’s difficult for Indian officials to know precisely how solid the promises are. “Dialogue must remain spearheaded by the elected governments of both nations,” says Pakistani journalist Kamran Shafi. But, he adds, it would also help Pakistan’s civilian leaders if India were to continue to “draw down its [troop levels] in Kashmir” and continue dialogue.

Despite both India and Pakistan reducing troop levels in Kashmir this year, India remains sensitive to foreign interventions over Kashmir, something US President Barack Obama learned himself when, owing to Indian pressure, he back-pedaled on an election campaign offer of a US-brokered resolution. Without pressure on India to accept third-party negotiations, the Kashmir dispute will continue to simmer.

The world can ill afford two nuclear armed nations destabilising each other. It would be myopic to limit our efforts at stabilising the region merely to the war in Afghanistan. Without pressure on India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir dispute, and end their atrocities in the region, our efforts in Afghanistan will count for very little.

Mustafa Qadri is a journalist based in Pakistan

  1. neel123
    May 26, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    63 years and four failed wars later, Pakistani Army needs to come out of its state of denial. Using terrorists in a proxy war has only hardened India’s position.

    Kashmir is not negotiable ……India is in no rush to buy peace with Pakistan….!

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