The natural beauty of Kashmir may be unrivalled, but it is a place littered with checkpoints and graveyards.
|Despite revived diplomatic efforts between India and Pakistan, many doubt real progress will be made unless the attitude of the military changes [Reuters]|
In August 1998, about 70 US missiles landed in eastern Afghanistan, targeting former mujahideen training camps that had been handed over to al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden, in what his bodyguard later described as “divine intervention”, was on his way to Kabul and survived. But many of the 34 people killed – 20 Afghans, seven Pakistanis and seven Arabs – were training to fight Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir.
“When Bill Clinton ordered missiles [attacks] on former Haqqani camps in Afghanistan, there were definitely Kashmiris killed there,” says Wahid Muzhda, an Afghan political analyst and former mujahid who fought the Soviets during the 1980s.
After Pakistan was pressured to stop fighters advancing its cause in Kashmir during the 1990s, Muzhda says, it simply relocated their training camps to Afghanistan, where they slipped under the radar during the chaos of a bloody civil war.
Today, many analysts suggest that the continuing violence in Kashmir and Afghanistan remain pieces of the same puzzle.
“The Kashmir imbroglio is an unfortunate phenomenon whose obvious shadow has loomed over not just Indo-Pakistan relations but upon Afghanistan as well,” says Mohammad Taqi, a columnist for Pakistan’s Daily Times.
The trust deficit between archrivals Pakistan and India – a rivalry partly rooted in the unresolved Kashmir dispute – continues to fuel the two countries’ struggle for regional influence. And as the US searches for a resolution in Afghanistan, many suggest Kashmir remains a crucial, but largely overlooked, factor in establishing stability in South Asia.
A US official aware of the US State Department’s dealings with Pakistan, India and Afghanistan, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak on the matter, told Al Jazeera that addressing tensions in Kashmir was not part of the US’ immediate efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan.
“The US tries to use its bilateral relations with both India and Pakistan to encourage easing of tensions over Kashmir, but it does not introduce the issue into discussions over Afghanistan,” he said.
However many fear that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan could, in the words of Nitin Pai, a fellow in geopolitics at the Indian Takshashila Institute, free up “thousands of armed, violent, radicalised” men who might find their way, once again, to Kashmir.
“With shattered, feudal economies and lack of skills that would make them employable, this pool of manpower will destabilise these countries and pose risks to the broader region,” says Pai.
‘The jihad around the corner’
“The initial call to the holy war – jihad – in Kashmir was rather generic,” Taqi says, referring to 1948, when the first war between Pakistan and India broke out over the disputed territory. “But the next decades saw the full-fledged use of highly indoctrinated and Wahabised proxies inducted into Kashmir, especially after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
The struggle for Kashmir developed more pronounced religious undertones in line with the increased religious fundamentalism in Pakistan during the rule of General Zia ul Haq in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Kashmiris’ right of self-determination was jettisoned along the way,” says Taqi. “Organisations that started demanding ‘Kashmir for Kashmiris’ – i.e. independence from both India and Pakistan – were abandoned by Pakistan, in favour of Islamist proxies, when they started moving away from the Pakistani position.”
Even during the struggle against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, Pakistan – pivotal to the then CIA-supported Afghan fighters – kept the two fronts close to each other to signal that, despite the USSR knocking on its door, Kashmir remained its biggest policy issue.
Muzhda, who, along with other Afghan mujahideen went to Pakistan for training, says the Kashmiri presence at the training camps was noticeable.
“The trainers were people who had ties to the ISI [Pakistan’s intelligence agency] and some of them were even religious scholars,” he says.
Many Afghans who received training at the camps were also deployed to Kashmir in subsequent years.
“I heard stories from fellow mujahideen who went to Kashmir for a stint. There was a feeling of pan-Islamism at the training camps and for many – including Afghans and Arabs fighting in Afghanistan – Kashmir was just another jihad around the corner,” Muzhda says, adding that a share of machine gun and long range weapon shipments from China and Egypt also made its way to Kashmir.
As Pakistan came under international scrutiny over the expanding militant activities of groups like Lashkar-e Jangvi and Harakat-ul Ansar during the 1990s, their training camps were relocated to Afghanistan. “But the stage for the national-security-state paradigm becoming the cornerstone of Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies was set long ago – by the events of 1947 and 1948,” says Taqi, referring to the years of partition.
“The involvement of the security apparatus in achieving Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives at a time when the democratic institutions were in an embryonic state set the stage for a larger-than-life role the military assumed in the affairs.”
While India and Pakistan have fought several wars over Kashmir, the battle has also raged through proxy groups and Afghanistan has historically been, and remains, a perfect battlefield for such a proxy war.
Davood Moradian, a professor of politics at the American University of Afghanistan and a former diplomat, however, believes the large disparity between Pakistan’s military establishment and its democratic institutions is at the core of the issue. He says Kashmir is but one manifestation of this.
“As the separation of East Pakistan [now Bangladesh] and ongoing violence within Pakistan show, the underlying causes are the main issues for regional stability rather than the proximate one of Kashmir,” Moradian explains. “Pakistan’s military and political elite see Pakistan as a hegemonic country. A hegemon and regional power requires parity with India and domination over Afghanistan.”
“The proxy warfare that had started in Kashmir in 1947 remains the sheet-anchor of Pakistan’s defence strategy. The quest for the so-called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan is also a manifestation of this phenomenon,” Taqi says.
Now that the US, facing economic troubles and war-fatigue at home, seems desperate for a resolution in Afghanistan, many fear the consequences will be felt in Kashmir.
“To the extent that the US withdrawal from Afghanistan frees up militants to fight elsewhere, there is a risk that some of them will find their way to Kashmir,” Pai says.
Pakistan’s history of reliance on proxy groups only adds to these fears, particularly among those who believe Pakistan has yet to completely sever its ties with armed groups that have had historical relations with the army over causes such as Kashmir.
“Because this diverts the militants from destabilising Pakistan’s domestic politics, even civilian leaders are likely to encourage this, as we saw in the early 1990s,” says Pai.
India, under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has assiduously pushed for better relations, considering a stable Pakistan crucial to its economic ambitions. It is a move that has been reciprocated by Pakistan’s civilian administration.
“Prime Minister Singh’s ‘peace offensive’ with Pakistan is guided by the fact that, if India wants to become an Asian power in the real sense, it has to extricate itself from contentious issues of South Asia,” says Indian political analyst Luv Puri.
In her first visit to India, Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, pushed for “purposeful and forward-looking” talks on Kashmir. In a move seen by some as a sign that she is genuine in her efforts to find a resolution, she also met with Kashmiri separatist leaders in New Delhi.
But many think that Pakistan’s civilian government can only go so far on foreign policy and that it is the army that will ultimately have the final say.
“The perpetuation of the Kashmir problem remains in the interest of both such militant groups and the Pakistani military establishment,” says Taqi.
“Any resolution of the problem would deprive the jihadists and military, which sired them, of their raison d’être.
“So, despite much trumpeted calls [for] Kashmiri freedom, the Pakistani army, which is addicted to its business ventures, would resist any resolution of the problem, especially an independent Kashmir.”
Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash