India and Pakistan have disputed the mountainous territory of Kashmir since the end of British colonialism led to independence and the partition of the two states in 1947. India controls about 55,000 square miles of the territory, Pakistan about 32,000 square miles. The province is divided by an unofficial border known as the Line of Control. The majority of Kashmir’s 10 million residents are Muslim. Clashes over Kashmir have caused two of the three wars between the two countries in the last half-century; fighting in the region has killed at least 65,000 people since 1989. William Milam, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (1998-2001) and Bangladesh (1990-93) and currently a senior policy scholar on South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars talks to cfr.org’s Esther Pan about the impact of the recent earthquake on India-Pakistan relations.
Please give an assessment of the October 8 earthquake’s potential impact on relations between India and Pakistan.
It could go either way. India rushed to offer aid and Pakistan accepted, which will make things a little easier. But I’m not certain it will have much impact at all [in the long run]. I hope it does, but it’s not clear to me that it will help move things along. The difficulties are deep, and there are still hesitations on both sides.
Was it unprecedented for Pakistan to accept relief aid and food from India?
I don’t know if it’s ever happened before. It hadn’t happened in my time.
Why was Pakistan willing to accept relief supplies but not helicopters or helicopter flights from India? Was that a military issue?
Pakistan has always been very suspicious of letting Indians fly over their territory. There was a period when airplanes weren’t allowed to fly out of Delhi or even Islamabad; foreign airlines weren’t allowed to fly over some parts of Pakistan. I remember the flights had to go further north to get to Western Europe.
One of the leaders of an Islamic Kashmiri resistance group, the Hezb-ul-Mujahadeen, which is based on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control, called a ceasefire October 11 in areas of Indian-controlled Kashmir affected by the earthquake. What impact will that decision have?
It’s a nice move. One of the major issues for the Indians is the continuance of cross-border terrorism [across the Line of Control]. They keep bringing it up in the meetings with the Pakistanis.
Has there ever been this kind of ceasefire called?
I’m not certain the Hezb-ul-Mujahadeen has ever called a ceasefire. There have been ceasefires along the Line of Control between the two armies, and still are, but in terms of the insurgencies, I haven’t heard of it.
Do you think this earthquake could play the same role as the recent tsunami in Indonesia—that is, bring the two sides closer together and potentially lead to an agreement?
Both sides have to really change their mindset about the other side and about the situation in Kashmir. But it seems as if the cooperation and goodwill on both sides during this crisis will help move that mindset forward. On both sides, I might add.
What about the timing? India and Pakistan have been making quite a few friendly steps lately and the rhetoric over the last six months or so seemed much more welcoming than at other points in the past.
On the Pakistani side there’s a definite will to move beyond where they were two years ago, and I think there’s been a good deal of forward movement. I don’t like to say anything that kills so many people is opportune in any way, but the peace process was progressing anyway, slowly. Whether [the earthquake] will speed it up or not is unclear to me. The tragedy itself is so devastating, that’s where the focus will lie for the next few weeks.
You mentioned political will on the Pakistani side. Do you think the same political will exists on the Indian side?
I’m not an expert on Indian affairs. I can only tell you I’ve heard a lot of my Pakistani sources and friends keep wishing there was quicker movement on the Indian side to acknowledge there needs to be some mutually-agreed solution in the future.
And what about steps like starting the bus service across the Line of Control?
Those are all helpful, but I think many of the Pakistanis are concerned—and I don’t speak for them, of course—that while India is very willing to being forthcoming on things like bus and train and communication links, it seems not to have moved in an intellectual way on the core issue, which is [the fate of] Kashmir.
Is a major issue allowing Kashmiris to vote for which country they would like to join, as called for by the 1948 UN Resolution 47?
Not at all. Pakistan has already moved beyond the position of the UN referendum. I don’t want to put too much meat on those bones, but many thinking Pakistanis worry the Indians are not moving quickly enough with regard to the mindset they need to be in to have a final resolution of this Kashmir problem. It will take many years, anyway. It’s a long, drawn-out process.
But you feel like the willingness is there on the Pakistani side?
Willingness to move into a process, yes. I’m not sure the Pakistanis have yet understood—and may not for a long time—that there will have to be some trades on both sides.