When the British abandoned their rule of South Asia at the end of World War II, they chose to partition the region according to religion: one state for Muslims (Pakistan) and another for Hindus (India). The two states were created in 1947, and during the process millions of Hindus and Muslims migrated to India and Pakistan, respectively. The subsequent rioting and violence of Partition left hundreds of thousands dead and laid the foundation for a half century of enmity between the two countries.
One of the issues negotiated during the walk-up to independence was the status of regions within India that were controlled by rulers of a different religion than the majority of the people. It was agreed that Muslim-ruled areas with Hindu majorities would pass to India, but there was one case where a Muslim majority area was controlled by a Hindu maharaja. That region was Kashmir. In 1947 the United Nations mandated a referendum, but the vote was never held: Fearing Pakastani insurgency, the Indian maharaja cancelled the election and transferred control of Kashmir to India. War promptly ensued, and as Pakistani and Indian forces battled to a stalemate, the United Nations eventually formed a Line of Control to foster a cease-fire. This solution pleased neither side, but though there have been several wars between the two countries, the Line of Control remains the approximate borderline between Indian and Pakistani controlled parts of Kashmir.
The central question Kashmir presents is one of national identity. If it is included in India, it vindicates the Indian image as a multiethnic, secular society. If included in Pakistan, it would lend credence to the "Two Nation Theory" (one state for Muslims, one state for Hindus) elucidated by Pakistan's founding father, Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
And for this very reason, Kashmir still dominates both Pakistani and Indian foreign policy more than half a century after Partition and a peaceful solution is nowhere in sight. Indeed, the conflict has increased the credibility of religious nationalists in each country, with Pakistan supporting religious insurgency within Kashmir and the BJP government in India holding to its hard-line approach. In Pakistan, Kashmir justifies the large military budget and repeated involvement in political life by military leaders. Even worse, democratically elected leaders such as Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, attempting to cement their credibility among Muslims, the army, and the ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service), have tacitly permitted Islamic extremist involvement in Kashmir. Meanwhile, the Hindu nationalist BJP has utilized anti-Pakistani sentiment to help maintain its control of India's government.
Should the crisis reach a flashpoint, the potential hazards are numerous: nuclear weapons could be at play, India's stable democracy could be jeopardized, and Pakistan could retreat into Islamic extremism. All of which suggests that the United States has an interest in settling the Kashmir dispute. In fact, the stakes for America are even greater than they appear at first blush.
For starters, a solution in Kashmir would help secure America's influence in the region. Once India is no longer forced to concentrate its military might to counter the Pakistani threat, it will be in a position to prevent China's ascension to the role of regional hegemon. Indeed, a regional rivalry between India and China could discourage Chinese adventurism into Taiwan or the South China Sea. Most importantly, that rivalry will effectively prevent the disintegration of American leadership in Asia.
The resolution of the Kashmiri conflict would also go a long way toward stabilizing Pakistan, setting the course for the eventual resumption of democratic rule. A satisfactory peace would greatly reduce the desirability of ties with Islamists, both within the military and civilian leadership. Peace with India would deprive Pakistan of serious external threats, allowing it to decrease military spending and focus on building the foundation for a workable democracy.
Successful resolution of the Kashmiri conflict would also build substantial diplomatic capital for the United States. Just as Theodore Roosevelt's involvement in peace negotiations between Russia and Japan heralded the rise of America as a great power, peace in Kashmir would demonstrate America's capability to solve seemingly intractable global problems peacefully, thus conferring more legitimacy upon American global leadership. The stabilization of Pakistan would immunize the United States from claims that it has "declared war" on Islam, and Pakistan would gravitate toward the Western orientation that its founding fathers had envisioned.
Any effort to promote peace between India and Pakistan would also help the war on terrorism. One nightmare scenario for U.S. foreign policy is a collapse of President Musharraf's regime which allows Islamist leaders to gain access to nuclear weapons. An Islamist Pakistan would undo much of the work done in Afghanistan and present a grave terrorist threat to India as well as the United States.
Is there an easy, obvious solution for Kashmir? No. But even if one is not optimistic about the chances for a rapprochement between India and Pakistan (and there is good reason not to be), the drawbacks of an American intervention in the peace process are minimal and the benefits could prove to be significant.
Justin Polin is a research assistant at the Project for the New American Century.