An estimated million Kashmiris marched through the streets of Srinagar, the disputed state’s summer capital, on Friday, Aug. 22, many waving the green flag of Islam and demanding freedom - azadi - from Indian rule. A harsh crackdown followed.
The United States has not paid much attention to Kashmir for the past few years, confident that an active India-Pakistan peace process would prevent any crises on that front. It no longer enjoys that luxury. If the current unrest leads to another India-Pakistan confrontation, the whole area from Afghanistan through India will be affected, with critical U.S. interests in play.
Like the mass upheavals in 1963-64 and 1989-90, this Kashmir crisis was triggered by a specific event. This time it was the state administration’s ill-conceived decision to make 100 acres of public land available to a Hindu religious organization to build facilities for pilgrims to a popular shrine in the state’s Himalayan range. The land transfer provided ammunition to Kashmir’s anti-Indian politicians, who made wild claims that it was part of a conspiracy to reduce the state’s Muslim majority to minority status. Amid growing unrest, the government rescinded the transfer. Nationalist leaders in predominantly Hindu parts of the state started violent demonstrations against the revocation. Scores have since been killed in Hindu-Muslim clashes and firings by police and military units on civilian protesters.
The problem could not come at a worse time. India-Pakistan relations have been rocked by the apparent role of Pakistan’s intelligence services, ISI, in last month’s bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The 4.5-year cease-fire along the Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistani forces in the state has been broken by hours-long artillery clashes. There are reports that infiltration across the line into Indian-held territory is increasing. The Pakistan government, which in recent years had reduced its support for insurgents against Indian rule in Kashmir, has expressed sympathy for the Muslim demonstrators and reiterated its call for settlement of the 60-year old dispute. This is the least it could do. But as in the past, there are surely elements in ISI and elsewhere in Pakistan who want to fish in troubled waters. Even if they do not, many in India will accuse the Pakistanis of aggravating the crisis.
A peaceful future depends on both governments’ success in cooling the situation. However, Pakistan is caught up in a deadly insurgency fueled by the Taliban’s local affiliate. Suicide bombings reached new heights last week with an attack on an army ordnance factory near Islamabad. The weak and fractured post-Musharraf government faces a host of severe economic and political problems. It does not need trouble with India when its Afghan border area is inflamed.
In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government faces elections early next year. It has just survived a crisis over its nuclear agreement with the United States. Its political troubles, including soaring food and fuel costs, will make it even more reluctant to make any bold moves on Kashmir.
After many failed interventions, the United States has in recent years shied away from trying to broker a Kashmir settlement. It has confined itself to crisis management, most recently in 2002 when it helped defuse a confrontation that threatened to trigger another India-Pakistan war.
Washington’s options and influence are limited. But the United States needs to convey to both Pakistan and India how much is riding on their ability to calm the crisis. The administration should make clear to the Pakistan government that meddling in Kashmir would be a dangerous course. Such an intervention would only heighten the country’s problems and undercut its efforts to deal with insurgents near the Afghan border.
The message should be that exacerbating the trouble in Kashmir will only make things worse between us. At the same time, it should urge the Indians to show restraint. This includes reining in their natural tendency to pin the blame on Pakistan for their own mistakes in dealing with the Kashmiris.
The governments in both Islamabad and Delhi are ill-placed to make major policy changes, but they urgently need to maintain their promising back-channel contacts. This channel gives both a chance to refine and expand their ideas for an eventual Kashmir settlement, which they can share with their publics when the two governments are able to move forward. If the situation further deteriorates, Washington should send to the area a senior official to help defuse the crisis, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage did so effectively five years ago.
Such efforts will burden a lame-duck administration overloaded with critical foreign policy issues. But Kashmir is again becoming very dangerous. Stabilizing Afghanistan, avoiding a potential nuclear face-off between Pakistan and India, and steadying the fragile democratic government in Pakistan are critical U.S. interests today, far more than in previous decades. They are all at risk if Kashmir sparks a new India-Pakistan crisis. The United States can ignore Kashmir only at its own peril.
Howard Schaffer is deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University, and has just completed a book on the U.S. role in Kashmir. Teresita Schaffer is director of the South Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Both are retired U.S. ambassadors with long experience in South Asia.
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