Ask Kashmiris what they want

This week's US pressure on Pakistan to withdraw Pakistan-backed Islamic militants from Indian territory in divided Kashmir is a step forward, but contributes little to a lasting settlement of the Kashmir issue.

It's apparent that guerrillas demanding independence for Kashmir are not simply "morally" backed by Islamabad, as Pakistan maintains, but are actually equipped by independent units of the Pakistani Army, as charged by India and echoed by the White House. It is a provocation to India.

India's official return of the bodies of three Pakistani soldiers killed in fighting on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) is an implicit reminder of Pakistan's prevaricating. Though accustomed to constant skirmishes along the LoC between India and Pakistani controlled territory in Kashmir, this confrontation takes on a profoundly different character when Islamabad begins to question the legality of that border line, agreed upon by the two sides in 1972.

The presence of Pakistani officers participating in attacks alongside the mercenaries in Indian territory is evidence the spirit of the Lahore Declaration has been forgotten. In that widely heralded initiative last February, both sides reiterated a commitment to continued confidence-building measures. But, current worrisome developments have further internationalized the Kashmir issue by prompting the G-8 for "restoration of the LoC" and removal of "armed intruders" from Indian Kashmir.

In view of these efforts, the argument for breaking the military deadlock on a bilateral basis seems less convincing. Though India regards the religiously charged conflict over Kashmir's final status as a closed bilateral issue, many in Pakistan maintain it is unfinished business for international mediation.

While Pakistan denies controlling the Muslim insurgents fighting Indian troops, India refuses to conduct any kind of dialogue with Pakistan while any rebels remain on Indian territory.

Surely after 50 years of turmoil causing the deaths of untold thousands of Kashmiris (Muslim and Hindu alike), the creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees, and the massing of Indian troops to guard the vast region, time has come to consider alternative political solutions.

Having never fully understood the volatile dynamics among South Asian neighbors, the West's benign neglect may be reflected in the current outbreak of violence. Though the international community has voiced its concern over Pakistan's military adventurism into India, no state has taken the risk of offering potential long-term political solutions governing the future of Kashmir. The recent introduction of nuclear weapons into the region suddenly finds the US committed with the international community to ensuring a peaceful outcome in the current military standoff.

The international community should recognize that defusing today''s military crisis is only a part of the larger problem.

A lasting Kashmir settlement is to be found somewhere amongst the political options - accession to India or Pakistan, independence, partition, or condominium - that inevitably require compromises. To contain the conflict, a weapons-free zone along the LoC, or full demilitarization are subjects that should be considered.

But continuous civil uprisings in Kashmir signal loud and clear that the voice of the Kashmiris should no longer be ignored. These 7 million people have never been asked what they want. The international community could push for the peace process by coaxing both India and Pakistan into a bilateral settlement.

The time has come to heal the Kashmir crisis before a massive collapse destabilizes the entire region. Leaving the problem unresolved risks strengthening the cause of independence within Kashmir - a prospect undesirable to both India and Pakistan.

*Viola Herms-Drath is the diplomatic correspondent of Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper. She is based in Washington, D.C.

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