U.S. can't overlook crisis in Kashmir

Threat: The Indian-Pakistani conflict warrants close attention because of the nuclear weapons possessed by each side.

January 12, 2003|By Ahmad Faruqui | Ahmad Faruqui,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WHILE THE White House focuses on the nuclear crisis in North Korea and the ever-increasing likelihood of war in Iraq, the great dangers that lurk in the Kashmir conflict are being overlooked. This 55-year-old conflict between India and Pakistan directly threatens vital security U.S. interests because it could escalate into the world's first nuclear war.

After the vigorous U.S. military, diplomatic and allied responses to the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2001, it was widely expected that global acts of terrorism would diminish. But Kashmir continues to dash hopes that this would be true. During the past 15 months, terrorist attacks in Kashmir, India and Pakistan have continued at a high rate. Militants have been more than happy to bring India and Pakistan to the brink of a full-scale war, as was evidenced last January when India and Pakistan deployed 1 million troops in battlefield positions on each side of their border.

Some analysts say Kashmir is only one of many battlegrounds in the guerrilla war being waged globally by militant Muslim groups, led by al-Qaida. Once the United States wins this war, the conflict would go away, or so their argument goes. But that assessment is simplistic and inaccurate. In 1999 and 2000, about three-quarters of the guerrillas killed by Indian security forces in Kashmir were identified as local insurgents.

Several theories attempt to explain the severity and longevity of the Kashmir conflict. One says that India's secular identity would be threatened if Kashmir withdrew from the Indian Union, and that it would set a dangerous precedent for secessionist movements in other Indian states.

Similarly, Pakistan's claim to be the country of choice for the subcontinent's Muslim population would be vitiated without Kashmir.

Some experts blame the conflict on the inability of the various ethnic groups in Kashmir to co-exist peacefully. Others argue that because special interest groups continue to benefit from the prosecution of the conflict, they will keep it going. Another theory supposes India is using the Kashmir conflict, which is a big drain on the Pakistani economy, to reduce Pakistan to the status of "West Bangladesh" and establish Indian hegemony over South Asia. Finally, there is the notion that Kashmir is a symptom of irreconcilable differences between India and Pakistan.

While there might be some truth in each theory, together they underscore the complex underpinnings of the conflict. Control over Kashmir remains the key strategic objective for India and Pakistan, and this conflict of interests accounts for the disposition of a quarter of their 1.8 million-strong armed forces. The two sides have fought three major wars and several minor ones in the past half-century. As 2003 begins, their dangerous impasse continues, but both countries have ballistic missiles, and it is widely feared that some are equipped with nuclear warheads.

India has turned Kashmir into a garrison state, fueling anti-Indian resentment among Kashmiris. This was reflected in the October elections, in which the ruling party suffered a huge defeat. Polls indicate that 75 percent of Kashmiris want an independent state. The ultra-nationalist BJP government in New Delhi has shown no desire to accommodate these wishes. It has refused to entertain talks with Islamabad until Pakistan eliminates "the infrastructure of terrorism," creating the perfect Catch-22.

Islamabad, meanwhile, continues to use the Kashmir conflict to justify its large military. Despite his promises to the contrary, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, does not appear to have reined in the militants on either side of the Pakistan-Kashmir border, partly because they might provide armed resistance in any future Indian invasion. Both countries are imprisoned by their own rhetoric and extremist domestic political elements, while their 1.15 billion citizens continue to subsist on incomes of $500 per year or less. The 13 million citizens of Kashmir subsist on only one-fifth of that meager amount.

Last year, intensive diplomacy by Colin L. Powell and Donald H. Rumsfeld succeeded in preventing a full-scale war. Now Washington needs to go one step further, facilitating a peace process between Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris. The best way to begin would be to appoint a presidential emissary.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Jimmy Carter is interested in playing such a role and has helped in other crises. President Bush should give him a call.

Ahmad Faruqui, an economist and fellow with the American Institute of International Studies in Newark, Calif., is the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan.

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