U.S. Should Pay Greater Attention to Pakistani-Indian Rift Over Kashmir

Howard B. Schaffer, a former top State Department official on South Asia, says Washington should seek to prevent tensions in Kashmir from complicating U.S. security interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

September 10, 2008

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Howard B. Schaffer, a former top State Department official on South Asia, says Washington should seek to prevent tensions in Kashmir from complicating U.S. security interests in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Schaffer says U.S. officials need to ensure that American interests in the area are not set back by a worsening of the situation, "particularly in carrying on the battle against Islamic extremism in Pakistan and Afghanistan." He adds: "That is really a major basis for … concern right now, rather than the rights and wrongs of the Kashmir issue."

One of the oldest of the world’s unresolved questions deals with Kashmir, and this goes back to 1947 when both Pakistan and India got their independence from Britain. Why has the Kashmir question not been resolved?

It goes to the basic issue of the national identity of the two claimants, India and Pakistan. Kashmir, before the breakup of India into Pakistan and India was a "princely state of Kashmir and Jammu." Since 1947 it is the only Muslim majority area in India. India has a strong claim on it, because the Hindu maharajah, Hari Singh, opted after two months to accede to India and not to Pakistan despite the religious composition of his population. The Indian Independence Act of 1947 gave each separate region the right to join either Pakistan or India.

The Pakistanis say the partition of India was to have been based on the division between Muslim majority areas and non-Muslim majority areas. Although Kashmir was not officially part of British India, it has a Muslim population and it should be part of Pakistan. As a result the Pakistanis call Kashmir "the unfinished business of partition." Now the Indians, for their part, claim that their country is a secular state, and the idea of losing Kashmir because it is Muslim would in their view undercut its secular claims and confirm what has always been unacceptable to India, that is, the claim that was the basis for Pakistan—Hindus and Muslims are two nations and should have their own two states. There is also concern now on India’s part that what they call a second partition, the loss of Kashmir, whether to independence or to Pakistan, would trigger massive anti-Muslim demonstrations and slaughter within India. The more you say that, the more likely it’s going to happen.

Crisis Guide: PakistanDoes the Kashmir question arouse great visceral interest inside India?

It does, especially in northern India. It would be more than risky for any Indian government to take steps which would lead to the loss of Kashmir. I’ve always said that an Indian government that proposed that would be writing its own death warrant. There are surely Indians who feel that Kashmir is an unnecessary burden, but, for reasons I just mentioned, there is a very strong feeling in India that it must be retained, even though Indians have to recognize that the population there is unhappy with its connection with India. There’s also the Pakistan connection, because losing Kashmir would mean a triumph for India’s age-old enemy of Pakistan, whether or not the territory goes directly to Pakistan or whether it becomes an independent entity.

I didn’t know there was still talk about an independent faction.

Oh, there very much is—these shouts, these cries of "azaadi," which means freedom. "Azaad" means free, "azaadi" is independence. And my feeling for years has been that if a plebiscite were held in the valley of Kashmir, which is predominatly Muslim, and where there is a strong sense of alienation and separation from India, if a three-option plebiscite or referendum were held, then independence would win.

Talk about the various efforts at resolving this.

The first efforts were made at the United Nations. Resolutions were passed, calling for a referendum and for the withdrawal of most forces in advance of the referendum. But that referendum was never held, largely because the Indians didn’t want it held. As time passed after the original accession of Kashmir, it became quite evident to the Indians and everyone else that the population was becoming alienated from India, and they could not count on winning in any plebiscite. The interesting thing is that it was India that brought the Kashmir issue to the United Nations to begin with, a diplomatic step which they very much rue. The Pakistanis consider that those resolutions passed in 1948 and 1949 are still applicable. The United States, for its part, dodges that question and suggests that whether they’re still legally binding is not really the issue. The United States says they’ve been overtaken by events; we’ve got to look for other ways of dealing with the issue.

