Recent fighting in Kashmir between Indian forces and Pakistani-based guerillas has been bloodier than most battles in recent years. It is also more disturbing, because escalating tensions in the disputed province threaten to disrupt the military campaign in Afghanistan. If they continue, they could also thwart coalition efforts to form a post-Taliban government. Intensification of the conflict at this juncture is of serious concern to the United States, which sees Islamabad's increasing preoccupation with Kashmir as detracting from efforts to provide security for US forces stationed in Pakistan. American helicopters have already come under fire, and the mounting Pakistani opposition to the military campaign in Afghanistan will put US forces at even greater risk if Islamabad's attention and resources shift too heavily toward Kashmir.
Americans need to realize both how germane Kashmir is to their interests in Afghanistan, and how little legitimacy they have in mediating between Islamabad and New Delhi. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's unelected president, cannot separate his Kashmir policy from his attitude toward Afghanistan, because the Kashmir insurgency depends on Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan for support. The recent clashes near the Kashmiri line of control and increasingly hostile rhetoric on the issue have made Islamabad more resolute about asserting its regional strength. This has deepened Musharaff's resolve on the importance of heavy Pakistani influence in Afghanistan.
American and British diplomats saw the fruit of this resolve when Pakistan distanced itself from the coalition-backed effort to formulate an Afghan transition government under the auspices of former King Zahir Shah. Pakistan is apprehensive about supporting the Zahir Shah Loya Jirga, or tribal council, because it fears that the anti-Pakistani Northern Alliance will play a disproportionately large role. The Alliance consists mainly of ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks. Given their growing security concerns over Kashmir, Musharraf and his deputies cannot risk giving these groups too much power in Afghanistan.
To solidify its influence in Afghanistan, Pakistan recently financed and organized a meeting of exiled Afghan tribal leaders in Peshawar as an apparent alternative to the Zahir Shah initiative that would bypass the Northern Alliance. This has infuriated coalition allies Russia and Uzbekistan, who see Pakistan's attempt to exclude the Alliance from the future Afghan government as a direct affront to their own strategic interests in Afghanistan. Russia has subsequently stepped up its support for the Alliance, providing it with updated tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.
The United States has tried to remain neutral in this intra-coalition dispute, attempting to keep the Northern Alliance's immediate focus of the military campaign on the capture of the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and away from the Afghan capital of Kabul.
But as the clashes in Kashmir intensify, Pakistan's desire to micromanage the reconstruction effort in Afghanistan will almost certainly harden, and the American plan to defer Pakistan's misgivings will go sour. An end to the Kashmiri stalemate could probably make Pakistan more amenable to the Zahir Shah plan and alleviate some of the anxiety Islamabad has about the Northern Alliance's role in the future Afghan government. Americans must realize this, which makes them unable to act as mediator between the two countries in the impasse.
Yet American troubles run deeper, as myriad problems impede significant headway. US Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent unsuccessful attempt to defuse tensions in Kashmir illustrates the denseness of the problem. For example, Pakistan can no longer control the mujahideen groups fighting in Kashmir, which compromises its ability to prevent guerilla attacks and subsequent Indian counterattacks. And India, wary of the recent United States-Pakistani rapprochement, may wish to sustain the increased levels of violence in Kashmir in order to paint Islamabad as a sponsor of terrorist groups. Yet capitulation on the Kashmir issue in the face of "unprovoked" Indian aggression could also be politically devastating to President Musharraf, who has already spent significant political capital on allowing the United States to launch military operations from Pakistan.
While the United States searches for a solution, countries at the periphery of the coalition have assumed the lead in addressing the Kashmir situation for the benefit of the anti-terrorism campaign. Holland, for example, has called for international mediation on the issue, and Japan has lifted sanctions on both India and Pakistan, saying that "it is vitally important that Pakistan remains stable and cooperative with the international society in this combat against terrorism." During his ongoing trip to India and Pakistan, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has emphasized that Kashmir "should be kept in the box" by both New Delhi and Islamabad until the Afghan crisis is resolved. These efforts have yielded some early success, as India's Defense Minister pledged yesterday that India would not cross the de facto border with Pakistan in pursuit of Kashmiri militants.
But this progress masks a more nettlesome dilemma. While Kashmir is inextricably linked to American objectives in Afghanistan, neither India nor Pakistan perceives the Americans to be honest brokers on the issue. Diplomatically hamstrung, the United States must watch nervously from the sidelines while politically detached countries labor to defuse a crisis in Kashmir. That crisis would have disastrous implications for the current military campaign - and for the formation of Afghanistan's future government. Yet its resolution appears in the hands of the two combatants.
Artie McConnell is a research fellow with the National Defense Council Foundation in Alexandria, VA. He specializes in Central Asian affairs.