The top Pakistani official in the volatile dispute over Kashmir warned in an interview that India is dangerously escalating a war of words over the divided territory between the two nuclear-armed powers, vehemently denying that Islamabad was behind a recent attack that killed 18 soldiers at an Indian military base there.
Indian rhetorical attacks are “creating war psychosis” that could spill out of control, said Sardar Masood Khan, the Islamabad-appointed president of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
“It threatens to plunge South Asia into a self-destructive war,” Mr. Khan told The Washington Times in an interview Monday as concerns mounted anew that months of devolving tensions over Kashmir could result in a full-blown military clash between India and Pakistan.
Although the long-running clash often is overlooked in the West, security analysts say it remains one of the globe’s security trigger points and a continual stumbling block to the Obama administration’s diplomatic and defense ambitions in the region.
Indian officials have spent much of the past week alleging that Islamabad-backed terrorists carried out the Sept. 18 strike on an Indian army base near the highly militarized line that divides Kashmir between the two nations, which have a history of waging intermittent but bloody wars over the territory since partitioning into separate nations in 1947.
While tensions had run high in recent years, they soared this summer amid a wave of protests by predominantly Muslim citizens living in the Indian-controlled side of the territory and a subsequent crackdown by Indian army troops. The situation escalated again with last week’s attack — the deadliest in roughly two decades on Indian forces in Kashmir.
Within a day, Indian Home Affairs Minister Rajnath Singh had called Pakistan a “terrorist state” and suggested that Islamabad may have been involved by asserting the attackers were “highly trained, heavily armed and specially equipped,” and that Pakistan was known to provide “direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups.”
According to The Associated Press, Indian investigators have since said evidence indicates that the attack was carried out by four fighters from Jaish-e-Mohammed, an outlawed militant group based in Pakistan.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj pressed the attack again on Monday about official Pakistani involvement in the attack. Indian officials have “proof of Pakistan’s complicity in cross-border terror” and that “Pakistan remains in denial,” Ms. Swaraj said in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly.
“[Pakistan] persists in the belief that such attacks will enable it to obtain the territory it covets,” she said. “My firm advice to Pakistan is: Abandon this dream. Let me state unequivocally that Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and will always remain so.”
Suspicion of terror links
Suspicion about Pakistani intelligence or military backing of certain Islamist terror groups is not a new thing. While Islamabad is a major recipient of U.S. military aid, such suspicions grew in Washington following the 2011 U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideout in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad.
But in recent years the Pakistani government has also launched a substantial internal military campaign against extremist groups operating in the nation. Pakistani officials note that their country has suffered more losses in the battle against terror groups than any in the region.
“We reject it completely,” Mr. Khan, a former ambassador to China and to the United Nations who assumed the Kashmir post in August, said Monday in the interview when asked about possible Pakistani backing of the Kashmir clashes.
“We have no truck with terrorism. We condemn terrorism in all its forms and manifestations, and we have made this deliberate choice that we would fight terrorism,” he told The Times. “Pakistan is a victim of terrorism. It’s out of the question that we would be abetting or engineering such an incident.
“Even as the first plumes were billowing out, Indians reflexively, hurriedly accused Pakistan of being behind those attacks,” he said.
He accused Indian officials of engaging in a kind of obfuscation in order to “confuse world opinion” about what’s actually occurring inside Indian-controlled Kashmir. “They’ve started talking about surgical strikes against Pakistan. They’ve started talking about attacking Pakistan,” he said, adding that such talk is a “device” to distract from “their repression in Kashmir.”
“They want to divert attention from it,” said Mr. Khan, who claimed Delhi’s aim is to make outside observers unsure whether the unrest in Kashmir “is about terrorism … about a freedom movement, about the realization of the right to self-determination of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, or about the repression of the Kashmiris.”
Circumstances have grown particularly dire over the past three months, he said. Indian forces have violated the human rights of Kashmiris “with impunity.”
“People have been killed. They’ve been blinded by the indiscriminate use of pellet shotguns,” said Mr. Khan, noting reports of more than 10,000 Kashmiris injured during unrest since July.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made similar accusations during a speech at the United Nations last week.
But on Monday, Ms. Swaraj, the Indian foreign minister, rejected the claims as “baseless.”
Mr. Khan, meanwhile, charged that Indian officials are “closing all the doors” to dialogue that could ratchet down the current tensions.
He called for an international investigation into the Indian military base attack, asserting that if India conducts the probe on its own, New Delhi will try to “twist and distort” it.
He called for the United Nations to “activate its tool box for preventive diplomacy — some sort of mediation, some sort of contact with both sides to de-escalate the situation.”
“The United States also has a responsibility,” said Mr. Khan. “What we want from the U.S. leadership is to focus on Kashmir, not to look at Kashmir through the prism of its strategic relationship with India, but on the merits of whether or not Kashmiris are being killed and whether or not an intercession is required.
“This is a responsibility for the United States, as a world leader, as a pre-eminent nation and a leader of the international order.”