An estimated million Kashmiris marched
through the streets of Srinagar, the disputed state's summer capital, on
Friday, Aug. 22, many waving the green flag of Islam and demanding freedom -
azadi - from Indian rule. A harsh crackdown followed.
The United States has not paid much attention to Kashmir for the past few years, confident that an
peace process would prevent any crises on that front. It no longer enjoys that
luxury. If the current unrest leads to another India-Pakistan confrontation,
the whole area from Afghanistan through India will be affected, with critical
U.S. interests in play.
Like the mass upheavals in 1963-64 and
1989-90, this Kashmir crisis was triggered by a specific event. This time it
was the state administration's ill-conceived decision to make 100 acres of
public land available to a Hindu religious organization to build facilities for
pilgrims to a popular shrine in the state's Himalayan range. The land transfer
provided ammunition to Kashmir's anti-Indian politicians, who made wild claims
that it was part of a conspiracy to reduce the state's Muslim majority to
minority status. Amid growing unrest, the government rescinded the transfer.
Nationalist leaders in predominantly Hindu parts of the state started violent
demonstrations against the revocation. Scores have since been killed in
Hindu-Muslim clashes and firings by police and military units on civilian
The problem could not come at a worse time.
India-Pakistan relations have been rocked by the apparent role of Pakistan's
intelligence services, ISI, in last month's bombing of the Indian Embassy in
Kabul. The 4.5-year cease-fire along the Line of Control that divides Indian
and Pakistani forces in the state has been broken by hours-long artillery
clashes. There are reports that infiltration across the line into Indian-held
territory is increasing. The Pakistan government, which in recent years had
reduced its support for insurgents against Indian rule in Kashmir, has
expressed sympathy for the Muslim demonstrators and reiterated its call for
settlement of the 60-year old dispute. This is the least it could do. But as in
the past, there are surely elements in ISI and elsewhere in Pakistan who want
to fish in troubled waters. Even if they do not, many in India will accuse the
Pakistanis of aggravating the crisis.
A peaceful future depends on both
governments' success in cooling the situation. However, Pakistan is caught up
in a deadly insurgency fueled by the Taliban's local affiliate. Suicide
bombings reached new heights last week with an attack on an army ordnance
factory near Islamabad. The weak and fractured post-Musharraf government faces
a host of severe economic and political problems. It does not need trouble with
India when its Afghan border area is inflamed.
In India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's
government faces elections early next year. It has just survived a crisis over
its nuclear agreement with the United States. Its political troubles, including
soaring food and fuel costs, will make it even more reluctant to make any bold
moves on Kashmir.
After many failed interventions, the United
States has in recent years shied away from trying to broker a Kashmir
settlement. It has confined itself to crisis management, most recently in 2002
when it helped defuse a confrontation that threatened to trigger another
Washington's options and influence are
limited. But the United States needs to convey to both Pakistan and India how
much is riding on their ability to calm the crisis. The administration should
make clear to the Pakistan government that meddling in Kashmir would be a
dangerous course. Such an intervention would only heighten the country's
problems and undercut its efforts to deal with insurgents near the Afghan
The message should be that exacerbating the
trouble in Kashmir will only make things worse between us. At the same time, it
should urge the Indians to show restraint. This includes reining in their
natural tendency to pin the blame on Pakistan for their own mistakes in dealing
with the Kashmiris.
The governments in both Islamabad and Delhi
are ill-placed to make major policy changes, but they urgently need to maintain
their promising back-channel contacts. This channel gives both a chance to
refine and expand their ideas for an eventual Kashmir settlement, which they
can share with their publics when the two governments are able to move forward.
If the situation further deteriorates, Washington should send to the area a
senior official to help defuse the crisis, as Deputy Secretary of State Richard
Armitage did so effectively five years ago.
Such efforts will burden a lame-duck
administration overloaded with critical foreign policy issues. But Kashmir is
again becoming very dangerous. Stabilizing Afghanistan, avoiding a potential
nuclear face-off between Pakistan and India, and steadying the fragile
democratic government in Pakistan are critical U.S. interests today, far more
than in previous decades. They are all at risk if Kashmir sparks a new
India-Pakistan crisis. The United States can ignore Kashmir only at its