Attack on America: Lasting Impact on Kashmir

The September 11 attacks have immediate ramifications for Afghanistan and Pakistan – and, so terribly, for the US. But it is the Kashmir issue that will be changed forever. Musharraf and Vajpayee have been quick to offer their condolences – and pledge their support – to President Bush. Kashmiris of all political hues were also quick to condemn this brutal mass-murder. Even militant groups rushed to condemn the attacks, if partly out of self-interest. The Lashkar-e-Toiba issued several firm statements disassociating itself from several press reports that (allegedly) implicated the group in the US attacks. The militant group stressed that it views India as its target, not the US. (However, militant groups have gone on to state that they will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Afghanistan if the US attacks.)

What does the future hold? A few observations beckon. 

First, it will become more difficult for Pakistan to tolerate, yet alone back, militant groups operating in Kashmir. Militancy, so very often claimed as a private enterprise (but state-run, as all know), will – like all ailing state businesses – have to be closed down, or fully privatised. Extraordinary pressure from the US could well spell the beginning of the end of a sustained militant campaign in Kashmir. A few militants have trained with Osama bin Laden; many have spent time in Afghan training camps. It is difficult to say how many might share bin Laden’s worldview. Most militant groups are strongly anti-Western, and view the US as a hostile government. But militant leaders understand more of world politics than we might assume. They know that to provoke the US is to invite attention – and intervention – from the American government and the forces it commands. The September 11 attacks and the likely response from a shattered American nation will only underline this fact. But if the changing nature of US foreign policy alters the political geography of militancy – concessions to Musharraf (most likely to be economic) in exchange for his support notwithstanding – then militant groups may well attempt to vent their wrath on US as well as Pakistani government targets.

Second, the APHC will find it more difficult – as if it wasn’t difficult enough already – to argue for self-determination on the one hand, but endorse a military campaign on the other. For Americans, wrapped up in the full televisual horror of the World Trade Center collapse, the subtleties – as well as the facts – of the Kashmir issue are unlikely to be understood, yet alone supported.

Third, a blank canvas. The South Asian balance of power will be upset, and American interest – renewed over the past few years on a trade agenda – is likely to endure, but with an altogether fresh set of foreign policy priorities. How this will imprint on Indo-Pak relations, and on the domestic politics of both countries (particularly Pakistan) remains to be seen. Much depends on what precise course of action the US takes. Diego Garcia is once again the focal point of US military preparations in the region; let it not be forgotten that the US has a physical presence in the region, and formidable intent to respond to what it dubs an act of war. Pakistan could emerge in better shape, if support for the US translates into appropriate and sustained US support. On the other hand, it could be subsumed in a welter of violence if Kashmiri militant groups, Pakistani Islamists, Afghan refugees and the Taliban turn on the present regime.

What might all these changes mean in practice? Pressure – serious pressure – to end militancy in Kashmir changes the equation within Kashmir completely, along with Kashmir-Islamabad and Kashmir-Delhi dealings. The political leaders who will need to do the most thinking are those within the APHC. A new regional order – and a powerfully aggressive US policy on anything that smacks of terrorism (groups already on the US list of terrorist organisations are unlikely to be able to distance themselves from the tag) – demands a new political strategy from the APHC umbrella. This will prove difficult to craft, and the residual tensions between moderates and hardliners, nationalists and pro-Pakistanis, and the smaller constituency of political Islamists, may bubble to the surface.

For militant groups, a new strategy offers itself. No doubt a number of pundits will point to the so-called suicide attacks in Kashmir, and draw the wrong-headed conclusion that India, too, could be subject to similar attacks by Kashmiri extremists. On closer inspection, ‘suicide’ attacks in Kashmir have rarely been so; foolhardy attacks on prestige institutions, perhaps, nihilistic terminal missions, not. It is unlikely that Kashmiri militants will aspire to similar tactics, though the temptation to emulate the horrors of New York and Washington remains.

The impact will also be felt by Kashmiris as a whole. The Kashmiri diaspora will never enjoy the freedoms it has, since the 1960s, drawn upon to agitate and support militancy in Britain, Europe and the US. Various prominent Kashmiri exiles may find their continuing residency overseas subject to stringent restraints.

Kashmir itself will move further away from the hearts of the Western public, even if it possibly gains more time on television channels. Few Americans will be able or willing to support Kashmiri claims to self-determination when the pictures are those of beard-sporting militants. The 1980s stereotype – the Muslim terrorist with a perm in another B-movie – has translated itself into fact. Some nineteen hijackers and a few dozen more conspirators brand the Muslim world, and America’s reading of it. Hopefully enough key decisionmakers in Washington will understand the difference between Jehad and Fasad, between halal and haram, and be willing to support necessary policy reforms in the Muslim world to expunge – with majority Muslim support – the cancer behind the September 11 attacks, along with its causes.

Mr. Alexander Evans a London based Kashmir specialist wrote this piece for Kashmir Observer.

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