Afghanistan: Pakistan’s Kashmir Blackmail
Indranil Banerjie

US President Barack Obama has kept his promise to begin pulling out American soldiers from Afghanistan by 2011. At the recently concluded Lisbon summit (19-20 November 2010), he suggested that 2014 would be the final year for major US combat engagements in Afghanistan. “My goal is to make sure that by 2014 we have transitioned, Afghans are in the lead and it is a goal to make sure that we are not still engaged in combat operations of the sort we’re involved in now,” Obama declared at the Summit’s conclusion. His words implied that there would be some sort of continued US military involvement in Afghanistan after 2014, although no details were forthcoming perhaps because much will depend on what happens in the Afghan war front next summer. At any rate, after 2014, once the bulk of NATO forces are pulled out of Afghanistan, Washington will no longer be able to rely on the military option to enforce its writ or shape policy in that country.

One of the several key questions for New Delhi now is where does that leave Washington on the Kashmir issue? For, an influential set in Washington has long been arguing that the road to peace in Kabul runs through Kashmir. The argument, propounded by several liberal US analysts and writers, is that Pakistan’s use of terrorist groups, including the Taliban, stems from its dispute with India over Kashmir. Ergo, if this dispute is resolved then Islamabad will bid adieu to the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and all related baddies and embark on a peaceful journey to stabilise south Asia. This view assumes that if the Kashmir problem is solved then the Pakistan Army instead of relying on Islamist jihadists would support more moderate elements in its pursuit of regional hegemony and thus also prevent the return of al Qaida in Afghanistan.

The Road to Kabul
Steve Coll, former New York Times journalist and author of the much acclaimed book Ghost Wars, has emerged as one of the most vociferous advocates of the theory that Kashmir is the cause of conflict and insecurity in south Asiai. Coll has served in South Asia and his views have found great resonance in liberal, democratic circles within the United States and beyond. It is important therefore to explore the nuances of his thesis.

His basic postulate is that the unresolved 63 year old crisis in Kashmir constitutes a direct threat to US security. “American policy has long sought to compartmentalize Kashmir as a problem separate from Afghanistan’s war, the threats posed by al-Qaeda, or Pakistan’s internal violence. That policy is no longer consistent with the facts, and this failure directly threatens American security. In a number of recent cases when radicalized Muslims living in the United States have travelled to Pakistan for training or inspiration, they have connected with groups or networks active in Kashmir. American policy is also outdated with respect to conditions within Kashmir itself. Kashmiris continue to challenge India’s oppressive military presence in the region, and yet overall, the guerrilla war in Kashmir has changed and quieted during the past decade, and new possibilities for a permanent negotiated settlement have emerged,” argues Coll. “Kashmir retains an important place in Pakistan’s sense of grievance; as an enduring cause, it is a source of radicalization and recruitment, one that offers to jihadis international legitimacy and even Pakistani state sanction.”ii

Coll goes on to declare that “the interests that the United States has in the Kashmir conflict are greater now than at any time in the postwar period. American efforts to prevent a second Taliban revolution in Afghanistan and to quell Islamist rebellion within Pakistan are unlikely to succeed if ISI continues its three-decade practice of using jihadi groups to wage their own brand of war against India. The only way to gradually reduce ISI’s influence within the Pakistani establishment and to strengthen more progressive civilian leaders is to pursue a broader normalization of economic and political ties between Pakistan and India. That in turn will require a durable settlement in Kashmir.”