You and your wife, who’s also an expert on South Asia, wrote in the Washington Times that the United States, even though we’re in a lame-duck period now, ought to get energized on this subject. What can the United States do, realistically?

We mentioned a number of reasons why this was a danger to U.S. interests, and what we argued was the danger is based on our broader interests in South Asia, and particularly in carrying on the battle against Islamic extremism in  Pakistan and Afghanistan. That is really a major basis for our concern right now, rather than the rights and wrongs of the Kashmir issue. We ought to be urging on the Pakistanis that they not fish in these troubled waters, as they will surely be inclined to do, and to be pointing out the stakes involved, stakes which will include the relationship between us and Pakistan. And on the Indian side we need to urge restraint and that restraint should include not blaming the Pakistanis for problems of their own making. What we can do later is somewhat broader. Another thing we can do right now in preparation for what we might be able to do later is to encourage a continuation of the back-channel communications between India and Pakistan, which have been going on for maybe four years. I understand that the new Pakistani government, the post-Musharraf government, is carrying them on, and they’ve made considerable progress. We should urge that these talks keep on going, although we’ve got to recognize that given a very weak government in Pakistan and also a weak government on the Indian side you can’t expect any breakthrough.

The new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, said that he would have "good news" on Kashmir soon and that he intended to work with "all our neighbors" to tackle the problems faced by the region.

I can’t be sure what he means by good news, but perhaps he means further progress along the lines which the two sides had been following for the past few years. And one of the most important elements of their discussion has to do with the Line of Control [LOC] which divides Kashmir into Indian-held and Pakistan-held sectors. And both President Pervez Musharraf, when he was still in office, and the prime minister of India, Manmohan Singh, have indicated that they are prepared to accept the Line of Control as a permanent division within the state. Then there are a lot of other aspects which would go along with that, the most relevant of which is that Line of Control would be porous and people from both sides of Kashmir would be able to go back and forth easily. But the Pakistanis have been pushing the idea of self-government or autonomy for areas on both sides, but not independence. They suggest a phased withdrawal of troops, how and when and how much would be involved is not clear, and finally General Musharraf had said that he’d be willing to withdraw the dispute from the UN Security Council, where it’s been for sixty years, if the talks showed tangible progress. These points will be the basis for an eventual breakthrough, and I hope that indeed the Pakistanis do have good news to announce, although I’d be surprised.

Now, politically in the United States I haven’t heard either Barack Obama or John McCain say a word about this.

No, I doubt they would, unless there’s a very serious flare-up.

But whoever becomes the next president is going to have a whole list of problems to deal with in the foreign field. How high is this one?

I would say that, given the possibility that Kashmir could flare up again in a way that would endanger the other issues that the new president will be focusing on, we ought to pay it greater attention than we have in the past. Again, I’m not concerned about the equities of the situation. It’s regrettable that the Kashmiris, who in my view would rather be separate from India, cannot win this so-called azaadi, but that is true of a lot of people who are unhappy with the government or the country in which they find themselves part. My concern is the impact that Kashmir could have on India-Pakistan relations, and hence on what Pakistan could do in dealing with the issues which are vital to us and in which they play such a key role.

The Indian government, of course, has just gotten approval of this India-U.S. civil nuclear agreement, which faces opposition in the U.S. Congress. They’re having their elections in the spring, so is there much Prime Minister Singh can do?

There isn’t very much he can do. I mentioned his is a weak government; it has many problems, but then you get to a basic point, and that is that India is stronger as a status-quo country. It can live with the current situation as it has lived with the situation for getting on to sixty-one years. Unlike Pakistan, which is the revisionist country in this equation, it’s never been in a hurry to deal with the issue. When there is a lot of trouble in the area, they put the blame on the Pakistanis—sometimes with considerable justice, but usually exaggerated—and they claim this is not the time for any serious discussions. And when things are calm, they argue that, well, things are calm, and there’s no particular reason to roil the waters.