- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 25, 2004

The disputed region of Kashmir has been called the most dangerous place in the world. The majority-Muslim territory in the Himalayas is claimed by two nuclear-armed states, predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan, who have fought three wars since 1947. They nearly fought a fourth in 2002, after terrorists launched a brazen daylight attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. India blamed the deadly raid on Islamic militants backed by a violent, Pakistan-based Kashmiri separatist group. War was averted, barely, thanks to intense, discreet diplomacy by the United States.

An Indo-Pakistani battle over Kashmir could, experts believe, escalate into a nuclear clash, with devastating consequences for the region and the world. Even absent a war, the atmosphere of conflict and distrust between India and Pakistan over Kashmir fuels Islamic extremism. Militant Islamists in Pakistan use Kashmir as a political rallying point, creating fertile ground for terrorist recruiters. Osama bin Laden has cited violence against “our brothers in Kashmir” in his calls for Jihad.

The surge of Islamic radicalism in Pakistan, caused by Kashmir and other factors, worsens the greatest threat of all to U.S. national security — the possibility weapons of mass destruction might fall into the hands of terrorists. The threat of instability became frighteningly clear in December when Islamic extremists twice tried to assassinate Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf, who has been cracking down on al Qaeda and the Taliban. Those murder attempts raised press speculation about whether the United States should consider action to secure Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if the country plunges into chaos.

For all these reasons, the United States must actively encourage the rapprochement between the leaders of India and Pakistan. In early January, during a regional economic summit in Islamabad, Mr. Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee met for the first time in two years and announced a historic decision to launch a formal dialogue in February.

The two have taken important steps in recent months, including resumption of transport links, restoration of diplomatic ties, and a cease-fire along the Line of Control separating Pakistan’s portion of Kashmir from India’s. At the South Asian summit, they vowed more cooperation by signing a regional free trade agreement, a poverty-fighting charter and a protocol on combating terrorism.

The process of normalization will require both sides to make painful political decisions and to face down disruptive efforts by violent extremists in Kashmir. Besides providing encouragement from the sidelines, the United States must recognize we have important national security interests at stake and take active steps to bring about conciliation.

(1) We should cooperate with Mr. Musharraf’s efforts to root out Islamic extremists within Pakistan, no matter what cause they espouse. He has already boldly banned several sectarian and extremist organizations in the country and has pledged to prevent Pakistan being used as a base for attacks against India. While open U.S. assistance may not be welcome or wise as it could further inflame radicalism, we should work behind the scenes to support his pro-active stance.

(2) India must do its part. Indo-American relations have made remarkable strides in the past four years, as shown this month by the unprecedented U.S. offer on high-tech cooperation, including nuclear energy and missile defense. We should make clear to New Delhi such progress can continue only if it eases tensions in Kashmir and builds confidence among the Muslims there.

India has started positively by agreeing to meet with nonviolent Kashmiri separatist leaders, who have split from their hard-line colleagues. In these talks, and in the coming state-to-state dialogue, India, like Pakistan, must go beyond the rhetorical posturing of past meetings. It must be willing to discuss substantive, practical measures, beginning, for example, with the scheduled technical-level talks on reopening bus service across the Line of Control, which would allow families to reunite for the first time in decades. And New Delhi must not use its national elections, now set for April, as an excuse for delay. These moves will be an important gauge of India’s sincerity.

(3) The United States should promote confidence-building measures in the nuclear arena. With our unrivaled nuclear expertise, we should establish exchanges between Pakistani and Indian security experts and offer assistance on export controls, border security, and the protection, control and accounting of nuclear stockpiles and arsenals. Progress in these areas will in itself build confidence between the two long-term adversaries and reduce tensions.

In particular, reports that Pakistani scientists have provided nuclear know-how and materials to North Korea, Iran and Libya have raised serious questions about Pakistan’s commitment to preventing weapons proliferation and its ability to keep its own weapons safe. The $3 billion in aid to Islamabad President Bush has proposed should give us some leverage in persuading Pakistan to bring its export controls in line with international standards.

A stable South Asia in which India and Pakistan engage each other politically and economically — instead of with arms — will let each country focus more time, energy and resources on building better lives for its people. At the same time, it will increase American security as another source of global terrorism is transformed into a story of constructive progress.

Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana Republican, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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