Bedecked with flags and flowers, its streets filled with tribal musicians and dancing girls in folkloric costumes, Muzaffarabad (search ) had a festive air the other day.
Muzaffarabad is the capital of Azad (Free) Kashmir (search ), the Pakistani-held part of a disputed territory with India. (China has annexed some 10 per cent of Kashmir). The festivities were part of Kashmir Day, a new national holiday ordered by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
"It was all beautiful but also sad," says Hissamuddin Khan, a businessman who watched the festivities in Muzaffarabad. "It was like the day a bride is given away; everyone was happy and sad at the same time."
The bride in question, of course, is Kashmir, which has been Pakistan’s number-one national obsession for more than half a century. The man supposed to be giving the "bride" away is Musharraf, who has reached an historic accord with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to end a dispute that, starting in 1947, has caused three wars and armed confrontations by the world’s two latest nuclear powers across the Himalayas.
Some experts believe that Kashmir is the second most dangerous flashpoint on earth. (The first is the demilitarized zone in the Korean Peninsula). Last year, the State Department in Washington leaked a study that estimated that a nuclear war between India and Pakistan could kill almost 14 million people. In the wake of the liberation of Iraq last March, critics of the U.S.-led coalition claimed that the "pre-emptive" change of regime in Baghdad could give India a pretext for trying a similar move against Islamabad.
Last December, however, Vajpayee and Musharraf, in a surprise meeting, agreed to negotiations designed not only to terminate the state of belligerence but also to bring the two nations together in a south-Asian "common market." The first round of talks, at foreign ministers’ level, will open later this month. And the world will be watching.
To be sure, this was not the first time that Indian and Pakistani leaders were coming together in a bid to ease tension. This time, however, a number of new factors have to be taken into account.
The first of these is the active, though behind-the-scenes, involvement of the United States. In the past two years, Islamabad and New Delhi have hosted countless visits by senior American officials who came to press for an end to the Kashmir dispute. The Bush administration knows that the best part of what it regards as an international Islamist terror network is built around the cause of Kashmir. It also knows that unless Pakistan disengages its forces from the stand-down in Kashmir it will lack the resources to control, let alone eradicate, the terrorist armies located on its soil, especially in Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (search ).
U.S. influence in India is partly due to the investments made by high-tech American companies who have made it clear that more could come if the threat of another Kashmir war is removed. In Pakistan, U.S. influence takes the shape of a $3 billion aid package, plus goodies for the armed forces, and the prospect of easier access to American markets for Pakistani exports. The second factor that lends more credibility to the current peace efforts is that, for the first time, the Pakistani leadership realizes that the armed groups it has created could, in the fashion of Frankenstein’s monster, turn against their creator.
This is no fanciful supposition. Last Dec. 14 and 26, President Musharraf survived two assassination attempts that were initially blamed on Al Qaeda. An investigation completed this month, however, shows that the plots were the work of Jaish Muhammad (search) (Muhammad’s Army) and Lashkar Janghvi (search ) (The Warrior Division), two Kashmiri armed groups set up by Pakistan’s military intelligence, ISI, in the 1980s.
Over the years, these groups, and others, including the more murderous Sipah Sahabah (search) (Corps of Companions) and Harakat al-Ansar (search) (Movement of the Victors) have shaken off the control of the Pakistani military on their finances and arms, and developed independent strategies. All these groups have had close ties to Al Qaeda for years and helped create the Taliban movement in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s. They have built a base in the shape of some 7000 Islamic madrassahs (search ) and a network of "brothers" among active or retired military and intelligence officers.
Such figures as General Mirza Aslam Beg, General Nasirallah Khan Babar, General Jahangir Karamat and General Hamid Gul have always acted as godfathers to the armed fundamentalist groups. The militant groups receive funding through a network of charities, most of them located in the Persian Gulf Arab states. They also enjoy protection from the Islamist Muttahida Majlis Amal ( United Council for Action) party (search ) that controls the regional government in the Northwest Frontier Province. Because of the federal structure of the Pakistani state, the central government in Islamabad, does not have a free hand in using force in the provinces.
In the past two years the NWFP and the adjacent Tribal Agency (search ), a wild territory controlled by war-chiefs and drug barons, have emerged as safe havens for the remnants of the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies. More recently, however, the armed groups, including at least one unit of the Taliban led by Mullah Muhammad Omar, have set up bases in Baluchistan close to the Iranian border. The Taliban leader reportedly appeared in two localities, Malazai and Burj Aziz-Khan, close to the provincial capital of Quetta, in the first half of December. It is in NWFP, the Tribal Agency and Baluchistan that the remnants of Al Qaeda, the Taliban and the dozen or so similar terror outfits might fight their final battles in the months to come.
Last year, Ayman al-Zawahiri (search ), the Al Qaeda strategist who is believed to be in Iran, issued new "instructions" calling on" holy warriors" to switch their efforts from direct attacks on the U.S. and its western allies to "the liberation" of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Having lost Afghanistan as a base, he argued, the militants should win control of at least another Muslim country. While Saudi Arabia is the bigger prize thanks to the fact that it has 20 percent of the world oil reserves, Pakistan is attractive as the only Muslim nation with a nuclear arsenal.
A close reading of al-Zawahiri’s analysis would show that he thinks it is easier to seize control of Pakistan than to win power in Saudi Arabia. India also has a vital national interest in helping Pakistan curb the militants. A Taliban-style regime in Islamabad will be deadlier to New Delhi than any Pakistani regime so far. As for the U.S., the prospect of having Usama bin Laden’s friends in control of the Pakistani nuclear arsenal is enough to chill the blood.
The law of unintended consequences has provided India and Pakistan with an opportunity to resolve their dispute over Kashmir. Neither can afford to miss it.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of ten books on the Middle East and Islam.