Solving Kashmir

Last week, a lot of attention was focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan, since the leaders of the two countries were visiting President Obama in Washington. But nobody seems to be talking about an obvious (if difficult) solution to at least part of the problem Pakistan finds itself in currently -- solving the Kashmir problem once and for all.

Pakistan certainly has enough problems on its plate, and without getting into their internal political and military situation too deeply, part of the problem with the Taliban and other extremist groups having a safe haven in northwest Pakistan is that the Pakistani military is reluctant to engage too many of their troops with the militants, because of their long obsession with India. The militant groups are expanding their influence from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to the Swat Valley and beyond. This is a little too close to the nation's capital city for comfort, and the Pakistani troops are now pushing back.

But reports are that they're only sending about 15 percent of their army to do the job. This is because most of the Pakistani army is busy with their traditional foe, India. And since the two nations are now both nuclear-armed, things can get tense along the border. This tension is at its highest point in the Kashmir region.

Kashmir is a valley in the mountain ranges at the skirts of the Himalayas. The entire region, now known as Kashmir and Jammu, was once a principality in the area where China, India, and Pakistan meet. Part of the problem is that just looking at a map doesn't accurately give a good picture of the region, because most people live in the area that India administers currently. The Pakistani area is very mountainous, and the Chinese area is primarily an ancient dead sea -- an alkaline desert. All three countries have claims on the region for differing reasons that stretch back to the 1800s (and earlier -- Kashmir is in a part of the world where territory and fealty has changed hands many times throughout history).

When Britain partitioned India following World War II (when Pakistan was created), the Kashmir region was supposed to hold a vote on which country they wanted to be part of (independence was even supposed to be on the table). This vote has never occurred. Pakistan and India both moved troops into the region. India says the ruler of the area signed a document putting them under Indian control. Pakistan says this document (if it even exists, they claim they haven't seen the original) was signed after Indian troops entered, under duress.

China, meanwhile, had never agreed to give up its claims on the region, and (while India and Pakistan were busy with each other) quietly built a military road through their section. For China, the mostly-worthless chunk they claim isn't important in and of itself, it is important for a route from one region to another within China.

Since then, many wars have been fought over the boundary lines. India and Pakistan have fought both on a large scale, and in small-scale low-level raids pretty much ever since the British left. India and China fought their own conflict over their dividing line as well.

In other words, resolving the issue and drawing final national boundary lines between the countries will be about as easy as getting Israel and Palestine to agree on a map. It's not going to be easy. But that doesn't mean the Obama administration shouldn't make the attempt (or may already be making the attempt, for all I know). Because getting everyone to agree over the issue would go a long way towards ratcheting down the half century of distrust and tit-for-tat military actions between India and Pakistan. Meaning Pakistan could free up some of their army to keep control of their own national territory.

In this case, border lines have already been drawn by the United Nations. Between India and Pakistan it is known as the "Line Of Control" (LOC) and between India and China the "Line of Actual Control" (LAC). The LOC has been in place since 1972. Pakistan, in this division, gets the Northern Areas, China gets Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract (or the Shaksgam Valley region), and India gets Jammu and Kashmir. The Siachen Glacier, which is kind of where all three countries' claims meet, is usually left as an area with no clear dividing line. India has even built a 460-mile-long fence (a double fence topped with concertina wire and mined in between) just inside their side of the LOC, to reduce infiltration and weapons smuggling into its region.

The real sticking point between India and Pakistan is the Kashmir Valley itself. This region was mostly Muslim before the British left, and Pakistan claims it on that basis -- that if an election had been held, it would have joined Pakistan. This is a reasonable argument, from the population data available. But India has held it since then (it's on India's side of the LOC). And this would be the major point of dissention in any negotiations over drawing final boundary lines in the region.

President Obama and the American media have managed to start the American public thinking of regional solutions to problems that span national boundaries in the area (although I refuse to use the current in-vogue term "AfPak" to describe Afghanistan and Pakistan, both because it is way too cutesy and because it is insulting... look into how "Paki" is used as a slur by the British to see what I mean). But Afghanistan and Pakistan are not the only countries in this region. And if we're going to seriously talk about the problems Pakistan faces, it is naive to leave India and Kashmir out of the equation, because that is Pakistan's main military concern (and not defeating the Taliban, no matter how happy it would make America if they did so).

Whether it is in public, with full diplomatic "summit" flourishes and pomp, or in quiet rooms in Switzerland exploring diplomatic back channels, getting Pakistan and India and China together to discuss finally resolving their border disputes in the Kashmir region once and for all would be a stunning diplomatic achievement for any president. The stakes -- obviously with three nuclear powers -- are enormously high. The chance for failure is also high, since this conflict has been going on for over half a century now. But if Pakistan and India could declare peace and accept a line through the region as their final national boundaries, it could pay off huge dividends in the fight against terrorists.

America could help draw the final lines, or the United Nations could take another crack at it if need be, or even long-delayed elections could be held in the region, as initially promised by the British. China probably wouldn't go along with elections (nobody lives in their claimed area), but the Chinese/Indian line is a lot less contentious than the Pakistan/India line to begin with, so perhaps that part of it could be taken off the electoral table.

But whatever peaceful resolution turns out to be the best for all concerned would be discussed in a summit or in those back channel dialogs. It wouldn't happen overnight, no matter what was agreed upon. And while in general it's in America's interests to not have a nuclear war anywhere on the planet, we don't really have a dog in this fight. America doesn't really have an invested stake in what happens in any particular place in Kashmir, in other words. But if Pakistan and India could finally "stand down" militarily from the border regions, it would free up the Pakistani military and make it easier for them to clean up their own back yard in the FATA. Which is indeed an American objective. Meaning the effort -- even if ultimately fruitless -- to finally resolve the Kashmir problem would be worth the attempt by the Obama administration, because it could pay off big dividends in another fight -- one that we are much more invested in than the Kashmir situation.


Chris Weigant blogs at: