Almost Forgotten: The World's Most Dangerous Conflict

Time now for the world to get involved. The solution: let all the borders fade away. Turn Kashmir into an autonomous, demilitarized free trade zone.
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The fabled state of Kashmir lies in majestic isolation amid the towering mountain ranges of the Himalayas and Karakoram that separate the torrid plains of north India from the steppes and deserts of Central Asia.

Nineteenth-century geopoliticians called Kashmir one of the world's primary strategic pivots. My book War at the Top of the World was written to help warn of the manifest dangers coming from this complex, little-known confrontation which is the world's longest running border conflict.

The state human rights commission of the Indian-ruled portion of divided Kashmir just reported its investigators had found 2,156 bodies buried in unmarked graves in 38 different locations. Most were young men. Many bore bullets wounds.

Grisly and horrifying as this discovery was, there was hardly a peep from India's allies, notably the United States and Britain, who have raised such a hue and cry over alleged civilian deaths in Libya, Iran and Syria. India shrugged off the report.

There may be many more bodies to be found. Most, or all, were the product of the decades-old uprising by Kashmir's Muslim majority against often brutal Indian rule that the outside world has largely ignored.

Historic Kashmir, with its distinctive Indo-European and Tibetan-Mongol peoples, has ended up divided between three nations: India, Pakistan, and China.

Some nine million Kashmiris live in the Indian-ruled two thirds of Kashmir; over three million in the Pakistani portion, known as "Azad Kashmir," or in Pakistan proper, and small numbers in the frigid, 15,000-20,000 ft high Aksai Chin plateau which is controlled by China.

Kashmir's Tibetan-race people mostly live in Indian-controlled Ladakh, long called "Little Tibet." There, Tibetan culture has fared far better under Indian rule than in Chinese-ruled Tibet.

When Imperial Britain divided India in 1947, the Hindu maharaja of Kashmir opted to join the new Indian Union. But 77% of his people were Muslim (20% were Hindu, 3% Sikh and Buddhist). Muslim Kashmiris wanted to join newly-created Pakistan. Fighting erupted. India and Pakistan rushed in troops.

The cease-fire line that ended the fighting has become the de facto border between the Indian and Pakistani ruled parts of Kashmir. India claims all of Kashmir, including Chinese-occupied Aksai Chin. Pakistan also claims all of Kashmir. In 1948, the United Nations called for a plebiscite in Kashmir to decide this issue. Pakistan accepted; India refused the UN resolution.

India and Pakistan have fought three full-scale wars over Kashmir and innumerable border clashes, some of which I have witnessed. Last week, three Pakistani soldiers were killed on Kashmir's de facto border (called the Line of Control) by Indian fire.

Today, hundreds of thousands of Pakistani and Indian troops confront one another on Kashmir's cease-fire line, and further south in the plains of Punjab. They are backed by growing numbers of tactical nuclear weapons that are on a three-minute hair-trigger alert, making Kashmir the world's most dangerous border.

Kashmiri Muslims have resisted Indian rule since 1947. In the early 1990's, massive uprisings erupted against Indian rule, which was enforced by 500,000 troops and ill-disciplined paramilitary police. Pakistan's intelligence service, ISI, began training Kashmir "mujahedin" and sending them across the border to reinforce the uprising. But Pakistan's covert support waned after 9/11.

Indian authorities blamed the uprising on "cross-border terrorism." Indian security forces struck back with maximum brutality, leading India's human rights groups to denounce the repression.

Muslim villages were burned; suspects were tortured; Muslim women were gang-raped by Indian border police; large numbers of young Muslim men were taken from villages and simply disappeared.

Now we know where they went -- filling many of the unmarked graves discovered last month.

An estimated 80,000 Kashmiris have so far died in the uprising, the majority Muslims. Muslims also committed bloody atrocities against Hindus and Sikhs. Now, Indian rights groups are demanding that India's high courts investigate the crimes that have been committed in Kashmir, put an end to them, and punish the guilty parties.

Continued selective moral outrage on our part is unacceptable. India's allies must encourage Delhi to face this ugly issue and end this blight on India's democracy and good name. The outside world has to tell Delhi that if it wants to be a respected world power and have a seat on the UN Security Council, it must end the killing and torture in Kashmir. Pakistan must be reminded to stop stirring the pot.

Resolving the Kashmir dispute will eliminate the gravest danger faced by mankind: an India-Pakistan nuclear exchange that could kill an estimated 2 million initially, 100 million thereafter, and spread clouds of radioactive dust around the globe.

Kashmir has poisoned relations between sister nations Pakistan and India who are hopelessly locked in this sterile conflict. Desperately poor India and Pakistan waste tens of billions on military spending because of Kashmir. Clever Indian diplomacy has long kept the Kashmir conflict in the shadows.

Time now for the world to get involved. The solution: let all the borders fade away. Turn Kashmir into an autonomous, demilitarized free trade zone.

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