IN WASHINGTON last week, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf urged the American government to try to help resolve his country's dispute with India over Kashmir. There is good reason for the United States to do so.
Musharraf has been a crucial ally in the war against al-Qaida in Afghanistan and a key figure in fighting dangerous religious extremism in his own country. So it's in America's interest to strengthen his position at home. Moreover, Kashmir is one of the world's most dangerous flashpoints. India and Pakistan have already fought two wars over it and, because both countries now have nuclear weapons, a third could bring catastrophe. Americans are therefore destined to hear more about Kashmir in the months to come; but one thing they will certainly learn is how difficult it will be to resolve the conflict there.
The difficulty has its roots in the conflict's origins in the 1947 partition of British India into predominantly Hindu independent India and Muslim Pakistan. The British had ruled the Indian subcontinent with the cooperation of more than 500 princes, each of whom was offered the choice of merging his territory with either India or Pakistan.
The Maharajah of Kashmir, a scenic region of lakes and meadows, was a Hindu but the majority of his subjects were Muslims. At first he delayed a decision, hoping somehow to achieve independence. But when Muslim forces invaded his territory he decided to affiliate with India. The new Indian government dispatched troops to the province and when the war between the armies ended, the cease-fire line divided Kashmir into what has remained the de facto border.
Pakistan has continued to seek control of the Indian part of Kashmir and in 1965 fought an unsuccessful war to try to take it over. In the 1980s, partly as a result of Indian misrule, an armed insurrection began in Indian Kashmir, leading to armed skirmishes between Indian and Pakistani forces and Pakistani-encouraged terrorism against Indian targets both in Kashmir and in India, the latest episode being an attack on the Indian parliament on Dec. 13.
Periodic bilateral talks have failed to resolve the conflict because the Indian and Pakistani governments are deeply committed to irreconcilable positions, each of which is bound up with each country's national identity.
Pakistan was carved out of British India to provide a separate homeland for Muslims. A Muslim-majority Indian province on its border therefore strikes Pakistan as an affront. By implying that Muslims can find a home in India, it subverts Pakistan's reason for existing. Moreover, since independence Pakistan has remained economically backward and politically turbulent: In 1971 its eastern wing seceded to form the independent country of Bangladesh. The widely shared desire to incorporate all of Kashmir is almost the only source of Pakistani national unity.
But India is just as firmly united in favor of retaining the part of Kashmir that it governs, which demonstrates its credentials as a secular state, tolerant of all faiths. And while the vast majority of India's population of almost 1 billion is Hindu, the country does include 120 million Muslims outside Kashmir - India has more Muslims than Pakistan. Some in India fear that the loss of Indian Kashmir would generate hostility to these Muslims. So committed to the status quo in Kashmir have successive Indian governments been that they have resisted the involvement of any outside parties in the dispute, including the United Nations and United States.
To Americans the Kashmir dispute seems to resemble the more familiar Arab-Israeli conflict, which also began with the end of British rule and involves religious and territorial differences. But at least one side in that conflict has shown itself willing to compromise.
In 2000, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put forward a generous plan that would have established a Palestinian state on territories Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. By rejecting it, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, demonstrated that he was not seeking a Palestinian state alongside Israel, but rather a Palestinian state instead of Israel.
A closer parallel is the conflict between China and Taiwan. The two positions - Taiwan's commitment to independence, Beijing's insistence that the island is part of China - are incompatible. In one important way, however, the dispute about Taiwan is less dangerous than the Kashmir conflict: The island and the mainland are separated by 100 miles of water, making Chinese military operations to seize Taiwan difficult.
Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, by contrast, are separated only by a land border, which makes fighting all too easy - which is why Americans will almost certainly hear more about this issue.
Michael Mandelbaum is a professor of American foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations