Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
One of the more recurrent themes in U.S. political punditry these days is the need to nudge India and Pakistan towards peace. The theory is that this would bolster the new civilian government in Islamabad by encouraging trade and economic development, reduce a rivalry that threatens regional stability, including in Afghanistan, and limit the role of the Pakistan Army, whose traditional dominance has been fuelled by a perceived threat from India.
So what are the chances of progress? (assuming the latest bombings just being reported in Delhi do not trigger a new downwards spiral)
President Asif Ali Zardari has got everyone talking by promising that there will soon be “good news” on Kashmir. An expected meeting between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Zardari on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month would also give the two leaders the chance to repair relations soured by the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul in July.
It seems unlikely however, that India and Pakistan can make any real concessions on Kashmir, at a time when the people of the Kashmir Valley at the heart of the dispute have renewed their protests against Indian rule. In Pakistan this would be seen as a betrayal of the people of Kashmir, while in India the government would be accused of caving in to the protests.
The last time I visited Kashmir, in November, I was struck by an apparent contradiction: it was more peaceful than it had been in years, at least in the capital Srinagar, and yet the overwhelming mood was one of gloom. With the peace process between India and Pakistan going nowhere, there was a sense that thousands of people had died for nothing in the violence that had convulsed the region since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. Although the soldiers had disappeared from the streets of Srinagar, and tourists were flocking back, it retained the some of the same tinderbox atmosphere that I had known at the height of the violence. One spark, people told me, could ignite it again.
When that spark came, in the form of a land dispute between Hindus and Muslims that triggered some of the biggest protests since 1989 (you can see my last posting on this here), the surprise was perhaps not so much that it happened but that so few analysts in Delhi (or Islamabad for that matter) saw it coming.
Less than a month ago, Senator Barack Obama was saying that the U.S. war in Afghanistan would be made easier if the United States worked to improve trust between India and Pakistan. “A lot of what drives, it appears, motivations on the Pakistan side of the border, still has to do with their concerns and suspicions about India,” he told a news conference in Amman.
The logic was in line with thinking expounded by U.S. analysts at the time who argued that elements within Pakistan will never completely relinquish support for Islamist militants in both Pakistan and Afghanistan as long as they believe they can be used to counter Indian influence in the region. Therefore end Pakistan’s insecurity about India, and support for militants will melt away, making the U.S. campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban much easier — or so the argument goes. At least that was the thinking barely a few weeks ago, as I wrote in an earlier blog on this subject.
After months of relative peace which turned Kashmir into a near-forgotten conflict, the region has exploded again with some of the biggest protests since a separatist revolt erupted in 1989. What started as a dispute over land allocated to Hindu pilgrims visiting a shrine in Kashmir has snowballed into a full-scale anti-India protest, uniting Kashmiri separatists and reviving calls for independence.
The dispute has also pitted Muslims in Kashmir against Hindus in Jammu – the two regions which along with Ladakh make up the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir – in what is the biggest communal crisis faced by the central government in Delhi since it took office in 2004.
Why now? Until this week, the ISI was an acronym for Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, that was little known outside of South Asia. Now it’s all over the American media as the organisation accused of secretly helping Islamist militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while the country it works for is a crucial ally in the U.S. battle against al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The New York Times led the charge by reporting that the CIA had confronted Pakistan over what it called deepening ties between members of the ISI and militant groups responsible for a surge in violence in Afghanistan. It followed it up with a story quoting U.S. government officials blaming the ISI for an attack last month on the Indian embassy in Kabul. The Washington Post and TIME, amongst others, ran similar stories.
It’s probably unusual to link to a report by the RAND Corporation and an op-ed on Foxnews.com in the same blog, but since both address the same subject – tackling al Qaeda in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region – here goes.
The first is a detailed report by RAND called “How Terrorist Groups End”.
At first glance, it looks unlikely. The two countries have more or less managed to hold to a ceasefire agreed at the end of 2003 on both the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir and on Siachen, and they have a slow-moving peace process which at least has India and Pakistan talking rather than fighting each other. India is far too interested in winning itself superpower status to let itself be distracted by some embarrassing fighting on its border. And Pakistan has enough problems dealing with al Qaeda and the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan, without having to cope with trouble on its eastern border with India as well.
The People’s Daily does not run editorials very often about Pakistan and India, so when it does, I pay attention. It just published an op-ed about the latest talks between India and Pakistan on counter-terrorism. The talks themselves appeared to yield little in actual results. Yet according to the People’s Daily, it was an “important step towards mutual political trust”.
“The efforts for peace once again prove that dialogue is the sole path to resolving differences between countries,” it says. “India and Pakistan’s steps on this road are not big yet; but they are moving, in a positive direction.”
Defence analysts in South Asia have been saying for so long that India and Pakistan might solve their problems over Kashmir only to end up at war over water that I had almost become inured to the issue. That was until I read the following comment on an earlier blog about Gulf investors buying up farmland in Pakistan to offset food shortages at home:
“Tough challenges await the investors in this sector due to serious water and energy shortages that the country suffers from at the moment,” it reads. “For effective investment in the agriculture sector, the government must clear these impediments first.”
With the world’s attention focused on the hunt for al Qaeda and the Taliban along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, the 19-year conflict in Kashmir to its east has slipped off the radar.
But Kashmir, which former U.S. President Bill Clinton once said was one of the most dangerous places on earth, has just crossed a milestone with the number of people dying in the fighting falling below 1,000 a year.
Seen purely in terms of fatalities, Kashmir is now classed as a “low-intensity conflict” says the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management which tracks deaths due to militant-related violence across South Asia.
Last year was a watershed for Kashmir when the number of civilians, securitymen and militants killed in the conflict fell to 777, down from a high of 4,507 in 2001. The decreasing trend continues this year with 192 people killed until May.
Just to put things in perspective, the comparable figure for Iraq was 13,600 according to the latest U.S. State Department’s annual terrorism report released last month, about 6,000 for Afghanistan and 4,000 in Sri Lanka’s civil war according to Reuters reporters in the two countries.
So is peace at hand in Kashmir and has the stage been set for a “grand reconciliation” that Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi spoke about after talks with his Indian counterpart Pranab Mukherjee in Islamabad last week ?
Not quite. The talks, resuming after a year because of political crises in Pakistan, themselves did not throw up any new ideas, much less suggest a resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Indeed if anything Pakistan’s new leaders are calling a set of “out-of-the box” proposals that President Pervez Musharraf made as ‘half-baked.”"