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Its Time To Settle The Kashmir Dispute

by Muzamil Jaleel, 10 December 2008

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The Guardian, December 10 2008

Why Kashmir holds the key

Resolving the Kashmir dispute would help Pakistan to end its support for Islamist separatists implicated in the Mumbai attacks

Within hours after the 9/11 attack, Pakistan made a U-turn on its Afghan policy, sided with the United States and became a frontline state in the "war on terror". This sudden policy shift was major: from having been a close friend and ally, the Taliban was now the enemy. The Pakistan government showed no hesitation in joining the US-led war against al-Qaida’s Afghan bases and its backers, even though Pakistan had been one of only two countries across the world that had recognised the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Three months later, a suicide attack on the Indian parliament pushed Pakistan to the verge of an all-out war with India when New Delhi accused two major jihadi groups based in Pakistan of responsibility for the December 13 attack. New Delhi had sought the handover of 20 men, who included the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, but Pakistan flatly refused. Though the threat of war subsided after serious international, especially American, diplomatic intervention, President Musharraf’s January 6 2002 speech was greeted with relief. Musharraf promised that Pakistan would not allow any terror attacks to originate from its territory and subsequently banned the organisations Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Ever since, it has become crystal clear that the Pakistan government has been consistent in its promise to fight Taliban and al-Qaida, even at the cost of serious setbacks to its internal security, especially along its western border. But Pakistan’s efforts to tighten the noose around Kashmiri separatist groups waging an irregular war against India have met with limited success, even though the Musharraf regime’s crackdown against militant groups did lead to a substantial decrease in violence in Kashmir.

Now, as New Delhi has blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for the Mumbai terror attack, the threat of a war with India combined with international pressure is forcing Islamabad to take new action. India’s case this time seems strong. They have released pictures of the Pakistani terrorists alleged to have carried out the attack last month, provided their addresses and sought the handover of several top jihadi leaders, including the suspected mastermind of the attack, Pakistan-based Lashkar commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

India has also taken its case to UN security council, seeking the banning of Jamat-ud-Dawa, a group it deems a front for Lashkar. Pakistan did initiate a crackdown, arrested Lakhvi and Jaish-e-Mohammad founder Masood Azhar, and has consistently offered cooperation in investigation of what it calls "non-state actors" operating out of Pakistani territory. But it is highly unlikely that Islamabad will ever be able to act wholeheartedly against groups like Lashkar and Jamat-ud-Dawa in the same manner that they do against al-Qaida – a distinction not appreciated by commentators like Robert Kagan.

So the key question is: why is it impossible for Pakistan to hand over Lashkar founder and Jamat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed to New Delhi when it did not hesitate to arrest Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and other key al-Qaida operatives for the Americans?

In a word, Kashmir. The Kashmir dispute is at the core of Pakistan’s very existence. Unlike Afghanistan, Kashmir has traditionally been a major influence on Pakistan’s domestic as well as foreign policy. While Pakistan did launch a crackdown after the attack on the Indian parliament, it continued to insist that this shift did not mean abandoning its support for separatists in Kashmir.

There is another important aspect to this contradiction, which has more to do with ideological and demographic differences between the Taliban and Lashkar movement. The Taliban, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, is primarily based on the Deobandi school of thought, while Lashkar is Salafi. While Deobandis in Pakistan seek the establishment of an Islamic state and support a jihad against the establishment, Salafis do not support rebellion against the government in a Muslim country and rather advocate reform to turn the ruling elite into "Muslims at heart".

Lashkar-e-Taiba was launched with the aim of participating in the Afghan war (against Soviet occupation). Its militants fought the Russians along with the Afghan mujahideen outfit Itihad-e-Islami. But as the Afghan war came to an end, the group decided to shift its attention towards Kashmir. According to the security agencies, its Kashmir valley operations began in 1993. For years, the group stayed below the radar, so much so that government agencies had little clue about its ideology and cadre. In fact, this Salafi group was in conformity with official Pakistani policy, until 9/11 blurred the line between armed insurgencies and international terrorism. And this is precisely why Musharraf’s decision to ban Lashkar was seen as a major step, even though it did not meet New Delhi’s demands.

A month before the ban on Lashkar, in 2002, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed called a press conference and officially distanced himself from Lashkar, and instead set up Jamat-ud-Dawa, with an exclusive aim to dawah (preaching) and charity. Lashkar was officially confined to Azad Kashmir, and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi became the its supreme commander. These measures appeared to work, so that Sayeed managed to evade a complete shutdown by Pakistan government.

In contrast to its relative lenience on Lashkar, Pakistan has been tougher on Deobandi groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, which was implicated in an assassination attempt against Musharraf. Still, it is highly unlikely that it will hand over Jaish leader Moulana Masood Azhar to New Delhi.

Pakistan has another practical difficulty as well. While the Taliban draws most of its cadres from the North-West Frontier province, Lashkar’s men are predominantly from rural Punjab. Thus any action against Lashkar perceived to be taken at New Delhi’s behest will have grave political consequences in Pakistan’s biggest province and the hub of its political elite.

Whatever shape the latest round of hostility over Mumbai terror attack between India and Pakistan ultimately takes, it has one interesting aspect. Kashmir’s separatist struggle is witnessing a historic shift from violence to non-violence. The absence of militant intervention during the current Kashmir election is testament to this new phenomenon. But even if Pakistan did impose a ban on Jamat-ud-Dawa under international pressure and took further measures against Lashkar, Islamabad cannot contemplate a complete U-turn on Kashmir. And Pakistan can never achieve a total commitment to "war on terror" without a breakthrough in resolving the Kashmir dispute.

US President-elect Barack Obama’s recent comments regarding the urgency of resolving Kashmir to ensure Pakistan’s full attention towards war on terror along its border with Afghanistan shows that the international community has begun to grasp the complexity of Pakistan’s situation. A solution to Kashmir would ultimately rescue Islamabad and end its sanctuary of Lashkar-type jihadists. And, for the first time, Kashmir is fertile for an Indo-Pakistani effort to find a permanent settlement to the dispute.