A little more than four months after taking the reins of Pakistan in a popular coup, Gen. Pervez Musharraf has quietly but quickly turned a 52-year dispute with India over Kashmir into the central rallying point of the new regime.
In trying to unify a dispirited country and appease increasingly powerful Islamic groups, chief executive Musharraf has gone further than any recent leader to legitimize jihad, or holy war, over Kashmir. Some analysts say it is the most acute nuclear flashpoint on the planet.
Signs of the new emphasis are thick. Banners proclaiming "jihad in Kashmir!" are displayed in parades, on beaches in Karachi in the south, and at the gateway of the Khyber Pass to Afghanistan in the north. A variety of militant groups that send mujahideen fighters to Indian-controlled Kashmir openly collect money in the markets of cities and towns.
Pakistani diplomacy no longer situates Kashmir in a "bundle" of issues to resolve with India. "Kashmir must first be resolved before any normalization of relations with India," says assistant foreign secretary Tariq Altaf.
In recent weeks, General Musharraf has forcefully argued a distinction between "terrorism" against innocent civilians and the Kashmir jihad, which he says is conducted against military targets in Kashmir to liberate the 4 million Muslims who live under a 500,000-troop Indian occupation. "I have explained [to US officials] that the Kashmir struggle is a freedom struggle that is not linked to terrorism," Musharraf has said in numerous interviews.
The Kashmir bid seems an appeal to Washington to push India prior to President Clinton's arrival in South Asia on March 19. Or it may be good politics, since for Pakistanis Kashmir is the central unfinished business of the 1947 partition with India. Some argue Kashmir is the raison d'tre of a regime led by military thinkers, as opposed to civilian officials who are more likely to leverage through diplomacy.
Yet the great concern is that a green light to jihad given so openly by Musharraf may be impossible to reverse. Musharraf is regarded as fairly secular and pragmatic. But passions about Kashmir run deep. Among millions of poor and rural Pakistanis attending Islamic schools and seminaries, jihad is very popular. Moreover, there is a sense among Islamic mullahs that their hour has arrived. With a sympathetic military leader in charge, it is time to finish the Kashmir claim once and for all.
"There will now be no going back on Kashmir jihad," says Ameer ul Azim, a senior official with the Jama'at-e-Islami, an Islamic political party with close ties to the paramilitary Hezbul Mujahideen. "People say this is a flashpoint. That has no meaning for us. We fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. We know the risks, and are willing to take them."
"I see Musharraf's logic in pushing Kashmir, but this is a very dangerous game," says one diplomat who requests anonymity.
A number of diplomats and military analysts say that Pakistani generals feel the 1998 nuclear weapons tests are a new threshold by which to increase cross-border attacks, since they conclude India will not start a nuclear war. Pakistani generals and mullahs speak of India as unable to sustain its presence in Kashmir. In the past few weeks, attacks on Indian troops in the valley have increased. Every day brings news of another 10 or 20 killed, often by suicide bombers or land mines.
Indian officials scoff at a withdrawal. Last week Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee stated that Pakistan must return the territory it captured in 1965 before any talks can commence. Central Intelligence Agency chief George Tenet told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in January that it is "highly possible that New Delhi may opt to crack down on Kashmiri militants ... [or] even order military strikes against militant training camps inside [Pakistan-controlled] Azad Kashmir."
Such tension was not seen two years ago, prior to India's nuclear weapons tests. India-Pakistan relations were supposedly in a "thaw." Talk was of trade, shared power grids, confidence building measures, and back-channel diplomacy. A year ago last week, Indian Mr. Vajpayee took a bus trip to Lahore, Pakistan to sign a peace accord with then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Yet the "thaw" itself may explain the new policy. Pakistani generals, including Musharraf, who was born in India prior to partition, were reportedly disenchanted with the stance on Kashmir by recent civilian regimes. The short but sharp Kargil war last spring in the Himalayan aeries of Kashmir was likely the generals' effort to relocate Kashmir on the international stage, rather than on the back burner of talks between India and Pakistan.
Indeed, Kashmir is spoken of here as central to a Pakistani identity. Where the word "Pakistan" is a conglomeration of names of regions, the "K" stands for Kashmir. India's first prime minister, Jawarharlal Nehru, once compared Its rugged and enchanting mountain valley to "the face of the beloved that one sees in a dream and that fades away upon awakening."
Yet having promised a UN plebiscite over Kashmir in 1947, Nehru, himself a Kashmiri, was unwilling to allow the Kashmir dream to fade. The plebiscite in 70 percent Muslim Kashmir never took place, and India and Pakistan had fought two wars over the territory before Kargil last spring. For the past 10 years, an anti-Indian insurgency has led to tens of thousands of deaths and the evisceration of a culture that drew the best out of both Hindu Brahmins and the Muslim majority.
"My feeling is that Kashmir is the root of everything," says German Ambassador to Pakistan Hans Joachim Daerr. "Some people say that if Kashmir were solved, the Pakistanis would just find other gripes and complaints. I don't think so."
Earlier this month, in a significant departure from policy, the White House offered to mediate the Kashmir issue. India has staunchly refused such offers. President Clinton still has to decide whether he will visit Pakistan next month. US officials are divided over whether long-term interests for stability in the region are outweighed by appearing to legitimate an unelected general.
The intelligentsia here views the fervor to be of questionable value for Pakistan, and a thorn in the side of a dysfunctional economy and its ability to attract foreign investment. Real talks can only take place in an atmosphere of quiet and in a highly secret manner, they say. "Which is more important - Kashmir, or Pakistan?" says retired general Talaat Masood. "I think we've lost our perspective on that question."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society