Coll concludes by suggesting that the United States “should acknowledge the legitimacy of Pakistan’s historic concerns about the rights of Kashmiri Muslims while insisting that only a peaceful political process to secure those rights is legitimate. “The United States does not need to intervene directly in Kashmiri negotiations to support the Indo-Pakistani peace process. It does, however, need to rediscover the sense of urgency and international leadership that characterized its engagement with Kashmir in the 1950s and early 1960s.”iii

Coll’s somewhat simplistic thesis has found many takers and a series of papers and articles echo this view. In February this year, Newsweek carried a prominent story by Jonathan Tepperman, who wrote that “a growing chorus of experts has begun arguing that the road to Kabul runs through Kashmir—that the U.S. will never stabilize the former without peace in the latter. Suddenly, bringing India and Pakistan together seems to be very much in America's interest. Which makes the Obama administration's determination to avoid the issue increasingly hard to fathom.”iv

For the Newsweek journalist, the logic was obvious: “U.S. can't defeat the Afghan insurgency without Pakistan's help. Pakistan midwifed the Taliban and continues to provide it with shelter (and, allegedly, support). And that won't change until Pakistan resolves its rivalry with India. For Pakistan's Afghan strategy is based on the idea that it needs a pliant regime there to give it "strategic depth": room to retreat in case of an Indian invasion. Fear of India also keeps Pakistan from putting enough troops on its 2,250-kilometer-long Afghan border, which the Taliban still cross at will.” Ergo push India to settle Kashmir.

This view is not new and has been doing the rounds at least since early 2009. Writing long before Steve Coll, journalist Graham Usher in an article in The London Review of Books had come to an identical conclusion. i “‘Safe havens’ for a reinvigorated Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida, the tribal areas are seen by the West as the ‘greatest threat’ to its security, as well as being the main cause of Western frustration with Pakistan. The reason is simple: the Pakistan army’s counterinsurgency strategy is not principally directed at the Taliban or even al-Qaida: the main enemy is India,” he wrote. His article suggested that the fault lay with India.

Usher quoted a Pakistani analyst, who complained that the Pakistan “army’s recent experience with India is very bitter...After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 per cent. And India’s response was to refuse to talk about Kashmir. The army thinks it would be the same in Afghanistan if it abandoned the Afghan Taliban.’ In the last year Indian Kashmir has seen increased penetration by Pakistani militants and skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian armies. The spike seems to have less to do with Kashmir, where violence is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, than with the proxy war in Afghanistan. And it would suggest that – far more than on strategic reviews – peace in Afghanistan rests on peace between India and Pakistan. The road out of Kabul goes through Kashmir.”

Since then the phrase “The road out of Kabul goes through Kashmir” appears to have become a favourite refrain for Western liberal writers, who seem to believe that the biggest villain in the international scene today is India which is brutally suppressing Muslims in Kashmir. An intriguing aside is the complete silence of these writers on the events in Balochistan, Gilgit-Baltistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, where hundreds of civilians have and continue to be massacred by the Pakistan Army. The suppression of these minorities in Pakistan appears to be acceptable because it does not seem to affect the West’s strategic interests.

For India critics the Kabul-Kashmir connection has proved to be infectious. Author and journalist Pankaj Mishra, who routinely upbraids India in his columns published in the UK, lamented: “In October 2008, a month before he was elected, Barack Obama correctly identified Kashmir as the rusty nail in South Asia’s body politic. Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, he told Joe Klein of Time magazine that “working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way” were “critical tasks for the next administration.” Obama spoke of devoting serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach... Yet this promise appears to have been forgotten.”vi

Continuing in the same vein, Mishra warned: “Pakistan’s military leaders will be increasingly reluctant to fall in line with Obama’s announced objectives. They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants, but they are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some of them to remain in reserve in order to unleash them, at a later date, upon India-ruled Kashmir. As always, the road to stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan runs through the valley of Kashmir...”

Dozens of writers and commentators in different parts of the world have lapped up and regurgitated the same thesis which now has taken the form of doctrine. The most recent was Pakistan’s top notch writer-analyst, Ahmed Rashid, who recently produced an article in Foreign Policy with a by now familiar title: “The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir”.vii Rashid’s arguments were somewhat more tempered. “America's biggest mistake is its failure to recognize Pakistan's near-fatal obsession with India. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, Pakistan's chief of Army staff, and his corps commanders are more consumed with so-called Indian expansion in the region than any of their predecessors. Kayani has frequently voiced his security philosophy as being "India-centric." He has refused to launch an offensive in North Waziristan, where most Afghan Taliban leaders are housed, using the excuse of not wanting to deplete the Pakistani Army's strength on the Indian front,” he wrote.

“Before he was elected, Obama suggested he would try to resolve the India-Pakistan rivalry and the Kashmir dispute that fuels it, telling Time magazine it was one of the ‘critical tasks’ of his presidency. Needless to say, that hasn't happened -- and he didn't mention the ‘K’ word once during his Parliament speech. While the United States has remained silent on Kashmir, a new Indo-Pak rivalry has erupted over the battle for influence in a post-U.S.-withdrawal world, manifested in terrorist attacks on Indian diplomats and road workers in Afghanistan and, Pakistan claims, Indian-sponsored unrest in Baluchistan.” Rashid concluded by stressing that “Obama cannot afford to keep ignoring this blood feud. Some blunt public speaking, not just cautious private messages or boilerplate rhetoric about improving relations between India and Pakistan, could serve as a wake-up call.”

Indian Insouciance
In India, this thesis has largely remained unacknowledged and rarely debated. At the official level too it has elicited no response. From the Indian point of view this thesis is both pernicious and untenable. The most politically repugnant aspect of Coll’s argument is the assertion that the “the legitimacy of Pakistan’s historic concerns about the rights of Kashmiri Muslims” needs to be acknowledged. This position is completely unacceptable to India for both ideological and historical reasons. One of the core tenets of Indian nationalism is the idea of secularism and the rejection of the Pakistan idea that holds Hindus and Muslims constitute two different nations. That Pakistan could have any legitimate or historic concern about the Muslims of any part of India is preposterous. Pakistan itself has long stopped talking about representing Muslims in South Asia. The citizens of erstwhile East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) are too aware of how specious the idea of Pakistan’s Muslim constituency was.

Moreover, it is historically inaccurate to suggest, even insinuate, that Kashmiri politics is tied to Muslim Pakistan. It is a matter of recorded history that the nascent democratic movement in the Kashmir Valley even before 1947 had resolved the question of the Two Nation Theory. The majority in the Valley led by the late Sheikh Abdullah had forcefully rejected the Pakistan idea and had changed the name of their party to the National Conference. A rump group led by Choudhary Ghulam Abbas retained the original party name, which was Muslim Conference. The Muslim Conference did not succeed in the Valley. The Pakistan idea had most of its adherents amongst the south western tribes who were ethnically and politically closer to Punjabi Muslims. The people of the Kashmiri Valley had resisted the raiders sent in by the Government of Pakistan in 1947. The Pakistan idea did not have majority support in Kashmir then and it does not now, even though the Valley is witnessing a surge in anti-Indian sentiments.

Syed Ali Shah Geelani, leader of the hard-line faction of the Hurriyat Conference, today is the foremost champion of the pro-Pakistan line. He has emerged as the self styled leader of the current upsurge in the Kashmir Valley and has been given unprecedented importance both by the Indian media and the government. Yet, there are obvious contradictions in his stand as has been pointed out by several commentators.

