When the summit talks between India and Pakistan broke off earlier this month, it was not for misunderstanding. Both positions were perfectly clear. Pakistan wanted what is now India's province of Kashmir, and India intended to keep it. This problem has poisoned their relations for more than 50 years. They have fought three wars. But the danger is newly greater. They are both nuclear powers now, and the balance between them is increasingly unstable.
During the cold war, peace was a balance of terror. The United States and Soviet Union held their equivalent power in check. Today, India is the regional superpower in military and economic terms. Pakistan is in such poor shape that its only resort in asserting what it feels are its vital interests is its nuclear arsenal.
Pakistan sees Kashmir as torn from its flesh, a province with a Muslim population arbitrarily joined to India when the British left in 1947. It accuses India of blocking a plebiscite to resolve the matter as proposed by the United Nations. In normal circumstances, Kashmir would be a serious grievance; but in Pakistan's abnormal condition, it is an obsession.
Pakistan is on the verge of being a failed state. It has a stagnant economy, a huge public debt, and high unemployment. Officially an Islamic republic, it is being Talibanized by extremist Islamists, now more powerful than ever before and given to bloody attacks upon other believers. Socially it is disjointed, not only between wealth and poverty but also by class. Five thousand families are said to have 80 percent of the rural population under their thumb. Corruption in politics has been deeply ingrained in the civil regimes and military dictatorships that have split Pakistan's 54 years as a nation.
Once again the Army is in power, promising to clean everything up. But the Army is a state within a state, eating up about 45 percent of the national budget. It makes policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir Pakistan's main concerns. Its executive agency, removed perhaps even from the Army's control, is the notorious ISI, Inter-Services Intelligence. This was the channel for the US and Saudi Arabia to send billions of dollars' worth of supplies and the most advanced infantry weapons to the Mujahideen, who ushered the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan. Since 1994, ISI has supported Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, additionally providing military commanders and specialists. The ostensible object was to gain "strategic depth" vis-a-vis India, whatever that means in the age of missiles. A congenial Taliban government was also to give Pakistan access to Central Asia and control of future oil and gas pipelines. And, since a good number of the guerrillas whom ISI sends to fight in Kashmir are trained in Afghanistan, still another purpose was served.
This is the tangle of intrigue and desperation that confronts the two principals in their hair-trigger relationship of mistrust. The US and the USSR at their lowest point had distance, which means time, and instant verification to avert a cataclysmic mistake. India and Pakistan are next-door neighbors with neither the information to guide them nor time to reflect in a sudden emergency. Pakistan, being much the weaker, might make the first nuclear strike. But India could respond to a false alarm with a preemptive strike. What to do?
Kashmir is the key. Admonition is a waste of breath. Both sides must see the incentive to back away from this booby trap, to stop their fruitless and mutually provocative engagement. Pakistan is the place to start. It must realize that the UN plebiscite it has been fighting for will never be held. Once that has sunk in, Pakistan will at last be able to negotiate.
The next step is India's. It is treating Kashmir not as a part of India, but as a colony under martial law. It keeps some 350,000 soldiers in an area smaller than Wisconsin and holds the population in an iron grip. It has been accused of outrageous human-rights violations. A relaxation of Pakistan's position would allow India to give the Kashmiris the constitutional rights and freedoms due all its citizens.
India must help Kashmir attain the broadest cultural autonomy, to nullify the Pakistani rallying cry that fellow Muslims are being oppressed. As the strongest and richest on the subcontinent, India must also - for its own sake - do what it can with trade, aid, investment, and diplomacy to put Pakistan on an even keel. The United States, Russia, China, and Europe have an important, direct stake in helping achieve success.
What is now the violent Line of Control through Kashmir would become a recognized international boundary between Pakistan and India. China would keep Lakakh in the high Himalayas, which it has held for 40 years.
And the world would be rid of a major hotbed of trouble.
Richard C. Hottelet was a longtime correspondent for CBS.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor