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Kashmir and the Need for Securing U.S Interests in South Asia

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India and the U.S have begun solidifying their "commonality of interests" this week as President Barack Obama heads to the South Asia region. "India and the United States have never mattered more to each other," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this week. "As the world's two largest democracies, we are united by common interests and common values." Around the same time, my cousin sent me one of many desperate emails from the embattled region of Indian-Administered Kashmir, saying, "Dear, almost fifth month of curfew in Kashmir valley and world is watching, keeping quiet. Peoples are facing lots of problems here like no medicines, food, etc. Please do pray for us."

(Footage from Kashmiri civilian journalist, August 2010) The gap between political rhetoric and actual policies could be no greater. India has so far succeeded in silencing any international attempts at resolving the Kashmir conflict, thus, further alienating the Kashmiri people from the international community. So that even when state security forces kill over a hundred civilians protesting against lack of political freedom and lack of human rights, India can continue to impose the fallacy in its dialogue with the international community that it has Kashmir under control. Consequently, a continued lack of substantive attention and positive engagement by the U.S government on Kashmir will harm U.S. strategic interests and the success of current U.S diplomatic, military, and development operations in nearby Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. Strategic cooperation between India and Pakistan on intelligence sharing and military operations is necessary to containing the Taliban insurgency and countering the rise of extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Kashmir remains a key issue that will continue to inhibit such regional cooperation and stability from taking place.

Nestled between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Kashmir is one of the most militarized areas in the world with over 500,000 Indian military and paramilitary forces in Indian-Administered Kashmir, IAK. This summer, the valley witnessed some of the largest civil protests in Kashmiri history. Calls for justice and accountability and freedom of expression resulted in the murder of over 100 Kashmiri civilians by Indian security forces. Since 1989, over 70,000 lives have been lost and over 8,000 Kashmiris remain missing. Since 1947, in fact, political appeals by the people to exercise their right to self determination have been suppressed and weakened both by the Indian government and interfering elements from Pakistan.

While separatist militants, trained in Pakistan, commit significant crimes against the people, data and testimonies of over two decades, documented by local and international institutions such as Human Rights Watch and the International People's Tribunal of Kashmir, demonstrate widespread abuse committed by state security forces. Thus, India's policies towards civilians in the disputed territory of Kashmir directly affect key U.S diplomatic and security operations in neighboring Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are already battling the Taliban and the spread of extremism.

Should significant measures not be taken on Kashmir, a toxic and threatening combination of helplessness and suffering will continue to erode civil society's faith in the effectiveness of democratic institutions, the ability of courts to ensure justice and accountability, and nonviolent resistance. Such values should be at the foundation of the "commonality of interests" between India and the U.S. Failure to reform engagement on the Kashmir issue will make U.S. withdrawal from neighboring Afghanistan more difficult as militants will have another cause to flock to in the mountainous borderlands near Kashmir. Additionally, the United State's economic and security partnerships with Pakistan and India would weaken.

Prior to being elected president, Obama stated, "we should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis." This statement was met with much fear and resentment by India. Yet, years later, with a solidified Indo-U.S civilian nuclear agreement and with US exports to India reaching over $14 billion in 2010, U.S.-India relations are finally strong enough to withstand India's discontent with international engagement on Kashmir. It is true that the U.S remains focused on developing stronger economic and military relationships with India in the hopes that India can emerge as a pro-U.S counter to China's growing dominance. Yet, India today is more trusting of U.S intentions and it too is concerned with China's growing influence in the region.

With careful U.S. encouragement, India may begin to take measures to improve the situation on the ground in IAK by delivering on key demands of Kashmiri civil society including withdrawing laws permitting impunity by security forces, holding security forces accountable for their actions, drawing down military forces in the valley, and acknowledging the physical suffering and political alienation of the Kashmiri people created by India's security footprint in the valley. Many of these demands are founded in the very democratic history that gave birth to India. By taking significant steps towards addressing the needs of Kashmiris, India can then demonstrate its political and moral leadership and repair the reputation-damage done to India by human rights violations in IAK and its non-compliance with international obligations relating to Kashmir.

As instability in Kashmir has increased in recent months, U.S endeavors with Pakistan have also been marginalized to a degree. Pakistan has predictably exploited the Kashmir issue as an opportunity to assert its political differences with India and its military presence on the India-Pakistan border. This is problematic in that increasing instability in Kashmir leads to a mis-allocation of military and diplomatic resources needed for meeting security needs along the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan borer. A peaceful and stable Kashmir will help focus Pakistan's attentions on Afghanistan, facilitate a successful U.S. exit from Afghanistan, improve regional stability and improve U.S. relations with both India and Pakistan.

Part of Obama's Asia tour includes delivering a speech to the Muslim world from a mosque in Indonesia. He will speak on "democracy and development and our outreach to Muslim communities around the world...." Yet, if the U.S continues to develop closer military and economic ties with India without addressing the atrocities taking place in Kashmir, then the historically dangerous gap between U.S rhetoric and policy will remain the status quo. During his visit to India, Barak Obama must secure long term U.S interests and stability in the South Asia region by recognizing that proactive engagement with India, on addressing the grievances of the Kashmiri people, is a necessary ingredient to overcoming the challenges of ideological conflicts and military battles on the ground in the overall region.

(Footage from Kashmir September 2010)