In one of the most cogent critiques of his politics, Rohini Hensman writes that Syed Ali Shah Geelani “believes that Hindus and Muslims constitute two different nations which have nothing in common with each other, that the only identity a Muslim can possess is that of being a Muslim, and therefore stands for Kashmir's accession to Islamic Pakistan: i.e., he is opposed to an independent Kashmir, and even more fervently opposed to secularism. But what about citizens of Jammu and Kashmir who disagree with his vision? 'In Geelani's writings anti-Indian Sunni Muslims come to be seen as standing in for all the people of the state, while the sizeable remaining population of Jammu and Kashmir (Hindus, dalits, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, many Shia Muslims and non-Kashmiri Pahari Muslims, as well as not a negligible number of Kashmiri Muslims) who are definitely pro-India are completely ignored and silenced as if they are not part of 'the people of Jammu and Kashmir'. But it is not every Kashmiri Muslim leader who demands freedom from India who is seen as an 'authentic representative' of the people of the entire state in Geelani's scheme of things. Rather, to Geelani, the mantle of 'authenticity' falls on people like himself, Islamists who advocate Kashmir's accession to Pakistan' (Sikand 2010). His answer to Luxemburg's question - 'who has the authority and the 'right' to speak for the 'nation' and express its will?' - is loud and clear: 'Only I and people who agree with me have the authority and the right to speak for the Kashmiri nation and express its will.'Unfortunately, this 'solution' to the problem of Kashmir suffers from the very same moral weakness (i.e. the use of coercion to force unwilling individuals to be part of the nation) as the Indian state's attitude to Kashmir. And it is, if anything, politically more reactionary, since India is at least constitutionally secular and democratic, whereas this vision of azadi is neither...”viii

To accord Pakistan legitimacy in Kashmir therefore is to compound a historical mistake. Even within the Pakistani part of Jammu & Kashmir, hundreds of thousands of people question Islamabad’s role in their affairs. The part of Jammu & Kashmir currently called Gilgit-Baltistan by the Government of Pakistan was acquired through military force, fraud and without a shred of legality. For more than six decades, Islamabad has ruled that area as a colony and has denied basic democratic rights to the locals. Dissent has been brutally crushed in Gilgit-Baltistan and local leaders today refuse to accept Pakistan’s legitimacy. It is quite another matter that Buddhist Ladakh and large parts of the state apart from the Srinagar Valley seem to believe that it is India that has legitimate rights over the state.

Equally unacceptable to India is the idea that India needs to reward Pakistan for using Islamist terrorists to further its expansionist foreign policy aims. Instead of condemning the idea of Pakistan acquiring strategic depth by using the territory of Afghanistan, US analysts and the foreign policy establishment seem to believe it is justified because of the supposed India threat. This curious American position also shows how effectively the Pakistan Army has defeated US goals in Afghanistan. For, when the US troops came first came into Afghanistan in 2001, the aim was to destroy the Taliban and force their Pakistani mentors to leave along with their al Qaida friends and acquaintances.

Today, the Pakistan Army has begun to sing a different tune: it will not help US anti-terrorism efforts unless it is allowed to dominate Afghanistan. General Kayani is the first Pakistan Army chief who has openly declared that Pakistan’s legitimate aim is to secure “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. “We want a strategic depth in Afghanistan but do not want to control it,” he had declared at a press conference in February 2010. He was clearly addressing the Americans and had added that Pakistan’s “strategic paradigm needs to be fully realised”, meaning that India had to be kept out or restrained in Afghanistan. He had warned that an environment hostile to Pakistan could strain its battle against militancy and extremism. In other words, Kayani wants to regain what his Army had lost in 2001: dominance in Afghanistan.

The Coll thesis therefore would have India conceding to Pakistani demands on both Kashmir and Afghanistan. Once this is done terrorism would apparently disappear from South Asia and Pakistan would suddenly become a responsible state. But there is no cogent reason why India should oblige, especially since its core interests are threatened. The other bigger issue is whether demands made through the instrument of terrorism should be rewarded. All terrorists and sponsors of terrorism have one or another political aim. Osama bin Laden too has a political aim: he wants the United States to stop supporting, arming and protecting the undemocratic leadership in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden wants the US military to leave the region and allow Arabs to their own devices. Many Muslims all over the world believe that Bin Laden’s demands are legitimate and if addressed would end the al Qaida threat. If India should settle with Pakistan, then so should the United States with Bin Laden.

Obama Administration & Kashmir
Neither any US Administration nor strategic expert would accept the analogy between the al Qaida and the Pakistan Army or between Saudi Arabia and Kashmir. Washington’s Islamabad centric view continues to colour its vision and dictate policy. The WikiLeaks documents provide ample evidence.

