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Dr. Charles G. Cogan Headshot

Hands Off Kashmir!

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Cross-Posted with the World Policy Journal Blog

America's rapprochement with India, and its centerpiece nuclear agreement, is a bright star in the otherwise murky firmament of the George W. Bush years. India is a large power; it is a secular, democratic power, not influenced by Islamist radicalism. Its large Muslim population of 140 million seems generally -- so far -- not attracted to that kind of fanaticism.

India is a country with a population of 1.17 billion whose numbers are destined to exceed those of China by 2050. (Pakistan's population, much smaller, but not insignificant, is roughly 180 million). The advantage of the U.S.-India rapprochement, in the short and medium term, lies in the fact that this huge country is right next to a string of Muslim countries whose populations are generally (though not universally) hostile to U.S. interests.

Because of the strategic importance that the United States places on both India and its troubled sister, Pakistan, policymakers in Washington have periodically tried to play the role of peacemaker in the region, hoping to push both nuclear-armed countries to resolve the bad blood between them -- which, for the most part, has revolved around the contested province of Kashmir.

In 2009, U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke reportedly tried to include India in his Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) portfolio, which seemed to mean that he wanted to take a crack at the Kashmir problem. The Indians, however, would have none of it, and AfPak remains limited to the two nations that make up the somewhat unwieldy conjunction.

Steve Coll, in a New Yorker article on March 2, 2009, brought to light a parallel or "back" channel in Indo-Pak negotiations that took place during the regime of Pervez Musharraf. If the discussions had succeeded, and it appears they came close, it could have resulted in a sort of free movement of populations across the Kashmiri line of separation -- without a change of sovereignty between the advantageous Indian and unimpressive Pakistani portions. However, Musharraf went into a political tailspin after his dispute with the Pakistan judiciary and had to leave office in August 2008. With his departure, the talks seem to have ended. Ironically, according to Coll, the Indians had come to trust Musharraf, despite the fact that he was the main instigator of the abortive Pakistani attack at Kargil, in Kashmir, in 1999.

The arrangement nearly worked out reflects the Indian insistence that the line of separation (called the Line of Control) must not be altered, as this could affect the status of the Indian-held Valley of Kashmir, the beautiful "jewel in the crown" of the whole affair. Moreover, from the Indian point of view, ceding any part of Indian-held Kashmir, in what would be seen as for religious reasons, would compromise the Indian political philosophy of secular government.

In any event, a settlement now seems extremely unlikely in the short term, especially after the horrific attacks on Mumbai in November 2008 which originated in Pakistan. As long as Kashmir remains as it is, unequally divided, Islamabad will likely never be satisfied, which means we can expect more Pakistani agitation inside India and an increasingly stronger riposte from New Delhi. There is definitely a fear that the two Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are not only still active; worse, extrapolating from the attack on Mumbai, these groups may have set their sights on more ambitious targets, unleashing havoc within India's metropolitan cities rather than engaging India's massive deployments in Jammu and Kashmir.

So where do things stand now?

New Dehli seems intent on dialing down tensions. In October 2009, India withdrew two divisions (30,000 troops) from Kashmir. Still, India is estimated to have roughly 120,000 troops massed along the Line of Control which separates the two Kashmirs. Overall in the state, the exact number of Indian forces is not known but probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Islamabad, for its part, may be likely to exercise greater restraint, given the horror that resounded internationally over the Mumbai attacks. Whether Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)--which has long trained and supplied Islamist militias in the region with the aim of destabilizing Indian control--continues to support its proxy armies or no longer can keep them on a leash is another matter.

At the moment, in winter, the insurgency in Kashmir usually dies down, only to flower again in the spring. Yet, this week saw a suicide attack in Lal Chowk, the nerve center of the capital, Srinagar. The attack was claimed by a third terrorist group, Jamiat-ul-Mujahidin, with the announced goal of demonstrating that militancy in Kashmir is not over.

But should the United States attempt to mediate this ongoing struggle? Certainly, there are a number of analysts and officials in Washington who believe that a lasting peace in Kashmir would lessen the strains between these two nations and allow Pakistan's army to focus on more pressing problems -- such as the rise of a powerful domestic Taliban that has inflamed the Afghanistan border regions and increasingly threatens and attacks the urban centers.

My answer is a simple "no." Kashmir does not constitute a negotiation in which Washington should get involved, even if it is 97 percent Muslim (in the Kashmir portion of the Jammu and Kashmir state) and was handed over to India by its Hindu maharajah in 1947. (The Hindu-majority Jammu portion of the state is the ancestral homeland of the Kashmiri Brahmins, whose most illustrious offspring was Jawaharlal Nehru).

The temptation for U.S. policymakers to get involved in the dispute is latent. In October 2008, Barack Obama, a month before he was elected, stated that "working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way" was among the "critical tasks for the next administration." Pakistan, as the irridentist party, would welcome it; indeed, the attacks by Pakistan-sponsored groups in Kashmir and elsewhere in India may be aimed in part in provoking the U.S. to intervene on the dispute. (Note the U.S. did intervene, and succesfully, at the time of the Kargil attacks).

But the overriding consideration is the new U.S.-Indian relationship which risks being diluted or worse, damaged, by an American intervention on the Kashmir issue which, almost by definition, would call into question the permanence of the Line of Control. India is too important to Washington to be left with a threat to its status quo, which has been in place for 60-plus years. India is the heir-state to British India. It retains the capital of British India, Delhi, and its government infrastructures. Pakistan has a new name ("land of the pure") and a new capital, Islamabad. The partition, occasioned by Muslim fears of being submerged by a Hindu majority, and which the British did not prevent, is now regarded by many as having been a mistake.

Moreover, the Obama administration already has its hands full, both domestically and overseas. With two ongoing wars, potential conflict in Iran, and recalcitrant partners in New Delhi and Islamabad, brokering a resolution in Kashmir seems a sight too far.

Kashmir is one case in which the U.S. tendency to remake the world order should be held in check. Unless tensions escalate dramatically, this is a conflict that India and Pakistan should sort out bilaterally. Hands off Kashmir!

Charles Cogan was an officer of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from 1954-91. His first overseas posting was to New Delhi, 1957-62, and later he was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA, 1979-84. He is currently an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.