Op-Ed

Kashmir Must Not Fall to the Saboteurs of Peace

Stephen P. Cohen

In six months, we will know whether the forces in both India and Pakistan opposed to a South Asian peace initiative are able to sabotage the process launched this month by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and Atal Behari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister. This week’s revival of direct rail links between the countries after a two-year hiatus is the latest sign of easing tensions. But by mid-year, weather conditions will permit Pakistani-based militants to infiltrate Indian-administered Kashmir. Then, we shall see how strong are their respective hawks and nay-sayers.

On past evidence, the thaw will not last. Since India’s provocative military exercises in 1987, there have been three regional crises&#151the last, two years ago, barely defused by U.S. diplomacy.

Mr. Vajpayee, who takes the long term view, is working for the eventual transformation of Pakistan, but he cannot do it alone. If his initiative fails, it is hard to see how the next crisis could avoid nuclear overtones.

Why, though, should what Mr. Vajpayee calls this “third and last chance” for peace not simply lead to more crises? This time, concessions by both sides (as much in language as in deed) could conceivably bring the peace process to the point of no return. We have not reached that stage yet.

Gen. Musharraf and Mr. Vajpayee clearly see this as the moment for a new approach, Mr. Vajpayee because he believes he can bring a semblance of normality to South Asia. He knows India will never be counted among Asia’s great states until it settles its affairs with the weaker Pakistan, and is aware that hardliners in his own party regard talk of peace as just short of treason.

The nay-sayers fall into two camps. In India, some believe Pakistan will eventually collapse and that there is no need to rescue it from this fate. Paradoxically, this approach has the same practical result as that of the Pakistani camp, which fears negotiating from a position of weakness and cites timing as the obstacle to negotiation.

His improbable dialogue partner, Gen. Musharraf, is harder to figure out. He lacks strategic vision, is a bad listener and believes that ruling Pakistan is like running an army division: give the orders and they will be obeyed.

He may have learnt, after four years, that this approach does not work. One suspects he is tired of water issues, sectarian rivalries and diplomatic double-talk. Even his strategy of using militants to force the Indians to the negotiating table has failed. Now that the militants are more interested in his death than victory in Kashmir, he is having second thoughts.

Such doubts are not peculiar to Gen. Musharraf. He represents a large civil-military oligarchy, dubbed the “Establishment” in local circles. This 800-1,000 strong group includes senior army commanders, bureaucrats, media leaders, politicians and even some Islamists. They know Pakistan is failing, that an economic and military race with an expanding India is a losing proposition and that Pakistan’s friends are fair-weather. Once Afghanistan is stabilised and al-Qaeda mopped up, the Americans will disappear, leaving Pakistan without a major ally. The once-reliable China, alarmed at Pakistan’s support for Islamic radicals, is moving towards an understanding with India over their border dispute even as India-China trade soars.

The next six months are critical. Will India be able to provide Pakistan with the one thing its army desperately needs, a reason to accept a border drawn through Kashmir? In the words of one Pakistani officer, the army understands it cannot wrest Kashmir from India, but it cannot turn its back on a 55-year struggle. At stake is its pride, and it literally calls the shots. Indians understand this, but many still observe “Chicago rules”: the best time to kick a man is when he is down. But that only postpones the problem. India cannot afford a radical Pakistan as a neighbour and Gen. Musharraf, for all his shortcomings and bravado, represents the Pakistani establishment.

Treating Kashmir as a human rights issue rather than one of territory and law would maximise the interests of all parties. The Pakistanis can claim their struggle resulted in more humane treatment of the Kashmiri people, even if they do not join Pakistan or become independent. The Indians, meanwhile, will remove a blot on their own democracy and the Kashmiris, of course, will recover a semblance of normal life.