Snow snuffs Kashmir's war fires

With battlefields iced over, India and Pakistan stick to a cease-fire and discuss a travel thaw Monday.

[Editor's note: The original version did not include Owais Tohid's byline.]

With her father on his deathbed hundreds of miles away in India, Rana Anwer was desperate to see him one last time. "Your father's last wish is to see you," her relatives said.

But at that time, six weeks ago, India and Pakistan were still shelling each other along their 780-kilometer Line of Control in the divided state of Kashmir. In such a tense atmosphere, Rana knew the Indian government would not issue a Pakistani citizen like her a visa.

Eventually, Rana heard from her Indian relatives that her father had died - his last wish unmet.

Today, for thousands of divided families like Rana's, hopes are beginning to rise, as India and Pakistan's weeklong cease-fire shows signs of holding. Artillery guns remain silent, and diplomats Monday in Delhi will begin talks on restoring air, bus, and rail links between the two South Asian rival nations. In a goodwill gesture, Pakistan Sunday lifted a ban on Indian flights over its airspace.

But while Indian and Pakistani observers welcome the cease-fire, many suggest that the current peace has more to do with weather conditions than any substantial change in policy by either nation. Each winter, the upper valleys of Kashmir state become snowed under, making infiltration by foreign insurgents and military activities by either country impossible. In this context, many observers say the real test will come this spring when the snows melt, or if there is another provocative terrorist attack.

"Both sides are trying to take credit in the international media for things that do not cost anything, that do not involve any strategic shift by either side," says Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management, a conservative think tank in New Delhi.

Khalida Ghaus, an international relations professor at University of Karachi, agrees. "The main problem to me is not the Kashmir problem. The main issue is the mistrust and distrust that prevails on both sides. There has to be a cord of trust between Islamabad and New Delhi, otherwise these gestures of goodwill will bring no results, like the past."

Unceasing failures

If there is skepticism, it is mainly because the subcontinent's history is littered with cease-fires that have failed. In November 2000, Pakistan announced a cease-fire that ended in May the following year. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf followed this up soon after with another cease-fire, and agreed to visit the Indian city of Agra for a summit with his counterpart, Atal Vajpayee. After a few days, these talks failed, with neither side willing to change its position.

The positions of India and Pakistan have changed little in the 56 years since the partition of India into Muslim-majority Pakistan and Hindu-majority India. The northern state of Kashmir was the flashpoint for their first war in 1947, when Pakistani insurgents, later backed by Pakistani troops invaded.

To this day, both countries hold a portion of the state. India believes the state of Jammu and Kashmir is rightfully India's, since at partition the Hindu prince who ruled Kashmir acceded to India. Pakistan believes that Kashmir should belong to Pakistan, since it received most of British India's states with Muslim majorities. Neither country appears ready to alter these positions.

Primed for peace?

For a lasting peace to take hold, regional experts stress that the recent goodwill gestures need to be followed quickly with something more concrete.

"Pakistan has to be seen doing something other than just banning a few militant groups," says Ashok Mehta, a former Indian Army major general and now a defense analyst in New Delhi. "They must do something visible, concrete, like dismantling militant camps. India must be convinced that something is being done to stop infiltration."

Pakistani observers, meanwhile, say that India should move toward a serious dialogue with Kashmiri separatists. Last week's invitation by Indian Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to the separatist All Parties Hurriyat Conference is a good first step, they say.

Despite all the talk of next steps, the cease-fire has not brought peace in the valley of Indian Kashmir itself. Militants have continued to carry out attacks on Indian troops, and Indian troops have actually stepped up house-to-house searches for militants. In the past five days alone, 10 people have been killed, including four militants and six Kashmiri citizens.

"My hunch is that the Army has plans to flush out militants, using a whole array of early warning systems and sensors on the ground and thermal imaging devices that help them locate militants," says Mr. Mehta. "Some of these operations of the military, such as cordon and search, may not be very people-friendly."

Here in Pakistan, most militant pro-Kashmir groups have taken a lower profile since President Musharraf banned three of the most active pro-Kashmiri military organizations, including Lashkar-i Tayyaba and Jaish-e Muhammed. But, some like the largest ethnic Kashmiri militant group, Hizbul Mujahideen, say the cease-fire will not keep them from infiltrating Indian Kashmir and fighting for separation.

"The cease-fire is between the two armies and is limited to the Line of Control," says Saleem Hashmi, spokesman for Hizbul. "Our fight against the Indian forces will continue in Kashmir. Cease-fire is not the solution. The problem does not resolve until the Kashmir issue gets resolved."

Even so, here in Karachi, Rana Anwer says she is ready to leave for India anytime she can get a visa. She hasn't seen her relatives there since she emigrated to in 1988 to marry.

She sighs. "I could not see my father, but now at least I could visit his grave."

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