Is Kashmir key to Afghan peace?

Barack Obama says resolving the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir will be a goal of his presidency, ending eight years of silence on the issue.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Disputed region: A soldier in Srinagar, India, checked motorists' papers Nov. 17, the day voting for state elections in Indian Kashmir began.
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    Border clash: Indian soldiers patrolled the India-Pakistani border on Nov. 4. Two Indian soldiers were injured that day when Pakistani forces fired on Indian positions in Jammu.
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    Trade Route: A crowd gathered to witness the first vehicle crossing a bridge connecting Indian-administrated Kashmir and Pakistani-administrated Kashmir at Kaman Post on Oct. 21.
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As part of his push to find new solutions to the war in Afghanistan, President-elect Barack Obama is considering a new diplomatic push on Kashmir, reversing eight years of American silence on the issue.

Mr. Obama has argued that Pakistan will not fully commit to fighting the insurgency it shares with Afghanistan until it sheds historic insecurities toward India. Talks about Kashmir, the central point of contention between the two nuclear rivals, are among the "critical tasks for the next administration," Obama said in an interview last month with Time magazine.

It is a strategy that worries Indians, who suggest the Pakistani Army is blackmailing Obama to support its claims. Yet security analysts say the Afghan insurgency has roots in the power struggle between India and Pakistan and cannot be solved without a regional approach.

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"It will be very hard to put Afghanistan on a long-term positive path without alleviating some of the Indo-Pakistan tensions," says Xenia Dormandy of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Such ideas would appear to fit well with the doctrines of Gen. David Petraeus, who oversaw a significant improvement in law and order in Iraq. He is now the commander of American forces in the entire region, which includes Afghanistan.

General Petraeus has been an open advocate of regional diplomacy as a key counterinsurgency tactic. On Oct. 15, he told a round table of Washington Post reporters that in seeking solutions to Afghanistan, "there may be opportunities with respect to India."

The goal would be to build a level of trust between India and Pakistan, freeing Pakistan from its historic fear of India, with which it has fought three wars. The surest way to do this, Obama has said, is to find a solution to Kashmir – the state split between each but claimed in full by both.

"We should try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that [Pakistan] can stay focused – not on India, but on the situation with those militants," he told MSNBC on Oct. 31.

Obama went further in the Time interview, mentioning he has spoken with former President Bill Clinton about becoming a special envoy to the region – a comment that has been front-page news in India and Pakistan.

Nothing could be more damaging to American interests in the region, says Raja Mohan, a member of India's National Security Advisory Board. He claims Indo-Pakistan relations are better than they have ever been, citing the recent opening of trade between Pakistan - and-Indian-controlled Kashmir as something that would have been unthinkable in the past.

Moreover, he suggests India and Pakistan have behind the scenes made significant progress on the issue of Kashmir, to the point that the two nations have a tentative road map for how to resolve the crisis. It was scuppered only by the collapse of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's regime in August.

Bush steered clear of Kashmir

The progress was partly the result of the Bush administration's decision to steer clear of Kashmir, says Mr. Mohan. Entering the fray now would only disrupt the delicate balance, making it appear as if the US was merely trying to placate Pakistan in return for its support in the war against terror.

In such a case, Mohan says, India might have a hard time winning concessions for a fair deal: "So long as the Pakistani Army thinks that the Americans are on their side, they're not going to deal with India."

Both Obama and his top South Asia adviser, Bruce Riedel, have spoken of the need to be discreet. In a 2007 teleconference for the journal Foreign Affairs, Mr. Riedel said: "I would urge the administration to seize the opportunity to quietly, but forcefully, push for a resolution there."

In the interview he called Kashmir "the itch that has driven Pakistan towards supporting terrorism for the last 20 years." Indeed, many experts say the enmity – for which Kashmir is the most potent symbol – has shaped security in the region, including Afghanistan.

Rivalry plays out in Afghanistan

For years, the mutual mistrust has led India and Pakistan to play their own version of the Great Game in Afghanistan. India has consistently been Afghanistan's main ally in the region. But Pakistan sees Afghanistan as its strategic backyard, which under no circumstances can be yielded to Indian influence.

Fears are stoked by the memories of 1971, when the Indian Army helped Bengalis secede from Pakistan to form Bangladesh. With Afghanistan historically claiming a significant chunk of Pakistan as its own, Pakistanis worry that an Indian-backed Afghanistan could dismember Pakistan further.

"Pakistan is the only country in South Asia that stands between India's complete hegemony in this region," says Fahmida Ashraf, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Islamabad, a thinktank funded by the Pakistan government.

Repeatedly, Pakistan's Army has acted to prevent this from happening. It has done this by cultivating networks of militants as a proxy army. In Afghanistan, the Pakistan-backed mujahideen chased out the Soviet Union, India's ally. Then the Pakistan-backed Taliban took control of the country, preventing it from falling into the hands of pro-India Northern Alliance warlords.

This proxy war continues. India has invested $750 million and pledged $450 million more to the government of President Hamid Karzai, who is strongly pro-India. India is Afghanistan's largest trade partner. And it has taken the provocative step of opening consulates in two cities sitting on the border with Pakistan – Jalalabad and Kandahar.

Pakistan claims Indian intelligence agencies are using these consulates as bases, though it has never made this evidence public. Generally speaking, the allegations are that India is funding separatist militants in the Pakistani province of Balochistan.

"India wants to destabilize [Pakistan's tribal areas] and Balochistan," said Rahman Malik, a Pakistani government security adviser during a trip to Washington.

Analysts say this might be true, but only to a small degree. Militants "might be getting some support from India, but it's not anywhere near what the Pakistanis like to suggest," says Marvin Weinbaum, an analyst at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Privately, a Pakistani diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity agrees. India's involvement in the unrest along Pakistan's western front "might be no more than 5 percent of all the trouble out there."

But publicly, Pakistan "is basing its Afghan and Indian policy on its perception," says Mr. Weinbaum.

In July, militants struck the Indian Embassy in Kabul with a bomb blast that killed 41 people. American intelligence agencies have said they have evidence that Pakistan's intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, was involved.

"Even today, the Pakistani military sees India as the threat," says Ms. Dormandy, of Harvard. "Until that attitude changes, you're not going to see Pakistan step back from its historically strong use of militant assets to affect foreign policy."

There are signs that this attitude is beginning to change. Pakistan is now fighting many of the militants it once sheltered in Bajaur and Swat in northern Pakistan. Obama's intent would be to accelerate this process and send a clear message to Pakistan.

"Why do you want to keep on being bogged down with [India and Kashmir], particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border?" he told Time. "I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention."

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