As the last Pakistani fighters left Indian-controlled Kashmir by foot and mule in recent days, the head of the Pakistani armed forces made a startling admission. Contrary to months of official denials, he said Pakistani regular forces had fought in the Kashmir mountains alongside Islamic mujahideen - and that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was part of the plan to send troops to challenge India.
As one of the most powerful men in Pakistan, Gen. Pervez Musharraf may have closed a chapter on a fight launched this spring when forces from Pakistan took up positions across a long-disputed border.
But it also opens another. Analysts say it suggests that the Pakistani withdrawal is not yet any kind of peace. Rather, it's an inconclusive pause in a complex 50-year crisis over the Kashmir valley, a 97 percent Muslim region that Pakistanis at the highest levels are not likely to abandon militarily.
As hostilities ceased, both Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Mr. Sharif agreed to return to the "Lahore process," the peace accord signed last February when the two men met for the first time since their countries tested nuclear weapons last year. US and European diplomats, while acceding to India's desire not to mediate, strongly back Lahore as a way to begin a new dialogue.
Yet despite bravely optimistic statements, the fact is that both India and Pakistan are much further apart than they were in February. The best scenario in the coming months is likely to be "talks about talks," as a Delhi-based diplomat says.
The "Kargil war," as Indians refer to the conflict, profoundly embittered New Delhi - not least because Pakistan surprised Indian troops in May near the town of Kargil, in spite of the Lahore accord. Kargil became a cause clbre; schoolchildren wrote to "jawans," the Indian troops.
A cooling off
Now there must be a "cooling off" period, as strategic analyst C. Raja Mohan puts it, that could last past September's national elections in India. India is likely to demand then that the disputed border, or "line of control" (LOC), become a permanent international border.
Pakistan is in a more difficult position, having put all its eggs in the Kashmir basket. While it succeeded in "internationalizing" the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan may have done so at the expense of its credibility as a reliable negotiating partner.
Pakistani officials believe the historical weight of their claim will win the day if India ever allows it to be taken up by a third party, whether in Camp David fashion, or by the United Nations. They say India used the Lahore process as a smoke screen for permanently removing Kashmir from the negotiating table. A top Pakistan Embassy official in New Delhi says, "Will there be other Kargils? You might as well ask if there are stars in the sky. We will continue to put Kashmir on the map until this problem is solved."
That position is a long way from the outcome being formulated by New Delhi. To freeze the borders created in 1971 during the last war between India and Pakistan is not an outcome that Sharif could easily sell at home. Moreover, the prerequisite for such a plan involves cessation of all support by Pakistan for militants crossing the border into Kashmir - an agreement that would put Sharif at odds with Islamic groups.
Kashmir has long been described by top diplomats and Nobel laureates as one of the most difficult and intractable of the world's trouble spots. Since the partition of India in 1947, a host of superstar statesmen have dipped their toes in the dispute - and then quietly withdrawn them.
Yet when India and Pakistan "went nuclear" in May and June of 1998, the international community could no longer as easily turn a blind eye to the beautiful Himalayan valley. It has been a flash point for a decade because of a militant insurgency among Muslims there that drove out most Hindus in 1992 and brought 450,000 Indian troops to police the region.
What irritated Washington this spring is the manner in which Pakistan used the nuclear crisis to embark on a military bid to solve Kashmir. US diplomats may agree that Kashmir is inherently "international" due to the new nuclear equation. But ironically, in the Kargil bid, Pakistan appears to have found an international consensus including both the US and China, blocking the movement of its case to the Security Council.
Beginning of the dispute
The Kashmir dispute dates to the 1947 partition when the Hindu maharajah of Muslim-majority Kashmir agreed, in a moment of panic or duress, to essentially turn Kashmir over to India. The understanding was that Kashmiris would vote on whether to join India or Pakistan. Yet that vote has never taken place - one reason India prefers facts on the ground to international mediation - resulting in two UN Security Council resolutions stating that the territory of Kashmir was disputed, and calling for a plebiscite.
After the 1971 war, the two sides signed the "Simla accords." Simla suggested that future problems be solved bilaterally. Since then, India has held that Simla means Kashmir is not a topic that can be legally raised in international forums. During most of the Kargil war, Indian officials called for a return to the Simla accords.
Pakistan hotly disputes India's claim that Simla trumps the UN resolutions as legally binding. Indeed, the language of Simla is ambiguous. After stating that "the principles and purposes" of the UN charter will guide the two parties, it reads that the two states will "settle their differences through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon."
In the next few months, the "talks about the talks" between India and Pakistan are likely to focus on that clause.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society