During his recent visit to India, President Obama made it clear that the United States would not take a pro-active role in mediating the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan. That would be a grave oversight from a U.S. national security perspective.
The Muslim-majority Kashmir territory is at the heart of the conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors and has been the cause of three wars since 1948. That antipathy is the reason the powerful Pakistani military views with great alarm the growing Indian influence in neighboring Afghanistan -- much in the same way as the U.S. viewed any Soviet influence in neighboring Cuba during the Cold War. The resulting strategic calculus for Pakistani policy-makers is that to avoid Indian encirclement, Pakistan has to stay relevant in any regional discussion on the endgame in Afghanistan.
That is where U.S. national security considerations surface -- to stay relevant in Afghanistan, the Pakistani military is holding onto (rather than taking on) its proxies that helped the U.S. defeat the Soviets in the 1980s but mutated over the last two decades into the most serious current threat to American security.
Pakistani decision-makers seem to have realized that the monster of militancy spawned by these proxies has now turned inwards and has to be defeated. Yet they have also rationalized that some of these proxies provide leverage in warding off an equally existentialist threat of India's deepening footprint in Afghanistan. Not all Pakistanis agree with this Faustian bargain; however, all Pakistanis would agree that as long as the Kashmir issue festers, Pakistan cannot let its guard down. With all parties staying boxed into intractable positions, the militants and Al Qaeda thrive.
It is easy to see how a U.S. mediated resolution of Kashmir sits at the heart of the above dynamic. It will drive a virtuous cycle that removes the primary source of enmity between India and Pakistan. As a result, the Pakistani military will find it near impossible to justify to its people an Afghan "insurance policy" that has propelled the terrifying spread of militancy to Pakistan's heartland. For the U.S., an improving regional cycle of trust will be far more effective than any threats or inducements for the Pakistani military to take on the militants on its border and degrade a global threat.
With the country no longer locked in perpetual tension with India, the role of civilian institutions in shaping Pakistan's policy choices will strengthen. According to a Pew Center poll, 70% of Pakistanis desire better relations with India; paradoxically, 53% of them also view India as the country's greatest threat. A Kashmir settlement directly addresses this dichotomy and the military will end up having to adapt to the wishes of seven out of ten Pakistanis.
For the United States, the benefits of a Kashmir resolution extend well beyond the defeat of Al Qaeda in the region. Pakistan has a young population of 180 million and will become the world's fourth most populous country by 2040. With peace on both its borders, it will find itself back on its economic growth trajectory of over 6% per year that it experienced for four decades until 1990. That would be good news not just for Pakistan but also for India, the United States and the world.
A short primer on Kashmir -- during the partition of India in 1947, all Muslim majority provinces acceded to the newly created Muslim homeland of Pakistan, except for Kashmir where its Hindu ruler, facing an uprising, called in the Indian military. Both countries have sharply differing perspectives on the legitimacy of that accession and the United Nations called for a referendum in Kashmir to settle the issue. That referendum has never taken place and ever since, Kashmir has become an emotive rallying point for the average Pakistani.
While several viable options have been floated in back-channel discussions, India refuses to be drawn into any substantive negotiations under the straw man argument that such discussions would be domestically untenable. The status quo is providing the oxygen to extremist forces to drive the narrative, as tragically seen during the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Rather than invoke the weak excuse that it lacks influence over India, the United States needs to provide strong leadership in bringing the sides together especially when its national security is at stake.
The President displayed the right instinct during the 2008 campaign when he called for U.S. involvement in resolving the Kashmir issue. However, in presumed deference to Indian sensitivities, the administration has essentially excluded Kashmir from its regional policy, choosing instead a carrot-and-stick approach towards the Pakistani military. Since it ignores the core issue, that approach will simply not work.
As President Obama correctly highlights the shared interests between the U.S. and India, he needs to make sure that he does not forget about the most significant national interest of the U.S. -- its security. For that reason alone, the U.S. needs to discuss Kashmir openly and candidly.