How the Kashmir Dispute Affects Security in South Asia

How the Kashmir Dispute Affects Security in South Asia

Five South Asia experts assess the importance of solving the Kashmir dispute in relation to U.S. security interests in the region and what policies the Obama administration should pursue.

July 13, 2009 3:38 pm (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.

U.S. President Barack Obama has defined the elimination of terrorist networks in Pakistan and Afghanistan as crucial to U.S. national security interests. Yet some analysts say the territory of Kashmir could pose a problem to the administration’s counterterrorism efforts in the region. Often called one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, Kashmir has been at the root of two large-scale wars and one limited conflict between India and Pakistan since the August 1947 partition. Tensions between the countries escalated in the 1990s with a rise in militancy in the Indian-administered region. India accuses Pakistan’s premier intelligence service, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), of supporting militant groups in Kashmir, a charge Pakistan denies.

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The two countries started a peace process in 2004 that explored options such as increasing trade and greater people-to-people contact across the disputed border but talks have been plagued by political crises in Pakistan and terrorist attacks in India. Analysts point out that the Kashmir dispute distracts Pakistan’s security forces from focusing on militants inside the country since a majority of Pakistan’s troops remain deployed on the eastern border with India. Five experts on South Asia--Daniel Markey, C. Raja Mohan, Hasan-Azkari Rizvi, Howard B. Schaffer, and M. Farooq Kathwari--discuss U.S. interests in Kashmir and propose policy options for the Obama administration to tackle this long-standing dispute.

Daniel S. Markey, Adjunct Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia

There is little doubt that normalized relations between India and Pakistan, including a regionally acceptable settlement on Kashmir, would offer tremendous benefits to the United States. Indo-Pak tensions are especially dangerous because they bring two nuclear states toe-to-toe; they distract Islamabad from the urgent task of combating terrorists and militants on its own soil; and they contribute to Pakistani suspicions about India’s activities in Afghanistan. Thus, the long-standing dispute over Kashmir is one part of a wider regional dynamic that has direct implications for Washington’s ability to support a stable Afghan state and to address the threat posed by terrorist groups in South Asia.

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Yet in spite of its central strategic importance, the United States is not well positioned to tackle the Kashmir issue. Washington should not seek to insert itself in the diplomacy between Islamabad and New Delhi or to press publicly for concessions from either side. These moves would backfire, since Indian and Pakistani leaders can ill-afford to appear to their domestic audiences as if they are caving to U.S. pressure over an issue as sensitive as Kashmir. Moreover, the recent history of back-channel dealings between Islamabad and New Delhi suggests that the basic contours of a Kashmir settlement are already well-known to both sides; no need for Washington to reinvent the wheel.

"[T]he long-standing dispute over Kashmir is one part of a wider regional dynamic that has direct implications for Washington’s ability to support a stable Afghan state and to address the threat posed by terrorist groups in South Asia."- Daniel Markey

That said, the White House is understandably eager to promote Indo-Pak rapprochement. This urge is all the more desperate because the United States has every reason to fear that Pakistan-based terrorists will attempt another Mumbai-style attack in the near future. In that event, the Indian government might feel compelled to launch reprisal attacks inside Pakistan, prompting an escalating spiral of uncertain duration and violence.

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Under these conditions, the Obama administration should seek to insulate the Indo-Pak rapprochement process by devoting greater attention to the specific group that masterminded last November’s Mumbai attack: Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The United States should press for more extensive Pakistani investigations, arrests, and military action against LeT and its associated organizations, and Washington should also lend support where possible. Given the group’s history of close ties to Pakistani military and intelligence and the extensive sympathy it enjoys within segments of the Pakistani public, undertaking a true crackdown on LeT may well prove a difficult and bloody affair. But without tackling this threat, prospects for progress in Kashmir, for regional stability, and for U.S. success in its counterterror and counterinsurgency missions will remain extremely dim.

C. Raja Mohan, Professor, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

From the Indian perspective, there is a short answer to the question on what the Obama administration should do about Kashmir as part of its Af-Pak strategy: nothing. There is also a longer answer to the question--nothing direct--that I would like to develop.

