A Moment to Seize in Kashmir

The national address by President Pervez Musharraf on Saturday has been praised both in Pakistan and internationally, but it has also generated debate on the real intent behind it. While setting a new agenda of arresting Islamic militants in de-escalating the immediate tension with India, the speech fell short of announcing any major changes in Pakistan’s support for Kashmir’s struggle to become part of Pakistan. The Indian government appeared less impressed than the international press precisely because the speech did not indicate any fundamental policy change. In fact General Musharraf reiterated that the Kashmir issue ”runs in our [Pakistani] blood.”

Yet in Islamabad the discussion is whether it was entirely India’s belligerence that motivated General Musharraf’s stronger antiterrorist measures. Most people here view his objective as staving off an attack from India or, more pragmatically, making possible the demobilization of Pakistani forces on the Indian border, which would reduce the burden on Pakistan’s military, currently also mobilized on the Afghan border.

Many analysts in Pakistan were also worried about the security of its nuclear assets. The fear was that any escalation of the conflict might lead the United States to use special forces to eliminate Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal, perhaps in joint action with the Indians, to avoid the risk of a nuclear war. This fear helped justify the decision by General Musharraf to announce measures that would appease Washington and New Delhi.

A general perception in Pakistan is that both the escalation of tension and now its de-escalation came out of increased American involvement in the region. The view is that Washington used New Delhi to put pressure on Pakistan to rein in the militants who were operating on multiple fronts in Afghanistan and Kashmir — and that without America’s tacit support, India would not have resorted to this kind of mobilization of forces. At the same time, many also remain certain that Washington would have worked to avoid an actual outbreak of conflict. Interestingly, a segment of Islamabad’s policy makers believe that a prolonged American presence in the region can be an effective deterrent against the outbreak of hostilities. They also welcome American presence as an opportunity for future economic development.

A reversal of Islamabad’s policy on Kashmiri militancy benefits Washington’s interests and New Delhi’s — and in the long term, Islamabad’s interests as well. None of this would be possible without the new American strategic interest and presence in the region.

From the American standpoint, curbing Pakistani militancy is part of addressing the greater problem of eliminating international terrorist networks. From the Indian perspective, reining in the militants would reduce the violent struggle inside Indian-occupied Kashmir and provide an indirect advantage to Indian forces in that area. Even a temporary weakening of Islamabad’s policy on Kashmiri militancy would help in breaking the momentum that the struggle to break from India had gained inside the Kashmir valley.

These changes are not easily embraced by Islamabad. But they become more acceptable if they open the door to finding a solution to this territorial dispute, ideally through multilateral means. Pakistan has always been interested in having a third party, preferably America, involved in negotiating a resolution. General Musharraf hinted at allowing the Kashmiris to choose a third option — an independent Kashmir — as a possible solution.

India should take advantage of General Musharraf’s conciliatory measures in controlling the militants. The fact is that his team of senior generals will not simply allow the Kashmir issue to die down. That is why India needs to see this moment as an opportunity — made possible by international pressures on Pakistan — to solve the Kashmir question permanently.

Still, much will depend on Washington’s taking an active role. Before the attack on the Indian Parliament in December, the American ambassador in Pakistan had been discussing the possibility of turning the line of control between India and Pakistan in Kashmir into an international boundary. Such a change would give legitimacy to both countries’ control of their parts of Kashmir. The Musharraf regime, in risking domestic opposition by its crackdown on Islamic militants, would want a better solution than this.

Note: This article originally published here.