Kashmir: a fatal flaw - by Dr Iffat Malik Back   Home  
After the U-turn on Pakistan's Afghan policy (abandoning the Taliban), the government looks set to carry out a similar turnabout in its Kashmir policy: abandoning militants fighting to rid the valley of Indian occupation. In his recent address to the nation President Musharraf outlined measures to curb religious extremism in Pakistan, and announced a ban on two Pakistan-based jihadi groups: Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammad.

The apparent reason for both foreign policy shifts is the changed post-September 11 global environment in which support for any kind of religious extremism or non-state actor violence is unacceptable. But there are also underlying longer-term causes.

In the case of Afghanistan, the U-turn was long overdue. Pakistan's support for the Taliban was a good idea in theory but one that, by the late 1990s, was proving a liability. Pakistan gained little from its association with the ultra-conservative Taliban: the hoped-for gateway to Central Asian energy wealth did not open up. As it became clear that Islamabad's ability to moderate the student militia was negligible, and as Islamabad suffered internationally for associating with such obscurantist regime, the policy of backing the Taliban should have been abandoned. Voluntarily ditching them would have yielded far more than the enforced divorce after September 11.

Turning to Kashmir, Pakistan's policy in theory was again very sound. Pressing for the Kashmiris' right of self-determination, supporting them in their struggle to break away from India, thereby putting pressure on New Delhi and forcing it to the negotiating table. Thanks to the militants, Pakistan would be in a strong position at that table, and would be able to secure at least the valley. A grateful Kashmiri Muslim population would of course opt for Pakistan in preference to independence.

That was the theory. Reality has proved very different, though, and very disappointing. After almost thirteen years of armed struggle, Jammu and Kashmir remains firmly in India's grip. International sympathy lies more with New Delhi than with the Kashmiris. Pakistan's support is seen in international circles as interference and trouble-making, even as an instance of sponsorship of terrorism. Among Kashmiri Muslims gratitude to Pakistan is tinged more and more with resentment: a free vote tomorrow would probably see many more opting for independence than to join Pakistan.

What went wrong? Much of the blame, of course, rests with New Delhi. Contrary to the expectations of Kashmiri Muslims and Pakistanis, India did not prove another Soviet Union. As the physical and financial toll of its occupation of Kashmir increased, it did not buckle under the pressure and offer Kashmiris their freedom. Quite the opposite: its determination to hold on to the state increased. So too did the force applied to achieve that: greater numbers of soldiers were deployed in the valley, more draconian legislation was passed, a pliant ruler (Farooq Abdullah) was put in power through blatantly manipulated elections. Some attempts were made at political resolution (Vajpayee's Ramazan ceasefire), but these were invariably cosmetic.

The other major Indian counter strategy was to convince the world of its version of the Kashmir conflict: that in reality it was a Pakistan-incited and sponsored terrorist movement - part of the wider problem of Islamic militancy. It thereby hoped to deflect sympathy from the Kashmiris, malign the Kashmir movement and force Pakistan to abandon support for militancy there. As recent events show, it has largely succeeded in that effort.

Its success - and the overall failure of Pakistan's Kashmir policy - owes much to one fatal mistake made by Pakistani planners (i.e. the ISI): the injection of a foreign jihadi element into the Kashmir movement. The impetus for this came from Afghanistan. Islam was no doubt a major factor in the Mujahideen's victory over the Soviet Union. But its effectiveness led to the erroneous notion that it could be a universal tool and, specifically, that a replication of the Afghan jihad in Kashmir would yield the same results: India's withdrawal from the valley. It didn't happen quite that way and would seem unlikely to in the foreseeable future.

Kashmir is not Soviet-occupied Afghanistan; India is not the erstwhile Soviet Union. While there was universal condemnation of Moscow's invasion of Afghanistan and a huge groundswell of international opinion against that action, no such consensus exists on the Kashmir issue. Many in the international community see Kashmir as India's internal problem, or at best as a protracted Indo-Pakistan dispute to be resolved by peaceful means and certainly not one that would justify launching a jihad. Besides, unlike the spurned Soviet Union, India has many international courtiers (the US, Israel, Iran to name but a few). In brief, the use of Islam against the Soviet Union was acceptable because enmity towards it was so great. India has never been hated like that.

By making Kashmir an Islamic rather than a bilateral political issue, it was thrown open to jihad-seekers from all over the Muslim world - Pakistanis, Afghans, Chechens, Arabs and Africans: an itinerant jihad force made Kashmir its battleground. In doing so they changed the nature of the armed struggle there. Kashmiri Muslims - traditionally docile and peace-loving - targeted only Indian security forces in their campaign. Pundits in the valley were not persecuted, civilian casualties were avoided as far as possible, tolerant liberal Islam was practised.

The arrival of foreign jihadis changed all that. Civilians became expendable. A harsh, intrusive Islam was imposed (recall the recent deadline for Kashmiri women to cover themselves or face acid attacks). Pundits had already fled the Valley, but foreign tourists were targeted along with Indians. Suicide bombings and hijackings became the favoured strategies.

In 1995 five western tourists were kidnapped by Al Faran. The headless corpse of one of them was discovered later, but nothing has since been heard of the others. In May 1995 an exchange of fire between foreign militants holed up in Charar-i-Sharif and Indian forces led to the shrine being burnt and destroyed: Kashmiris would never have violated its sanctity that way. In December 1999 a civilian airliner was hijacked and its passengers forced to endure awful conditions at the Kandahar airport where the plane was taken. In March 2000, 35 Sikhs were massacred and more recently, 38 people were killed in the attack on the Srinagar legislative assembly.

Such incidents were not representative of the movement as a whole, but they attracted a disproportionate amount of media attention and publicity. They overshadowed and eclipsed the infinitely greater suffering of the Kashmiri Muslims at the Indian hands. They seemed to corroborate Indian accusations that those engaged in violence in Kashmir were simply terrorists. These tarnished the image of the Kashmiri struggle for freedom and proved a setback for it.

Finally, the use of Islam in Kashmir as a tool to beat the Indians with came at a time when the West was waking up to the dangers posed by a resurgent political and militant Islam. Huntington's flawed but widely accepted 'clash of civilisations' theory, first aired in 1993, pinpointed Islam as the new post-communism global threat. Any kind of militant Muslim movement was therefore viewed with suspicion.

Pakistan should have confined its backing of the armed movement in Kashmir to indigenous Kashmiri groups, or at the most groups drawn from Azad Kashmir. Thanks to India's appalling record of human rights in the state, there has never been a shortage of willing recruits for freedom struggle. All they needed were training, logistical support, weapons - not foreigners to fight in their place. As Muslims, Islam and the jihad factor was always present in the Kashmiris' movement. It did not need to be spelled out. The rhetoric of their struggle should have been kept nationalist.

A pure Kashmiri movement would have avoided the excesses committed by foreign jihadis. A pure Kashmiri movement could have easily countered Indian allegations of 'Islamic fundamentalism' and 'cross-border terrorism'. A pure Kashmiri movement would have stood a better chance of attracting international support, and of surviving the aftermath of September 11.

Thanks to the international pressure being applied on Pakistan, the Kashmir movement will now be purged of its extremist foreign cadres. The question is: will it be able to survive the damage inflicted by their involvement? If not, thousands of lives will have been lost in vain.
Published in Pakistan newspaper Dawn.