|Since 9/11 the US has focused on terrorism but has not promoted more legitimate means for people to address their grievances [AFP]
As we await what many hope will be the start, on July 15, of a renewed India-Pakistan peace process, or "Composite Dialogue" - derailed since the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 - I am reminded of two past conversations.
The first occurred in 1999.
In a meeting with a senior Pakistani official, the topic came around, as it usually did, to US pressure on Pakistan to crack down on militants crossing the Line of Control to engage in "terrorist acts" in Indian administered Kashmir.
Such infiltration, of course, was widely believed to be facilitated by Pakistan's infamous intelligence service, the ISI.
Dropping for a moment the usual protests of innocence, the official challenged me to distinguish between a "terrorist" and a "freedom fighter".
That was easy, I said: "The terrorist targets civilians."
The unspoken assumption in my response was that the US would look differently upon militants engaged in legitimate resistance to oppression, provided those militants restricted themselves to "legitimate" military or security related targets.
I knew, however, that this was not a distinction my government would willingly concede; and the Pakistani, not wishing to acknowledge the legitimacy of my distinction, did not press me on it.
Fast-forward then to another conversation, this time with a senior official in the US department of defence.
It was early 2002, just months after the attacks of 9/11.
The US had just launched its "war on terrorism," and this official, perfectly innocent of any South Asian background, was trying to get a full grasp of all the terrorism we had set out to eliminate.
"What about what's going in Kashmir?" he asked. "Isn't that terrorism?"
Nearly falling out of my chair, I strongly cautioned him against setting his sights on Kashmir in the way we were already focusing on al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
There was a long history behind the Kashmir dispute, I pointed out earnestly, and it would be a big mistake to focus myopically on the terrorism without trying to solve the dispute itself.
Focus on terrorism
Talks must address the grievances of Kashmiris[EPA]
Nonetheless, that is precisely what the US has done since 9/11: Focusing on the illegitimate means of redress - the terrorism - without considering either the grievances which produce it or promoting more legitimate means of redressing those grievances.
The US failure in this regard has been compounded by its encouragement of similar attitudes on the part of other nations, including India, which are seen as fellow victims of terrorism, and therefore natural allies in the "war on terror".
When Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the Pakistani foreign minister, meets with his Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna, the threat of terrorism will hover over the proceedings in at least two respects.
The prospect of Indo-Pakistani rapprochement, finally gaining slight momentum after the debacle of Mumbai, will pose a highly attractive target for extremists who see peace between the two leading secular South Asian democracies as a threat.
Senior officials from both India and Pakistan have stressed the menace posed by extremist spoilers, and the corresponding need to make the peace process impervious to such threats.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, preoccupation with terrorism emanating from Pakistan has encouraged the Indian side to focus on the eradication of the terrorist threat as an effective precondition to serious talks.
Indeed, the concern with terrorism dominates Indian rhetoric about the upcoming talks, with Krishna having recently reiterated that "Mumbai is a deep scar; [Pakistan] must pursue those who were responsible for, conspired and perpetrated Mumbai".
While such concerns are certainly understandable, they nonetheless constitute an overwhelming distraction from the matter at hand.
Indeed, it is clear that the upcoming talks will essentially be "talks about talks".
Such concrete steps as might be taken will clearly fall into the category of "confidence-building measures," designed to create an environment of greater "trust".
The Pakistanis, too, are falling into the same trap, with Salman Bashir, the Pakistani foreign secretary, having recently said "I think what we're trying to do here is create the right environment".
We have seen all this before.
Such a process driven approach, if sustained, will doom the current effort to the fate suffered by all previous ones: Abject failure.
The status quo
The fundamental problem is that the status quo, with India in effective control of most of Jammu and Kashmir, favours India.
Thus, a sustained series of so-called confidence building measures which reduces the threat of hostilities has the effect of making the status quo more tolerable for India over time, thus creating a strong disincentive for India to engage in a real negotiation.
Correspondingly, in Pakistan, confidence building measures in the absence of progress on the core issues in dispute only make the prospect of Indian concessions on Kashmir all the more unlikely and, thus, a policy focused initially on creating trust all the less sustainable.
This is especially true where terrorism and militant groups are concerned.
In South Asia, as elsewhere, terrorism is the tool of the weak.
Without any other effective means of redressing Indian repression of Muslims in Indian administered Kashmir, a Pakistani focus on cracking down on so called "Kashmiri" militant groups based in Pakistan itself is unlikely to be accepted by the army, and only risks further undermining a Pakistani government already beset with domestic militant threats on all sides.
It is patently clear to everyone concerned, including the Pakistani army, that for Pakistan, Kashmir is lost, and will never be regained.
Thus, the challenge of an effective peace process in South Asia will be to cut through the chimera of "confidence building measures" which lead nowhere, and to frame an agreement which goes far enough in addressing the legitimate grievances of Kashmiris to make the loss of Kashmir acceptable to the majority of Pakistanis.
Once such an agreement in principle is reached, it will then be necessary for the Indian and Pakistani governments to collaborate closely in an effort to make the agreement, including some significant Indian concessions to Kashmiris' desire for greater autonomy, politically saleable on both sides.
In the same vein, it would also be necessary for India and Pakistan to collaborate in empowering the moderates in Kashmir itself who are capable of bringing about a political solution.
It is also patently clear that the Indians and Pakistanis are not capable of putting such a far-sighted political programme together on their own.
Rather than using the Indians' desire for great-power status as an effective diplomatic tool to encourage steps leading to a settlement of Kashmir, however, US policy is working assiduously to sabotage the process.
Firstly, by effectively encouraging India to follow the US lead in dealing with terrorism solely as an illegitimate political tool, which in fact it is, without simultaneously addressing the grievances which motivate it, the US is undermining its own interest in a Kashmir settlement.
Further, by dealing with the Kashmir dispute solely as a matter between India and Pakistan, and ignoring the plight of Kashmiris themselves, the US is delegitimising the only approach which would make Pakistani territorial concessions domestically acceptable.
The current unrest in Kashmir, which has led to the deaths of another 15 civilians in the past month, only serves as a reminder of the centrality of Kashmir and Kashmiris in the dispute - despite the state department's craven labelling of current Kashmiri violence and repression as "an internal Indian matter".
Make no mistake: Settlement of Kashmir is critical to broader regional stability.
Without a settlement of Kashmir, the Indo-Pakistani proxy battle which greatly complicates prospects for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan is unlikely to abate.
Without a settlement of Kashmir, it will only be harder to socially isolate the extremists who pose an existential threat to Pakistan itself, and who could effectively undermine a nuclear armed state to say nothing of touching off a potentially nuclear armed confrontation between India and Pakistan.
Let us hope that the upcoming "talks about talks" serve to remind all interested parties of what is at stake, and seriously attempt to reach beyond the current, deeply flawed and unsustainable "Composite Dialogue".
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of the CIA's counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.
Source: Al Jazeera