In response to U.S. pressure, India and Pakistan recently conducted their first diplomatic dialogue since the Pakistan-based Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba staged its terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008. The discussions were acrimonious, and the blame game began almost immediately after. As a precondition for substantive negotiations, India demanded punishment of the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack and a crackdown on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s paramilitary operations. Pakistan repeated its longstanding position that negotiations on other issues cannot proceed unless the Kashmir issue is addressed.
To promote a détente, the U.S.should support Pakistan ‘s embattled president, Asif Ali Zardari, in his escalating struggle with the generals in Islamabad over the terms of peace with New Delhi . The principal obstacle to peace is the Pakistan Army, which needs tensions with India to justify the enormous, U.S.-subsidized defense budgets that underpin its privileged status in Pakistan . Serving and retired generals run a variety of Army-linked business conglomerates with net assets exceeding $38 billion.
Zardari is often dismissed as a corrupt playboy incapable of governing. But he has demonstrated surprising courage and consistency in seeking to downgrade the Kashmir issue and to jump-start economic cooperation with India , starting with liberalized trade, as the key to stabilizing Pakistan . Oversize defense budgets cripple Pakistan , he argues, by starving economic-development programs. Islamist extremists exploit the resulting economic unrest. Hardliners in Islamabad warn that opening up trade would lead to economic domination by India . But Zardari argues “economic isolationism” has necessitated costly imports from afar that would be much cheaper from next-door India and has denied many Pakistani industries profitable export markets in that country. On Kashmir , Zardari suggests that the issue be deferred until economic cooperation gradually softens political tensions He notes that India and China have combined a de-escalation of their border dispute with increased economic interchange.
Significantly, it was in the weeks preceding the Mumbai attack that Zardari first went public with his peace overtures. On Oct. 4, 2008, he declared that India “has never been a threat to Pakistan ” and that the Muslim insurgents fighting Indian rule in the Kashmir Valley are “terrorists.” Two days before Mumbai, he said, “I can assure you Pakistan will not use nuclear weapons first against India .” This reversed Pakistan ‘s policy of deliberate ambiguity on the first use of nuclear weapons and outraged military leaders. Was this the last straw for the Army? Was the Mumbai attack instigated by Islamist hardliners to wreck Zardari’s peace campaign, as one of his closest advisers suggested to me last week? In any case, the Army succeeded in s ilencing him until Jan. 16 of this year, when he reaffirmed that “there is no threat to Pakistan from India because India is a mature democracy, and a democracy does not attack another democracy.”
While negotiations on Kashmir should be deferred, the U.S. should encourage India and Pakistan to give greater autonomy to the Kashmiris under their respective jurisdictions, and promote intra-Kashmir trade as part of the growing India-Pakistan economic cooperation that Zardari advocates. But the Line of Control that defines the Indian- and Pakistani-held portions of Kashmir should be treated as a de facto international boundary. The U.S. should also reject the Army’s attempt to use the absence of Kashmir negotiations as an excuse for supporting the Taliban. The reason Pakistan wants a strong Taliban is to offset Indian influence in Afghanistan ; this geopolitical imperative would not be altered by a Kashmir settleme nt. Finally, parties must recognize that defusing Kashmir will take time because it involves much more than a dispute over territory. Retention of a Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley is necessary to vindicate India ‘s character as a secular state in which 160 million Muslims coexist with a Hindu majority. Conversely, in Pakistani eyes, the accession of Kashmir would validate Pakistan ‘s creation as an Islamic state.
India has a role to play, too. To set the stage for the economic linkages proposed by Zardari, New Delhi should lift nontariff procedural barriers that block Pakistani exports of textile products and raw cotton. But it is U.S. support for Zardari that will determine whether his peace initiative gets traction, and whether he survives as president or is eventually removed by the generals in a direct or indirect military coup.
Harrison is director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.