The Key to South Asia: Not Kashmir

Posted on February 21, 2009. Filed under: Public Square, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Most foreign policy experts and commentators today agree that Afghanistan and Pakistan are the real forefronts of America’s War on Terror. This is the place where global jihadi terrorism has been allowed to grow and flourish, especially while American troops are otherwise occupied in Iraq. An increased military focus on Afghanistan, accompanied by a drawdown of armed forces fighting the ‘mistaken’ war in Iraq, was even a major part of then-Senator Barack Obama’s campaign, and Obama has reaffirmed his commitment to this promise with the recent move of 17,000 troops to Afghanistan. As Obama’s administration begins to work out the details of its foreign policy, it will be imperative to gain a proper understanding of the factors that influence the politics of the region, and especially pinpoint the specific issue that needs to be dealt with in order to achieve stability in the region. Presently, the American and British foreign policy establishment mistakenly views the Kashmir issue as the key to the dynamic and troubled political relationships in South Asia; a policy that distracts these Western governments from the true nature of the power players in the region.

There are strong indications that Obama and the British foreign policy corps seem to believe that ‘solving’ the Kashmiri problem will be crucial to bringing peace to the region, an idea comparable to the assumption that a resolution of the Israel-Palestine problem would instantly bring lasting peace to the Middle East. Kashmir is undoubtedly an important factor in the overall structure of South Asian politics, and if this were 1947, right after independence and the partition of India and the first war over Kashmir, or even 1965, after the Indo-Pakistani war somewhat solidified the Line-of-Control which separates Kashmir between the two countries today, then the push to solve Kashmir ahead of all other regional issues would make sense. But, in the post-September 11th and post-Mumbai attacks world, it’s impossible to look at the terrorism that emerges from South Asia and attribute it entirely to a question of Kashmiri independence or how the two countries should divide the region.

While on the campaign trail, and before the Mumbai attacks, Obama made the following comments which were received with much criticism from the Indian administration and media,

“The most important thing we are going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan…We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants.”

One of the problems, especially for many in India, with these comments was the suggestion that outside mediation would speed up the peace process that, at that point in time, was slowly progressing through delicate back-channel talks which might not have survived under the public scrutiny and pressure associated with third-party mediation. But the bigger issue with Obama’s statement was the implication that the Kashmiri issue was at the heart of Pakistan’s inability to deal with the militants who were supposed to be the real enemies in the war-on-terror.

Britain’s foreign minister, David Miliband, courted even more controversy by making similar assertions while on a tour of India in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks.

“Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms, and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders.”

As with Obama’s statement, the basic nature of the comments wasn’t entirely untrue, but, when putting them into context, there was the implication that the Kashmiri issue was the main reason that 145 people, including foreign nationals and Jews, were targeted and killed during the Mumbai attacks. In addition, Miliband echoed Obama’s assertion that Pakistan’s failure to deal with the militants was the result of their preoccupation with India and Kashmir.

The reality is, of course, much more complex. Pakistan’s difficulty in dealing with the militants is a direct consequence of the way politics and governance has come to operate in the nation. Over the years, Pakistan has struggled to establish itself as a stable democracy, having had four separate military dictators in its 62-year-old history, each of whom had a major effect on strengthening the influence of the army. Indeed, one of the most unique features of modern Pakistan is the precarious nature of the government’s position, especially with regard to the Pakistani army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s intelligence agency. In essence, the civilian leadership has “virtually no control” over either of these institutions which have played and continue to play an important role in the politics of the region. 

The aggressively independent army’s multifarious problems stem from inadequate training and equipment, the inability to fight militants and insurgents in the difficult, rocky terrain especially in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Experts have even questioned the willingness of the army to attack and dismantle the very militias that were once in partnership with the army. The ISI has, on the other hand, has actively funded and supported extremist and anti-American militants in the past, and many believe it continues to do so. A leaked report by the British Defense Ministry in 2006 claimed that, “indirectly Pakistan (through the ISI) has been supporting terrorism or extremism – whether in London on 7/7, or in Afghanistan, or Iraq.” In fact, the very group that poses the biggest threat to democracy and stability in South Asia, the Taliban, was created and sustained with ISI funds, expertise and arms from the time of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to the years leading up to the September 11 attacks.

As a result, these influential institutions, the army and the ISI, that are supposed to be organs of a legitimate democracy yet still contain many personnel that have regularly worked to nurture and encourage militancy, continue to operate mostly independent of the writ of the government. Without heavy oversight from the government, both the army and the ISI can continue to cultivate the militants and extremists without fear of any retribution from either their own government or the Americans. According to Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria,

Pakistan has long viewed [the militias which are supported by the ISI and the army] as having given the country “strategic depth”—keeping its historic foes, India and Afghanistan, off balance. For Islamabad to genuinely renounce these groups would require a fundamental strategic rethinking within the Pakistani military.

