While Secretary of State Colin L. Powell feverishly works to avoid the outbreak of a full-scale war between India and Pakistan, the ongoing developments in Kashmir reiterate the need for a sustained U.S. focus on the region. Powell's long-held position--to expect these two foes to work out the issue of Kashmir themselves--is no longer tenable.
In the aftermath of the attack in December on the Indian Parliament, intense U.S. pressure compelled Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to arrest hundreds of Islamic militants and promise to shut down their training camps.
Believing the problem solved, Washington diverted its attention to the crisis in the Middle East. With American scrutiny relaxed, the militants publicly rounded up last winter were quietly released. U.S. intelligence confirms that the training camps believed closed have been reactivated. As the snow melts, the number of Pakistani-supported militants crossing the border into India has increased.
The people of Kashmir have legitimate grievances. The assassination of moderate leader Abdul Ghani Lone, however, again demonstrates that, as in Chechnya, the aspirations of the local population for self-determination have been hijacked by radical Muslims bent on exploiting this struggle to provide cover for their worldwide campaign against secular rule. Militant Pakistani Muslims have established subsidiary organizations in Kashmir that not only advance the cause of radical Islam but have formed substantive links with Al Qaeda.
Although Washington has worked hard to sanitize Musharraf, it is important to recall that, as army chief of staff, he cultivated the links between Pakistan's religious militants and their brethren in Afghanistan and Kashmir.
Given the porous nature of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington should be concerned about fleeing Al Qaeda or Taliban fighters finding refuge in Pakistani-controlled camps and being reborn as "Kashmiri freedom fighters."
Musharraf has shown himself to be a consummate pragmatist. After Sept. 11, he readily abandoned Pakistan's Taliban proteges in Kabul and aligned himself with Washington in order to get U.S. aid and tacit legitimation of Pakistan's possession of nuclear weapons. In what is arguably the greatest diplomatic triumph in the annals of Pakistani history, Musharraf managed to transform Pakistan from a "rogue" state into a key ally of the U.S. war on terrorism.
While Washington continues to press sanctions against states--such as Iran--that pursue weapons of mass destruction and support Palestinian terrorists, Islamabad has largely escaped criticism because of the deft diplomatic skills of its warrior-president.
Musharraf continues to believe that he can quietly bleed India by using the Muslim militants who provide him with "plausible deniability" while the U.S. is distracted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, the Pakistani strongman is susceptible to U.S. pressure, and he can be induced to abandon Pakistan's support of the militants if that pressure is applied.
American credibility in the war on terror, as well as the emerging strategic relationship between India and the U.S., is at stake.
India is the cornerstone for peace and stability throughout South Asia. For its part, the Indian government of Atal Behari Vajpayee has diminished the Bharatiya Janata Party's traditional resentment of the U.S. and openly called the two sides "natural allies."
Unless Washington now tempers the designs of its new Pakistani ally, the nascent strategic relationship between India and the U.S. that is so critical to stabilization of an increasingly volatile South Asia--and which may hold the key to a final resolution of the Kashmir dilemma--will be lost.