First, the empirical evidence. The many direct U.S. interventions in Kashmir over the last six decades were not only unsuccessful but also prevented the construction of sustainable ties with India. New Delhi saw Washington’s Kashmir interest as part of a broader tilt toward Pakistan that began in the early years of the Cold War.

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If Kashmir has been at the heart of India’s accumulated distrust of the United States, the Bush administration chose to ignore the issue as it tried to build a strategic partnership with India. Paradoxically, it was precisely during this period of American "neglect" that India and Pakistan made the biggest progress on resolving their conflict over Kashmir.

From 2003-2007, Delhi and Islamabad unveiled many confidence-building measures in Kashmir for the first time since the partition of the subcontinent. Above all, Indian and Pakistani leaders negotiated, through an official back channel, the framework of a political settlement on Kashmir. The talks, however, are stalled thanks to internal instability in Pakistan and the renewal of spectacular terror attacks on India like the kind we saw in Mumbai last November.

As it understood the costs to America’s blossoming ties with India, the Obama administration quickly stepped back from the initial impulse to reinject itself into Kashmir. The administration must nevertheless persist in building on Obama’s one important insight: The conflicts on the eastern and western borders of Pakistan are interconnected.

At the source of the trouble in Kashmir and Afghanistan has been the Pakistani army’s decades-old policy of nurturing extremist groups as strategic assets against New Delhi and Kabul. Under Obama, Washington has come to recognize that defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban involves getting the Pakistani army to end its deliberate support of violent extremism. This, in turn, is possible only if the United States can help Pakistan’s civilian leaders wrest control over national security policy from the army. If and when he makes progress on these two objectives, Obama will find it no problem at all to convince Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sign off on the Kashmir deal that he has already negotiated.

Hasan-Askari Rizvi, Independent political and defense analyst, Pakistan

Improvement of India-Pakistan relations and the resolution of the Kashmir conflict would strengthen Pakistan’s role in the ongoing U.S. efforts to eliminate extremism and terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan and stabilize those countries.

This is especially important because Pakistan’s civilian leadership and military top brass are now unanimous in viewing all Taliban groups and their allies as a threat to the stability of Pakistan and the region. The military operation in the Swat area [of Pakistan] has dislodged the Taliban and this area is now under the control of Pakistani civilian and military authorities. Pakistan has launched another military operation in South Waziristan and such operations will be launched in other parts of the tribal areas in the future.

Pakistan’s attention will be partly diverted from its tribal areas and northwestern border with Afghanistan to its eastern border with India if tension increases between India and Pakistan. This was the case after the Mumbai terrorist attack (in November 2008) when Indian leaders issued strident statements against Pakistan, moved their troops from peacetime locations up closer to the border, and toyed with the idea of strategic airstrikes in Pakistani territory.

Pakistan’s political right and Islamic elements take advantage of troubled India-Pakistan relations--especially the non-resolution of the Kashmir conflict--to argue that India, rather than the Taliban, is a threat to Pakistan. Further, the militant groups based in mainland Pakistan, known for their involvement in Indian-administered Kashmir, use the stalemate on Kashmir to mobilize popular support.

The Pakistan government finds it difficult to take a firm action against these militant groups when India-Pakistan relations are marked by high-level hostility and India is publicly demanding action against these groups. Improved India-Pakistan relations and resolution of major disputes, including Kashmir, will make these militant groups irrelevant and increase the Pakistani government’s ability to curb them.

The Obama administration is most suited to help ease tension between India and Pakistan and improve their bilateral relations because it has equally cordial relations with both countries. It needs to encourage India to revive the suspended "composite dialogue" comprising eight issue areas including Kashmir and terrorism.

Pakistan would like the United States to play a mediatory role on Kashmir. But, this is not possible because India is opposed to it. However, the Obama administration can help the two sides make the dialogue results oriented. If the less complicated issues--the Siachen Glacier, Sir Creek boundary, and the water issue--are resolved, this would produce enough goodwill to resolve the Kashmir conflict. The U.S. administration should be more assertive in working toward improved India-Pakistan relations.

Howard B. Schaffer, Deputy Director and Director of Studies, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University

The unsettled Kashmir dispute poses a potentially serious threat to the expanding interests the United States now has in South Asia. Any conflict between India and Pakistan sparked by the dispute could escalate into a catastrophic nuclear war. Pakistan’s critical role since September 11, 2001, in shaping the future of Afghanistan has given the issue a further major dimension. The traditional focus of the Pakistan armed forces on combating a perceived threat from India and the continuing patronage that Pakistani intelligence agencies provide to Islamic extremists in Kashmir make it more difficult, both politically and militarily, for Islamabad to help the United States and its coalition partners combat the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. These factors also heighten Pakistan’s own problems in contending with domestic extremists. Pakistani support for armed insurgents in Kashmir contributes significantly to tension with India and heightens Indian suspicion that Islamabad is responsible for perpetrating violence within India proper. And until a settlement is reached, there will be no dearth of "spoilers" eager for opportunities to inflame India-Pakistan relations.

"If Washington does find a propitious opportunity to play a more active role, the settlement it promotes should call for making the Line of Control a permanent border that is porous; autonomy for Kashmiris on both sides; and joint institutions on an all-Kashmir basis."- Howard Schaffer

Washington should look for opportunities to play a more active role in helping resolve the dispute while recognizing that this won’t be easy. These opportunities will arise only when there are strong governments in both countries willing and able to make the difficult concessions necessary for a settlement. And before the United States becomes more involved, India-Pakistan relations must improve from their present dismal state.

Any eventual U.S. diplomatic involvement should be unobtrusive and avoid fanfare. For instance, assigning a high-profile special envoy would be fatal to U.S. efforts. If Washington does find a propitious opportunity to play a more active role, the settlement it promotes should call for making the Line of Control a permanent border that is porous; autonomy for Kashmiris on both sides; and joint institutions on an all-Kashmir basis.

These elements were under discussion in back-channel India-Pakistan negotiations until the talks were suspended following the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Both sides state that they wish to resume the discussions on Kashmir and the broader composite bilateral dialogue. But New Delhi has served notice that it will be unwilling to do so until Pakistan has taken satisfactory action against the Mumbai [terrorist attack in November 2008] perpetrators. Washington has urged the Pakistanis to do so. Nothing is to be gained, at least at this point, in the U.S. calling on the two governments to hold substantive discussions.

M. Farooq Kathwari, Chairman, President and CEO, Ethan Allen Inc., Chairman, Kashmir Study Group

Conflict in South Asia poses serious economic and security threats to U.S. interests. The ongoing war in Afghanistan and the fighting in Pakistan are serious and dangerous realities. In order to achieve stability, regional cooperation and trust must be established, especially between India and Pakistan. Resolving the Kashmir conflict will go a long way in bringing peace to South Asia.

There is greater realization in India and Pakistan that they need to settle the Kashmir dispute for their wellbeing and that of the region. The conflict over the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir has been the chief source of tension between India and Pakistan, fueling three wars between the nations since 1947 and resulting in tremendous costs to the region--loss of life, impact on economic growth, large defense spending, and rise in extremism.

For Kashmir, the conflict has been a great tragedy and a disaster in all respects: a large death toll, human rights abuses, displacement of populations, a devastated economy, serious environmental damage, massive military buildup, and severe psychological distress.

The positive news is that in the last few years, through quiet, back-channel negotiations, the parties--India, Pakistan, and the peoples of the Kashmir region--have come close to a feasible solution. All sides now understand that their stated positions of the last sixty-two years are not realistic and that compromises have to be made.

In this regard, I was involved in forming the Kashmir Study Group in 1996 to help shape the debate toward a peaceful and honorable resolution to the conflict. The main features of the proposed solution, developed in consultation with the parties: the establishment of truly self-governing entities on both sides of the present Line of Control; guarantees of human and civil rights for the culturally diverse populations and minorities; and all parties committed to demilitarization and the renouncing of violence.

India and Pakistan need to engage in composite bilateral talks on all important issues. Recurrent tensions over Kashmir will undercut any initiative to bring stability to South Asia as well as perpetuate the risk of a nuclear war.

While the ultimate responsibility of negotiating a solution is with the involved parties, it is also the right time for the United States to pursue creative, persistent, and discreet high-level diplomacy to help move the peace process forward.


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