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All roads lead to Kashmir

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By Basharat Peer & Sasha Polakow-Suransky


Richard Holbrooke spent the final two years of his life struggling to bring peace to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but officially he was never allowed to touch the issue of Kashmir. In the wake of last week’s WikiLeaks revelations of the Indian government’s use of torture against Kashmiri prisoners, the time has come to put Kashmir back on the map and include it in discussions of a broader regional peace — one that would extend to Afghanistan as well.

The longstanding dispute over Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region, has poisoned relations between Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan for decades; spawned and sustained anti-Indian terrorist groups; prevented Pakistan’s army from fighting extremists along its border with Afghanistan; and proved deadly for the Kashmiris caught in between.

In early July, the bodies of three young laborers killed by Indian troops were discovered in the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir, unleashing a wave of protests. Police fired tear gas at protesters in Srinagar and killed a 17-year-old student, who was simply passing by. Soon, young Kashmiris armed with stones were battling Indian troops, who responded with bullets. An intense military curfew followed. From July to September, the Kashmiri intifada raged on killing 110 and injuring at least 1,500.

India has long resisted any outside attempt to mediate in Kashmir. The Indian government panicked after Barack Obama’s historic election in November 2008, fearing that Obama might appoint Bill Clinton as a special envoy to Kashmir as he had suggested during the campaign. And even before Holbrooke’s post was announced in January 2009, Indian officials and their allies in Washington lobbied furiously to have the words India and Kashmir excluded from the veteran US diplomat’s portfolio. India did not want to be seen as paying the price for US failures in Afghanistan by being forced to negotiate on Kashmir

Yet the occupation of Kashmir remains a stain on India’s democracy. Over500,000 Indian troops and paramilitary forces are stationed there. Killings of civilians by security forces routinely go unreported and unpunished as a result of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which effectively gives Indian troops stationed in Kashmir a de facto license to kill. The most recent trove of WikiLeaks confirmed what human-rights organizations have long alleged: that Indian troops have systematically tortured Kashmiri prisoners. After documenting widespread torture and sexual humiliation of prisoners who “were rarely militants,” the Red Cross told US officials in 2005 that it had concluded that the Indian government “condones torture.”

Even India’s current leaders realize that they cannot suppress Kashmiris’ desire for freedom forever and that they, too, could benefit from a resolution. Sonia Gandhi, the president of India’s ruling Congress Party, recently admitted the need to address “the alienation ofthe whole new generation of youth that has known nothing but conflict” in Kashmir. Another decade of tear gas and torture will not help India gain a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a larger role on the international stage.

Although the road to peace in Kabul does not necessarily begin in Kashmir, regional experts such as former CIA officer Bruce Riedel have argued that a lasting peace in Afghanistan is impossible without a resolution in Kashmir. So long as Pakistan’s military remains obsessed with the Indian threat and the large number of Indian troops along its eastern border, it is reluctant to redeploy its troops and its resourcesto go after the Taliban along Pakistan’s western border with Afghanistan. At the same time, Pakistan fears encirclement by India due to growing Indian influence in Afghanistan after the United States withdraws. Meanwhile, hawks in India seem reluctant to make major concessions in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s strategic calculus will only change, says Riedel, “once the logic of confrontation with India begins to be undermined.” And that will require renewed back-channel talks and incremental steps toward peace. An overt US push to resolve the Kashmir dispute along the lines of Washington’s recent efforts in the Middle East would likely fail — angering India and exposing its leaders to criticism from hawks on the right. But a softer behind-the-scenes approach could succeed.

After all, back-channel talks between India and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 came very close to establishing a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian- and Pakistani-controlled regions, and agradual demilitarization of the area. Those talks fell apart when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf lost power in August 2008, and the issue has been a political nonstarter since the Pakistani-sponsored terrorist attacks on Mumbai that November.

There are signs of hope. Two weeks ago, both Indian and Pakistani officials signaled that some back-channel diplomacy had resumed. More importantly, Syed Salahudin, the Pakistan-based leader of Hizbul Mujahideen, the largest Kashmiri militant group, announced in Rawalpindithat “India and Pakistan should sit at the negotiating table.” It is the first time in 20 years that Salahudin has come out in support of a negotiated resolution to the Kashmir dispute. Washington should seize the moment — but quietly.

Basharat Peer, an Open Society Fellow, is the author of “Curfewed Night.’’ Sasha Polakow-Suransky, a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, is the author of “The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.’’