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Sunday, July 1, 2001

U.S. confronts high hurdles in Kashmir

NEW DELHI -- The United States has tried hard over the past five decades to mediate an end to the conflict between India and Pakistan. Lack of success has prompted it more recently to switch from an overt to a quiet, behind-the-scenes role as a peace broker.

While this new role conforms better to subcontinental sensitivities, America's silent diplomacy faces the same complexities and hurdles that stymied previously open efforts.

The conflict between the two South Asian rivals is rooted in history, religion and the politics of revenge, epitomizing competing visions and clashing worldviews and a divide along civilization fault-lines. Kashmir is the symbol rather the cause of the conflict.

Yet, from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, U.S. presidents have sought to pitchfork themselves as peacemakers between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.

President George W. Bush's officials had denied having played any role in arranging the summit meeting between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, set for July 14-16 at Agra, the seat of the Taj Mahal. But the White House let the cat out of the bag last week by revealing inadvertently the exact summit date before India and Pakistan had a chance to do so.

The ailing Vajpayee, unaware of the White House announcement, compounded India's embarrassment by telling the media on being discharged from a Bombay hospital after knee surgery that it would take a couple of days more to finalize the summit date.

But no sooner was the stage set for the summit meeting than the United States came face to face with the difficulties in brokering peace. Musharraf took advantage of the impending meeting to concentrate greater powers in his hands by usurping the country's presidency. This second coup by Musharraf incensed Washington but Vajpayee blundered again by congratulating Musharraf even before he assumed the presidency.

U.S. mediation traditionally has been unpopular in India. Truman's suggestions on resolving the Kashmir dispute, for example, prompted then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to complain that he was "tired of receiving moral advice from the United States."

However, it was Nehru who internationalized the Kashmir issue by rushing to the United Nations Security Council in 1948 before Indian troops could fully drive back invading Pakistani tribesmen and soldiers. Believing India had a strong legal and moral case on Kashmir, Nehru asked the Security Council -- an institution of power politics -- to deliver justice. His action only put an albatross round India's neck.

Subsequently, a fifth of Kashmir came under China's control, making the dispute even more intractable and leaving India with barely 45 percent of the original state.

Kashmir nonetheless has been at the center of U.S. diplomatic efforts. In 1962, when a crestfallen Nehru sought U.S. military aid after Chinese troops poured across the Himalayas in a surprise attack that left India humiliated, President John F. Kennedy did not approve arms assistance until New Delhi agreed to Kashmir talks with Pakistan's military regime.

Like Truman and President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Kennedy was inspired by the belief that a Kashmir settlement would facilitate a joint front against Communist China. But after five rounds of fruitless India-Pakistan talks, Kennedy concluded that the Kashmir issue for the two was "more important than the struggle against the Communists." In fact, by leaning too heavily on Nehru over Kashmir in the aftermath of China's invasion and granting only modest military aid, Kennedy may have prompted India to turn to the Soviet Union.

As a mediator, the U.S. has been more successful in pursuing limited objectives. In 1990, when events threatened to spin out of control over a bloody resurgence of Pakistan-backed separatist violence in Indian Kashmir, the Gates-Kelly mission sent by President George Bush helped defuse subcontinental tensions, persuading the two rivals to adopt confidence-building measures, like advance warning of troop movements and hotline communications.

No U.S. president, however, has more actively sought to broker peace on the subcontinent than Bill Clinton, whose fixation on Kashmir was apparent from his U.N. speeches and his belief that it is "probably the most dangerous place in the world." The legacy-minded Clinton played the role of an international peacemaker in disputes as disparate as Kashmir and Northern Ireland, but didn't score much success.

Clinton prodded and blessed the 1999 Lahore Declaration that committed India and Pakistan to a shared vision of peace and to nuclear-risk reduction. But within months the declaration lay in tatters as Pakistanis surreptitiously occupied a vast stretch of mountain heights in Kargil, Indian Kashmir.

To this day, Clinton takes credit for getting the Pakistani invaders fully out from Kargil. Clinton's pivotal role in ending the Kargil war, however, directly contributed to the ouster of Pakistan's democratically elected government and the return of the military to the political saddle. The military regime hit back by sharply escalating the level of terrorist violence in Indian Kashmir.

Today, as the new Bush team promotes India-Pakistan dialogue at the highest level, the focus again is on Kashmir. Just like Kennedy, some officials in Washington (and even in New Delhi) see a resolution of the India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir as essential for countering China.

But a Kashmir solution looks more remote than ever. While there is a U.S.-friendly government in New Delhi willing to work with Washington on regional peace, Pakistan is now a virtual China surrogate. A failing nuclear-armed state, Pakistan needs the Kashmir issue as the adhesive to hold its fractious, strife-torn society together.

Pakistan is not ready to give up the only leverage over its rival -- its ability to bleed India by sending arms and extremists into Indian Kashmir. In fact, Vajpayee's surprise invitation to Musharraf for talks has been widely seen in Pakistan as evidence of Indian fatigue in battling the jihad, or holy war, in Kashmir.

Islamabad still asserts its claim over the Indian-held, Muslim-dominated Kashmir Valley on the basis of religion although there are probably more Muslims in India now than in the nation that was created as the homeland for the subcontinent's Islamic population -- Pakistan.

U.S. diplomacy could make a more lasting contribution by helping the regional rivals to effectively manage, rather than resolve, the Kashmir dispute. It is the search for a solution to an intricate, irresolvable dispute that has compounded the problem and engendered more bloodshed in Indian Kashmir.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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