Former US Ambassador, Anne Patterson, in one cable to Washington explains why Pakistan is not co-operating with the United States and what needs to be done. “Most importantly, it is the perception of India as the primary threat to the Pakistani state that colors its perceptions of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan's security needs. The Pakistani establishment fears a pro-India government in Afghanistan would allow India to operate a proxy war against Pakistan from its territory. Justified or not, increased Indian investment in, trade with, and development support to the Afghan government, which the USG has encouraged, causes Pakistan to embrace Taliban groups all the more closely as anti-India allies. We need to reassess Indian involvement in Afghanistan and our own policies towards India, including the growing military relationship through sizable conventional arms sales, as all of this feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmir-focused terrorist groups while reinforcing doubts about U.S. intentions. Resolving the Kashmir dispute, which lies at the core of Pakistan's support for terrorist groups, would dramatically improve the situation. Enhanced USG efforts in this regard should be considered.”xi

US President Barack Obama himself subscribes to the notion that India must settle the Kashmir issue with Pakistan for the latter to become a responsible player in the region. Prior to his election, President Obama had openly talked about Kashmir being one his foremost foreign policy goals. “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focussed not on India, but on the situation with those militants,” Mr Obama had said in an interviewi. After assuming the Presidency, he tried to appoint former President Bill Clinton as a special envoy on Kashmir. Calling Kashmir an 'interesting situation', Obama said he was ready to explore US's role "to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach". It was because of this that Washington continued to put pressure on New Delhi to resume talks with Islamabad even after the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist outrage.

President Obama’s plans did not quite proceed as originally envisaged because of two reasons. First, New Delhi after 26/11 could no longer acquiesce to Washington’s demand to continue the dialogue process with Islamabad, let alone discuss Kashmir. The other reason has to do with a contrary viewpoint in Washington that has suggested it would be a mistake to club Kashmir with Afghanistan policy. For, as noted journalist Selig Harrison wrote last year, “President-elect Barack Obama has made his first big foreign policy mistake — pledging US intervention in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.”i “By questioning Indian control of the Kashmir Valley, the United States would strengthen jihadi forces in both Islamabad and Srinagar, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he argued, adding that “A US Kashmir initiative, however veiled, would poison relations between New Delhi and Washington.”

Similar advice must have been offered from within his cabal for President Obama eventually eased up on Kashmir. Strategic analyst Dr. Ashley J. Tellis in an October 2010 policy brief stressed that “Pakistan’s continued refusal to comprehensively meet its counterterrorism obligations - despite all American inducements - will constantly tempt Washington to contemplate playing the midwife in resolving the Kashmir dispute in the hope that such a success might finally stimulate wholehearted Pakistani cooperation on counterterrorism. Yet such hopes are chimerical, because today the Pakistani military’s antipathy toward India goes beyond any particular issue.” A report prepared by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) after the 26/11 Mumbai attack warned that US government focus on the Kashmir issue “would risk fuelling Pakistani expectations of a future settlement favouring Pakistan, thus in turn providing a motive for Islamabad to sustain pressure by ramping up support for Kashmiri separatists”. The same report warned that “in the solution to the Kashmir conflict, a haven for Islamic extremist organizations not be created.

President Obama’s special envoy on AfPak affairs Richard Holbrooke met with total hostility from New Delhi when it was insinuated that his secret brief included Kashmir. He was entertained only after he publicly avowed that he did not have Kashmir on the agenda. When Holbrooke came to India this March, he was asked what he thought of the idea that the road to Kabul runs through Kashmir. He replied that many people held to the theory but that he had come to “the opposite conclusion. I don’t even mention the K word,” he said. No one in the U.S. government is trying to negotiate the Kashmir question, he insisted, and he did not believe the issue was linked to Afghanistan.xii

There is reason to believe that Washington is secretly continuing to coax New Delhi to resume talks with Pakistan and settle Kashmir. It is believed that President Obama himself spoke about this to Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh during his November 2010 Delhi visit. The Indian Prime Minister did not agree to talks on the ground that Pakistan had done nothing to bring the brains behind the 26/11 Mumbai attack to justice.

