India: Let Kashmir go

Resolving the disputed territory would benefit all.

It now appears unlikely that India will respond to last month's attacks on Mumbai (Bombay) – its "9/11" – with a military strike on Pakistan, the terrorists' haven. With three major wars behind them, neither rival wants a repeat.

Unfortunately, the possibility of war may intensify in years to come if India ramps up its "Cold Start" military doctrine.

Cold Start transforms New Delhi's traditional focus on defense and lumbering mobilization of hundreds of thousands of troops to one that prizes nimble strikes against its neighbor within hours of crisis onset. The strategy assumes that occupation of limited Pakistani territory would be the bargaining chip to force Islamabad to heel. It also assumes that it could do this without crossing the nuclear threshold – not an easy feat where rivalries run deep.

India has war-gamed this strategy since 2004. Adoption still must overcome equipment and personnel deficiencies and interservice rivalries, but work continues.

Rather than intimidate Pakistan to constrain militants or suffer the consequences, Cold Start may do just the opposite by inadvertently putting militants in the driver's seat. Previously, terrorist provocations would be met with action only after deliberation and delay. Under Cold Start, response would be much more immediate, effectively empowering radicals to hold the subcontinent hostage to their crisis-initiating whims.

To avoid that outcome, the time has come for India to short circuit the most critical incendiary, the disputed area of Kashmir. Despite some recent Islamic militant clamor to dominate the entire subcontinent, Kashmir remains the eye of the Indo-Pakistani vortex.

Removing its centrality will help pull the rug from under terrorist groups that have used the dispute to target both the region and the heart of India. Failure will only heighten the probability that Cold Start might someday precipitate a nuclear conflict.

Recent history shows that it's not a far-fetched specter. On Dec. 13, 2001, five Pakistani gunmen dressed in commando fatigues and driving a diplomatic car entered the VIP gate of India's Parliament's compound armed with AK-47 rifles, grenades, and other explosives. Their audacious objective: decapitate the Indian government.

An alert guard foiled their plans, and the ensuing shoot-out left 13 people dead, including the assassins.

India demanded that Pakistan ban the responsible terrorist groups and arrest their leaders. To press Islamabad, it mobilized half a million men. But the intended impact stumbled as India's Army took three weeks to get to the border. This allowed Pakistan sufficient time to ratchet up defenses.

Tension then bounced down and up. They relaxed with President Musharraf's Jan. 12, 2002, televised address to the nation declaring his intention to crack down on the militants. But the May 2002 attack on an Indian base in Jammu that killed the wives and children of Indian servicemen renewed the drumbeat for war.

By July 2002, intense American diplomatic pressure, coupled with subtle Pakistan nuclear threats, caused the belligerents to stand their armies down, leaving a sour taste for many Indians: Pakistan remained unpunished.

For some defense planners, Cold Start offered the answer in future crisis. Now Mumbai gives the strategy renewed stimulus. But resolution of Kashmir is where momentum should be building.

In recent years, India has sought to relax tensions by promoting confidence-building measures – a bus line and commercial truck service between Srinagar and Muzzafarrabad, regular meetings between Indian and Pakistani local commanders, a crisis hot line, dialogue with moderate Kashmiri separatists, and improvement in the region's economic and human rights. These steps have tempered conflict but not Kashmiri objection to Indian rule.

New Delhi's reluctance to let Kashmiris define their future – options include independence, division along communal lines, comanagement by both India and Pakistan, a UN trusteeship – butts against recent history demonstrating that "letting go" more than holding on benefits politically divided states. Witness the pacific and beneficial demise of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Serbia/Montenegro.

India's future rests not on maturing Cold Start but becoming a 21st century economic power house. Hanging on to Kashmir does nothing to promote that goal. Letting go not only will benefit New Delhi's modernization by reducing the heavy military burden bad relations with Pakistan engenders, it also will allow Islamabad to redirect its military resources to the tribal areas benefiting Washington's position in Afghanistan.

By rattling South Asian relations, Mumbai's tragedy can give momentum to resolving one of the 20th century's most confounding impasses. A fast diplomatic start, not Cold Start, would benefit all.

Bennett Ramberg served in the State Department during the George H.W. Bush administration. He is the author of three books and editor of three others on international politics.

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