Admittedly, the effort to influence Kashmir’s political climate has been one of the main objectives of the ISI’s involvement with militancy. Over the last few decades, the ISI has supported numerous insurgent Kashmiri groups and according to some experts they have since lost control of many of these groups. But since their inception as local militias fighting for Kashmiri independence, these groups, most significantly the Lashkar-e-Taiba (L-e-T), the terrorist organization alleged to have planned and carried out the Mumbai attacks as well as the 2005 attacks on the Indian parliament, have enlarged their objectives and are no longer satisfied with simply winning back Kashmir. In fact, L-e-T’s explicit aim includes the “restoration of Islamic rule over all parts of India” and to bring about “a union of all Muslim majority regions in countries that surround Pakistan.” So even the groups that might have started out Kashmiri-centric, are now modeling themselves after Al-Qaeda, demonstrating how much smaller of an impact the Kashmir issue itself has on militants in the region today.

The present democratically elected government of Pakistan, for its part, has shown a clear intent of reining in the power of the army as well as the ISI. It has disbanded the meddling political wing of the ISI and even attempted to bring the intelligence organization under the Interior ministry, an attempt that was recanted within three hours of its announcement. The problem in this case is that the situation of the government itself is precarious, in that it still has to draw sufficient amount of public approval in order to remain in power. Even though Pakistan is an ally of the United States in the war-on-terror and the populace is mostly moderate, rather than extreme Islamists, a strong anti-American sentiment still prevails among the public, and any action that seems to pander to the needs of a Western government, such as cracking down on the ISI, could threaten the ability of the administration to remain in power.

It is this delicate balancing act that Zardari has to carry out; dealing with powerful international allies that are often in direct opposition to influential domestic institutions, which have been connected to extremists and militants, while also maintaining public support. And it is this aspect of the South Asian political situation, rather than the Kashmir issue, that America and the international community will have to focus their efforts on, in order to achieve success in the region.

A large part of those efforts from the international community will have to focus on keeping Pakistan solvent and giving Zardari’s government enough support that it can establish order to the country. Along with the rest of the world, Pakistan is facing a protracted credit crunch which forced it to approach the International Monetary Fund for a loan of over $12 billion to “ward off a debt crisis.” America too, has provided nearly $15 billion of monetary aid to the country over the past few years because of its help as an ally in the war on terror, but an unknown amount of that money was passed on to the army and the ISI. Some reports indicate that Pakistan “diverted much of the money to build up its forces against India.” This highlights another consequence of unnecessarily elevating the importance of the Kashmir issue, because giving such publicity to the issue naturally raises the stakes on either side, and thus results in money and manpower being wasted by both countries in order to match the other on each side of the LOC. The Enhanced Participation with Pakistan Act, a bill sponsored by now Vice President Joseph Biden would “triple US nonmilitary aid to Pakistan, granting $7.5 billion over five years in assistance for development projects.” The U.S will have to ensure that enough oversight is in place this time to see that the money goes towards improving the democratic structures rather than simply going to the military.

Since assuming the presidency, Obama seems to have backtracked somewhat on his original stance regarding the relative importance of the Kashmir issue in the region. The administration is continuing the “de-hyphenated” policy towards India and Pakistan which was initiated after the U.S.-Indian nuclear energy deal was passed. Obama also gave only Afghanistan and Pakistan to the portfolio of his South Asian special envoy Richard Holbrooke, keeping him away from having to deal with Kashmir; a decision which many claim was the result of heavy lobbying by the Indian community. On the other hand, Obama has also appeared prepared to take the fight to Pakistan, launching drones and allowing missile strikes in the country. While this will have a positive strategic and military effect, the U.S. will have to make every effort not to unduly compromise Zardari’s government.

Holbrooke has a tremendous task ahead of him. Obama’s administration has shown less patience with both the Afghani and Pakistani governments, and a willingness to carry out unilateral military action, but Holbrooke will be the one having to deal with the fallout of this action. In addition, he will also have to make every effort to ensure that neither of the countries reverts back to lawlessness or has to contend with the specter of the ‘failed state.’ At the same time, developments like the freeing of A.Q. Khan, the man accused of having proliferated nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea, and the acceptance of Talibani law in the Swat region, will force Holbrooke to take a deep, incisive look at the objectives that the US has in its engagement of the region. Kashmir will continue to be a contentious, significant issue in the region and every viable solution must be considered or even attempted, but as the international focus turns away from the problems of the middle-east and takes a better look at the issues in South Asia, the Western community will realize that achieving a stable, even prosperous Pakistan and Afghanistan will be far more important in the overall scheme of things.

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