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The real problem in the Afghan war is India, Pakistan and Kashmir

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By Mohsin Hamid
Sunday, August 8, 2010

LAHORE -- The United States is struggling to implement a strategy for Afghanistan that will improve the lives of the Afghan people and allow U.S. troops to go home. Part of what makes it so difficult is the way Washington views the conflict: through the lens of what officials have dubbed "AfPak," a war in the southern part of Afghanistan and the adjoining border areas of Pakistan. Though the acronym is falling out of official favor, the AfPak mind-set remains.

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A different shorthand for the war might help. "AfPInd" may be less catchy, but it is far more useful. Peace in AfPInd requires not U.S. troops on the ground, but a concerted effort to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table, where under the watchful eyes of the international community they can end their hydra-headed confrontation over Kashmir.

But that's not how the United States sees this conflict. Mutual mistrust has bedeviled the U.S.-Pakistani alliance since the Afghan war began in 2001. Certain suspicions surfaced again recently in military documents revealed by WikiLeaks alleging that members of the Pakistani intelligence agency collaborated with militant groups fighting the United States in Afghanistan. Both Pakistani and U.S. officials have said that the information is old, unreliable and not true to the situation on the ground. Yet the recriminations and controversy have a "here we go again" feel. After all, we've seen this pattern before.

In 1947, when Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan were partitioned into two countries, the status of the region of Kashmir, with a Muslim-majority population and a Hindu prince, was unresolved. The United Nations said Kashmiris should hold a referendum, but both India and Pakistan seized parts of the territory, and since then the two countries have been at each other's throats.

Enter the United States -- not once, but three times.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistan and the United States were allies. The United States gave Pakistan weapons and $2 billion in economic aid; it thought that the Pakistani military would be a bulwark against communism. The Pakistani military thought the United States would help it against a much larger and hostile India.

Then India and Pakistan went to war in 1965. American leaders castigated Pakistan for using U.S.-supplied weapons and terminated the alliance.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and Pakistan and the United States once again were allies. The United States gave Pakistan weapons and $3 billion in economic aid; it thought that the Pakistani military would be a bulwark against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military thought the United States would help it against a much larger and hostile India.

Then the Soviets were defeated. The United States castigated Pakistan for developing nuclear weapons (to counter India) and terminated the alliance.

Today, Pakistan and the United States are allies for a third time. Over the past decade, the United States has given Pakistan weapons and $4 billion (and counting) in economic aid; it hopes that the Pakistani military will be a bulwark against terrorist groups in the region. The Pakistani military hopes the United States will help it against a much larger and hostile India. Then . . .

By now, the recurring failure in the Pakistan-U.S. alliance should be obvious: The Pakistani military views it primarily as a means of reducing the threat from India, and the United States does not.

But perhaps the United States should.

The reason the Pakistani military continued to back jihadist groups, jointly set up with the CIA in the 1980s, after the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan was that it believed the same tactics could be used in Kashmir against India. And the reason the Pakistani military remains obsessed with shaping events in Afghanistan is because that country is the site of a power struggle between Pakistan and India -- what commentators in Pakistan go so far as to call a "proxy war." It is what Ashfaq Kayani, the Pakistan army chief, means when he speaks of Pakistan's desire for "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.

Fighting terrorists or fighting the Taliban -- or indeed, fighting in Afghanistan at all -- addresses symptoms rather than the disease in South Asia: the horrific, wasteful, tragic and dangerous six-decade confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

This confrontation ravages Afghanistan, where the Northern Alliance, which was organized to fight the Taliban, is backed by money and weapons from India, and militant groups among the southern Pashtuns are backed by Pakistan. It is a big part of why peace eludes the country, even though the Soviets left a generation ago.

Ignore Kashmir, as the United States does, and the conflict seems incomprehensible. Include Kashmir in the picture, and it all makes sense.

At the moment, the Pakistani military uses militant groups to put pressure on India to negotiate, and India uses terrorism as an excuse not to negotiate. By so doing, both sides harm themselves greatly. The vast majority of people in South Asia, who like myself desire peace built on compromise, find our hopes held hostage by security hawks.

The situation is not improving. India's stance toward Pakistan has hardened since attacks by Pakistan-based militants on Mumbai killed 173 people in 2008. And here in Pakistan, militants are killing even more civilians, police officers and soldiers every month -- more than 3,000 Pakistanis in 2009. Some of the preschools I'm considering for my daughter now have snipers on their roofs and steel barricades at their gates.

Meanwhile, the United States has placed 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, where they can do little to eliminate the single biggest problem that nation faces: being made into a battleground by its neighbors.

The United States still sets much of the global agenda. If it hopes to salvage any remotely positive outcome from its massive, nine-year-old war in Afghanistan, then it should move a resolution over Kashmir up on its list of priorities.

Peace in AfPak is failing because the term itself is a willful illusion. Peace in AfPInd will not be easy, but the term rings true, and that at least offers a start.

Mohsin Hamid is a writer based in Pakistan. His most recent novel is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist."


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