U.S. is key to durable peace in South Asia

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee lately have issued somewhat conciliatory statements, but the India-Pakistan confrontation is far from over. The visit of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to the region may cool down things for a while, but the problem is bound to crop up again due to the nature of the conflict.

Kashmir, an overwhelming Muslim area, is a disputed land under the norms of international law. India claims that the accession letter of Kashmir's Hindu Maharaja in favor of India in 1948 and its confirmation by Kashmir's elected assembly in 1953 made it an integral part of India. Pakistan challenges the credibility of the accession, alleging that the letter was signed under duress and that the assembly that confirmed it was bogus. More so, the British Governor General accepted the accession conditional to holding of a plebiscite to elicit the opinion of the Kashmiris. That vote has never taken place.

Various resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (1948-51) renewed the call for a plebiscite after both Indian and Pakistani militaries overran the state. Irrespective of the fact that the relevant UN resolutions were under Chapter 6 (non-binding), the provisions of the Geneva Convention dealing with "belligerent occupation" are applicable and have been violated by both countries in varying degrees. According to a 1994 report of the International Commission of Jurists, "the right of self-determination to which the people of Kashmir became entitled as part of the partition has neither been exercised nor extinguished, and thus remains exercisable today."

Over the years, India and Pakistan fought three major wars, in addition to numerous limited armed conflictsÑall of which meant spending billions of dollars to acquire deadly weapons at the cost of economic development and progress. There has been an annual increase of 6.2 percent in Indian military expenditures from 1947 to 1999. In comparison, Pakistan's per capita defense expenditure is around $26, more than double that of India.

Both the states have linked the Kashmir issue with their national identities in such an inextricable manner that their standpoints are irreconcilable. This narrow-mindedness has created and entrenched a culture of hate and animosity between the people of the two countries.

Representatives from Kashmir were never invited or involved in any of the nine bilateral dialogues that have taken place on the conflict. The insurgency starting in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir in 1989 was an indigenous oneÑa reaction to Indian control and "engineered" elections. This is a widely accepted fact. The "guest" militants sponsored by Pakistani intelligence moved in the theatre later and indeed damaged the image of the movement. In this context, Indian hands are also not clean since they used brutal force to tackle the uprising, committing gross human rights violations in the process.

Without resolution of the Kashmir issue, durable peace in South Asia is only a dream. The United States can play a very crucial role in this scenario, but it has to exercise more than "balancing act" diplomacy. Public opinion in both India and Pakistan is increasingly becoming very critical of the United States because both sides mistakenly think that United States is taking the other's side.

Various countries in the region, including Russia, China, Turkey and Iran, are offering to assume a mediation role, but it is U.S. interests that are really at stake due to this instability, and it is their influence and leverage which is the most significant factor.

Without a meaningful dialogue supported by U.S. mediation leading to a settlement, the region will remain on the edge of a catastrophe. The small UN contingent already in place to monitor the disputed border should be expanded to verify whether Musharraf's promise of a crackdown on militants is really working. India should be told that it must improve the human rights situation in Kashmir and sit at the negotiation table.

Hassan Abbas received a master of arts in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in May. He begins a fellowship at Harvard Law School this fall.