The question now is whether US pressure on India to settle Kashmir will increase, decrease or remain the same now that a timetable for military withdrawal has been finalised? Unlike the 2011 deadline, the 2014 end date for any US Administration would be extremely difficult to shift for domestic political reasons. A lot will depend on how Washington wishes to play out the end game in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s importance would rise if Washington decided that Islamabad should play the dominant role in stabilising the southern part if not the whole of Afghanistan. Other scenarios, especially those that keep Pakistan out of Afghanistan, would suggest a greatly diminished reliance on Pakistan. Behind the scenes US mediation on Kashmir will swing with Pakistan’s fortunes in Afghanistan.

Which way Washington will ultimately turn is difficult to say. One opinion is that Washington has discovered Islamabad’s double dealing ways and will not allow it an expanded role in Afghanistan. However, as one telling cable from former US Ambassador to Pakistan Anne Patterson explains, the US-Pakistan relationship is one of mutual distrust and mutual need: “Pakistan hedges its bets on cooperation because it fears the U.S. will again desert Islamabad after we get Osama Bin Laden; Washington sees this hesitancy as duplicity that requires we take unilateral action to protect U.S. interests. After 9/11, then President Musharraf made a strategic shift to abandon the Taliban and support the U.S. in the war on terror, but neither side believes the other has lived up to expectations flowing from that decision. The relationship is one of co-dependency we grudgingly admit--Pakistan knows the U.S. cannot afford to walk away; the U.S. knows Pakistan cannot survive without our support.”xiii

Pakistan clearly continues to have strategic value for the United States; this goes beyond the immediate need in Afghanistan. Jettisoning Pakistan as a strategic partner would require reworking Washington’s entire strategic plans for Asia. This is something the strategic establishment in the US is not willing to do or is incapable of doing. Therefore, it could be assumed that as long as this view prevails, pressure on India will continue and its outcome will depend largely on how successfully the government in New Delhi is able to resist.

i : Steve Coll, a former correspondent of The New York Times and author of the much acclaimed book “Ghost Wars” has emerged as a major advocate of the line that Kashmir is at the root of much of South Asia’s problems. He currently runs a self promoted liberal think tank called New America Foundation ( See his articles “Kashmir: The Time Has Come. By Steve Coll, New America Foundation, September 30, 2010, New York Review of Books” and “The Back Channel. By Steve Coll, , New America Foundation, 2 March 2009, The New Yorker”.
ii : “Kashmir: The Time Has Come. By Steve Coll, New America Foundation, September 30, 2010, New York Review of Books”
iii : Ibid
iv : The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir, by Jonathan Tepperman, February 11, 2010, Newsweek.
v : Taliban v. Taliban By Graham Usher, London Review of Books, Vol. 31 No. 7 • 9 April 2009
vi : Afghanistan: The Forgotten Conflict in Kashmir, By Pankaj Mishra, New York Review of Books, December 8, 2009.
vii : The Road to Kabul Runs Through Kashmir. By Ahmed Rashid, 10 November 2010, Foreign Policy.
viii : Kashmir: Dilemmas Of The Right Of Nations To Self-Determination. By Rohini Hensman, Counter Currents, 16 November 2010.
ix : 'Reviewing our Afghanistan-Pakistan strategy', Wednesday, 23 September 2009, 15:09, S E C R E T ISLAMABAD 002295 , NOFORN, EO 12958 DECL: 09/23/2034
x : MSNBC, 2 November 2008
xi : Selig Harrison, The Washington Times, 7 January 2009
xii : HDS Greenway, GlobalPost, 5 March 2010
xiii : Relationship with Pakistan based on 'mutual distrust', Saturday, 21 February 2009,

Published Date : December 2, 2010

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