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.
Pakistan: Now or Never?
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.
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.
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.
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 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”.
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:
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.