Pakistanis seeking trade-off on Kashmir
28 September 2001
Islamabad: When Pakistan''s military president explained to the nation last week why he had decided to cooperate with the United States in its anti- terrorism campaign, he said he had done so to protect Pakistan''s vital interests. One of them, he said, was ''the Kashmir cause.'' Implicit in Gen. Pervez Musharraf''s statement was what he hoped would be a strategic trade-off. Pakistan agreed to end its support of the Taliban militia in Afghanistan - a troublesome neighbor that U.S. officials have identified as a launching pad for international terrorism - partly in return for shielding its domestically popular guerrilla campaign in Kashmir, a Himalayan region divided between Pakistan and its nuclear arch-rival, India. India and Pakistan both claim Kashmir, and Pakistan backs a Muslim separatist insurgency that has been fighting Indian troops for 12 years. In the past week, however, the U.S. distinction between the two issues has begun to blur. Both Pakistani officials and Kashmiri separatist leaders are now voicing worry that Washington is sweeping the Kashmir conflict, which they view as a ''freedom struggle,'' into a broad attack on what the West views as regional terrorism. On Monday, the Bush administration froze the assets of 27 organizations and individuals it labeled as supporters of Afghanistan''s ruling Taliban movement. The list included Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, a Pakistani group that has links to Afghanistan and sends guerrilla fighters to Kashmir. The Taliban shelters Osama bin Laden, the radical Muslim whom U.S. officials call the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Pakistan has sided with Washington in its hunt for bin Laden and its plans to attack Afghanistan militarily if he is not turned over for prosecution. In the past two weeks, however, India has been lobbying Washington to crack down on a number of Kashmiri militant groups, arguing that they are part of a broader terrorist threat. Relations between India and the United States, once chilled by Cold War tensions, have been rapidly warming in the past two years. Washington''s anti-terrorist alliance with military-ruled Pakistan, in contrast, is brand new and fraught with mistrust. ''We are caught between two unfortunate situations that could backfire on us. We have sacrificed a lot of lives, and we want to make sure that the Kashmir struggle is not sacrificed in the process,'' said Ayub Thakur, president of the London-based World Kashmir Freedom Movement, who is visiting Pakistan. ''Our cause is not terrorist. It is a freedom struggle against Indian state terrorism.'' International human rights groups report that both India and guerrilla groups have committed abuses in the Kashmir conflict, which has claimed tens of thousands of lives in the past decade. Indian forces have been accused of torching villages and torturing suspected insurgents, while guerrilla groups have been accused of murdering civilians and using suicide squads to bomb military and government facilities. Guerrilla violence has surged in Kashmir since the Sept. 11 attacks, with the daily death toll rising into double figures. The surge has played into India''s effort to win aggressive U.S. support for its side, but its aim has apparently been to call attention to an issue the Kashmiris fear will be forgotten as the world reels from the attacks on New York and Washington. So far, the Bush administration has distinguished between Kashmiri groups that use terrorist tactics and those that do not. Harkat ul-Mujaheddin, a radical Islamic group previously known as Harkat ul-Ansar, was labeled a terrorist group by the United States in 1995 after it was linked to the kidnappings and slayings of five Western tourists in Kashmir. This week, a Harkat spokesman in Pakistan denied the group is involved in terrorism and said there is ''no moral justification'' for the United States to freeze its assets. ''We condemn terrorism because it is part of our faith not to kill the innocent and unarmed people, whatever may be their religion,'' the spokesman told Pakistani media. But Pakistani sources said the U.S. actions may have driven Harkat closer to the Taliban. They said that many of its fighters have left Kashmir for Pakistan and that some have entered Afghanistan to assist the Taliban in defending against any U.S. attack. Members of Hizb ul-Mujaheddin, the largest Kashmiri guerrilla group based in Pakistan, said this week that they have no connection with Harkat. ''We know nothing about the Taliban or Osama bin Laden. If a settlement is reached in Kashmir at 3 p.m., we will put down our weapons and be home by 4 p.m.,'' said one staff member at Hizb headquarters here. ''We are not against America. We accept anyone''s help in our struggle, but if America would help Kashmir, we would welcome it as a friend.'' Until now, the United States has maintained a neutral stance in the Kashmir conflict, while repeatedly urging both countries to settle their dispute through negotiations. Pakistan has long sought international mediation in Kashmir, but Indian officials have refused to accept outside intervention. This week, Pakistani analysts said that by suddenly bringing the Kashmiri conflict into its sights, the United States may unwittingly be doing India''s bidding and undermining Pakistan''s ability to rally domestic support for the Western anti- terrorism campaign. Although a minority of Pakistani Muslims support the controversial Taliban, Islamic groups here have threatened violence if the United States attacks Afghanistan. Most Pakistanis have accepted Musharraf''s support for the U.S. anti-terrorism drive, but they also strongly oppose India, a much larger, largely Hindu neighbor, and they view the Kashmir insurgency as a fundamental national cause. Many Pakistanis are also wary of the United States, which they feel abandoned their interests after the Cold War and left Pakistan vulnerable to an overflow of violence, religious extremism and refugees from Afghanistan, especially after the Taliban seized control of much of that country in 1996. They worry that Washington will betray them again, destabilizing Pakistan on two fronts at once. ''Musharraf has a majority of popular support now, but he will face enormous internal opposition if going against Afghanistan also means the end of Pakistan''s Kashmir policy,'' said Rifaat Hussain, a professor of strategic and defense studies at Quaid-I-Azam University here. ''I don''t see the coalition with the U.S. unraveling, but Pakistan is starting to realize that America wants to eliminate all potential sources of terror and that it may not be willing to leave Kashmir out of that campaign,'' Hussain said. ''I think the United States needs to think carefully about what its aims are and what their broader consequences could be.''