Kashmir: Obama and the Vale of Tears

Conn HallinanThere are lots of dangerous places in this world: Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Bolivia, Iran, Palestine, Yemen, and Somalia to name a few. But there is only one that could destabilize a large part of the globe and end up killing tens of millions of people. And yet for reasons of state that is the one place the Obama administration will not talk about: Kashmir.

And yet this region has sparked three wars between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. It is currently in the midst of serious political upheaval. And it is central to reducing tensions in Central and South Asia.

None of these facts should surprise Obama. While running for office in 2008 he explicitly called for a solution to Kashmir. “It won’t be easy, but it is important,” he told Joe Klein of Time magazine.

Kashmir’s Importance

Given that India and Pakistan came within a hair’s breath of a full-scale nuclear confrontation during the 1999 Kargil incident, the importance seems obvious. According to a recent study in Scientific American, such an exchange would kill and maim untold millions, flood the surrounding region with nuclear fallout, and create a “nuclear winter” for part of the globe.

Kashmir also fuels extremists in the region—both Hindu and Islamic—which in turn destabilizes Pakistan and Afghanistan. The conflict has already killed between 50,000 and 80,000 people, “disappeared” several thousand others, seen thousands imprisoned and tortured, and subjected millions of Kashmiris to an onerous regime of occupation, with laws drawn straight from Britain’s colonial past.

Why then would President Obama remain silent on the subject, particularly since the outlines of a solution have been in place since 2007?

Commenting on Obama’s recent trip to Asia, journalist Robert Kaplan says that the visit, in geopolitical terms, was about “one challenge: the rise of China on land and sea.” Indeed, this past year Washington has hurled one challenge after another at Beijing. The United States strongly backed Japan over its recent dust-up with Chinese fishing vessels in the East China Sea. Washington also intervened between China and several Southeast Asian nations over tensions around the Spratly and Paracel islands. The United States and South Korea recently carried out naval maneuvers close to China’s shores, Washington announced new arms sales to Taiwan, and during the recent G20 meetings in Seoul, Obama tried to pin the blame for a global currency crisis on Beijing.

Although Washington denies it has any plans to “surround” China with U.S. allies, that seems to be exactly what it is doing when it courts Indonesia, tightens its alliance with Japan, and sets up new military bases in Australia. But the jewel in this anti-Chinese crown is India, and Washington will do whatever it takes to bring New Delhi on board.

The Obama administration has already endorsed the Bush administration’s 1-2-3 Agreement that allows India to violate the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Not only does this agreement undermine one of the world’s most important nuclear treaties, but, in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers Group, Pakistan warned that the agreement “threatens to increase the chances of a nuclear arms race in the sub-continent.”

While in India, Obama announced that his administration would end most “dual-use” technology restrictions, allowing India to buy material that could end up enhancing its military. The United States also agreed to sell $5.8 billion in military transport planes to New Delhi.

But of all these, the decision to avoid Kashmir may be the most dangerous and destabilizing.

Background to the Conflict

Tensions over Kashmir go back to 1947, when India and Pakistan first came into being. At the time, largely Muslim Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu prince, who decided to go with India even though, under the British formula for dividing the two countries, Kashmir should have become part of Pakistan. Pakistan’s response of infiltrating soldiers into Kashmir touched off a war that, to one degree or other, has gone on for the last 63 years.

Today Kashmir is divided between the Northern Areas and Azad Kashmir held by Pakistan, and the Indian-controlled Kashmir and largely Hindu Jammu. A Line of Control divides the two areas.

In 1989 Kashmiris staged a revolt, and Pakistan began infiltrating paramilitaries across the Line to attack Indian forces. That war dragged on until 2007, when Pakistan and India began secret back-channel negotiations. The talks, however, were scuttled when military dictator-turned-president Pervez Musharraf lost power in Pakistan, and militant jihadis attacked Mumbai in 2009, killing 165 people. India charged that Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, was behind the attack.

Seeking a Solution

As difficult as the situation in Kashmir seems, according to Steve Coll, it is solvable, and a failure to deal with it is dangerous. “The conflict has again and again spilled outside of Kashmir.” Coll is a former reporter and editor at The Washington Post, author of numerous books on the Middle East and Central Asia, and president of the New American Foundation. U.S. policy has been to keep Kashmir and Afghanistan as separate problems, but, Coll argues, “that policy is no longer consistent with the facts.” Muzamil Jaleel of the daily Indian Express agrees that the two countries “are linked so much now that India and Pakistan are fueling ethnic tension in Afghanistan.”

The current unrest in Kashmir, which has claimed more than 100 lives, is very different than the previous war. It is largely a non-violent movement composed almost exclusively of local Kashmiris rather than fighters from Pakistan. It also has a strong contingent of young people, whose tech-savvy skills have put Kashmir’s resistance on the Internet. A decade ago Indian troops could wall off Kashmir. Today, the whole world is watching.

Coll contends the framework for a settlement is fairly straightforward. First, India would have to rein it its 500,000 troops and paramilitaries. At the same time, the draconian Special Powers Act—originally designed to crush opposition to British rule in Ireland and currently used by the Israelis in the Occupied Territories—would have to be shelved. The laws give virtual immunity to widespread human rights violations by the Indian authorities and allow imprisonment without charges. Second, the Line of Control would become an international border, but a porous one that allows free passage for Kashmiris. Third, the residents of Kashmir and Jammu would be given a certain amount of local autonomy.

In the long run, the people of Kashmir ought to be able to hold a referendum about their future. The UN originally proposed such an undertaking, but first Pakistan and then India scotched it, fearful that residents might vote to join one or the other country. In fact, most residents would likely vote for independence.

An autonomous or even independent Kashmir is not only in the interests of the 10 million or so people that inhabit one of the most beautiful—and tragic—areas of the world, it would help defuse terrorism in Pakistan and India. For the United States to forgo this option for what can only be a temporary alliance against an emerging China is profoundly short-sighted.

Washington’s silence is no longer a viable option. “We are not asking the Americans to take a position against India and for Kashmir,” argues Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader of Kashmir’s separatists. “We are just saying that there is a general recognition that India and Pakistan need to be pushed in terms of a dialogue.” Others warn that Indian repression of the current non-violent movement might drive it to take up arms. “The status quo is not digestible for Kashmiris,” Sheikh Showkat Hussan, a Kashmir law professor, told the Financial Times.

Today, Kashmir is a vale of tears, a place capable of sparking off a nuclear war that would affect everyone on the globe. It need not be so.

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist. He also writes the blog, Distpatches from the Edge.