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The South Asia Channel

What Obama almost said

By Jeffrey Stern When President Obama laid out his plans for Afghanistan on December 1, he made it clear — to many for the first time — that the war in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. “[T]he stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” he said, “because we know that al Qaeda and ...


By Jeffrey Stern

When President Obama laid out his plans for Afghanistan on December 1, he made it clear — to many for the first time — that the war in Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. “[T]he stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan,” he said, “because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them.” He went on to provide this augury: “Our success in Afghanistan is inextricably linked to our partnership with Pakistan.”

Pakistan has not been the partner the U.S. had hoped for in combating violent extremism, nor will they be now. Not until Pakistan’s fixation with India abates will what’s happening on the border with Afghanistan seem purely detrimental to their national interest. The militants there maintain ties to the ones agitating against India, so they serve as a strategic hedge; the bully you tolerate because sometimes he picks on your playground rival too. Chief among Pakistan’s grievances with India is the disputed territory of Kashmir, and until that dispute is resolved and enmity with India cools, Pakistan will be both unable and disinclined to fully confront the insurgency on its Western border — the one which leaks into Afghanistan and foments ideal conditions for al Qaeda and other terrorist groups.

Kashmir is the keystone to India and Pakistan’s six-decade-long conflict, the Paradise where India stations at least 300,000 troops and the through-point for Pakistani insurgents darting in and out of India. The Kashmiri people themselves still tend to claim allegiance to neither Pakistan nor India, but favor independence instead. The party line among the separatists is that they will continue to struggle for autonomy — not democracy, they’re quick to assert (a backhanded rebuke of India, the world’s biggest democracy) — and not affiliation with Pakistan. This August I visited the region to interview separatist leaders and former militants, and gauge for myself their shifting opinions in a region that bears so heavily, if still invisibly, on our foreign policy.

The Kashmiri independence movement was once a guerrilla insurgency, but it has been officially disarmed since the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front called for a cease-fire in 1994. JKLF members today tell me they decided they could make more progress as a peaceful movement, but the Front was hit hard by a counterinsurgency campaign, and divided by internal disputes. And when, in a single month of nuclear weapons tests by both Pakistan and India in 1998 the two countries announced to the world that the stakes had been raised, Kashmiris saw their parochial contest become an existential problem for the entire subcontinent, a flashpoint between two quarrelsome nuclear states. While the world lay awake worrying about warheads between Pakistan and India passing in the night, Kashmiris knew their struggle would never be far from the world stage. The militancy moved mostly to the margins, occasionally agitating in this village or that border area, but generally seeing its influence atrophy.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 changed all that. While the world watches wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Kashmir, since largely forgotten, has been undergoing a steady transition that is not only distracting Pakistan from the Taliban insurgency the U.S. would like a hand with, but could very well result in another militant campaign and a safe haven for the kind of extremists the U.S. fears most.

Wahhabism is sweeping through the valley, introducing a brand of Islam more politicized than the pacifistic Sufism Kashmiris have traditionally adhered to. And the man perhaps most responsible for this is Maulana Shaukat Ahmad Shah, the head of an organization called Jamiat-e-Ahl-e-Hadees that has built more than six hundred mosques throughout Kashmir.

When I met Shaukat in August at the Al Hadees headquarters (which is also a hospital) in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, I was escorted to his office by a barefoot man carrying a submachine gun. The complex had the aura of Islamic organizations like Hezbollah or Hamas that evolve out of (or into) armed struggle, in that Al Hadees provides the services like medical care and education a state should.

Accordingly, Shaukat was most eager to talk about the new diagnostic center he’s building, the “60,000 biochemistry tests” the hospital has conducted in the past six months, the universities the organization is planning.  It took some goading to bring him to the topic of religion. “Ideologically, we’re very close to Saudi Arabia,” he said. “Some people think we are orthodox, fundamentalist. We are known as Wahhabis.” He retrieved a book on Wahhabism, which he gave me as a gift. “We have more than 150 schools from primary to second,” he said, “and three big Arabic colleges. After completing school we send students to Saudi Arabia for post grad.”

When I asked how the organization is involved in the separatist movement, Shaukat said they’re officially apolitical, but that “we are part and parcel of nation so any problem, we cannot be aside. We have been suffering, we have suffered, we cannot keep the organization separate. We have 1.5 million people, they have to follow the organization, but that doesn’t mean we can tell people how to act.” (An Indian colonel I later spoke to accused Al Hadees of doing just that — encouraging, sometimes even paying, young men to take part in protests.)

Regardless of how involved Al Hadees is with Kashmiri separatist politics, its impact on the religious complexion of Kashmir is indisputable. It has built an astounding network of mosques, sometimes surrounding Hindu temples or places of Sufi worship, erecting physical as well as symbolic impediments to faiths traditionally practiced here.

In the evenings during Ramadan in late summer, I watched in Srinagar as the call to break the fast come over the radio, and all around, in concert, people reached for water or cigarettes — Ramadan fasting has only been observed so broadly here for the last several years, so this unified display of observance seems a foreboding sign, a symbol of influence over the populace becoming increasingly concentrated and effective.

I met a Kashmiri man who said he read the Qu’ran three years ago for the first time, and who became visibly excited while telling me about it. “I read a lot of books, there is no book like this one! Yesterday I was reading a passage, it says we all came here to help, that’s why we’re here. I think maybe now we will see a mushrooming of good people. Before, no one is fasting for Ramadan, now, see how many people are fasting!” A friend of his smiled when I recounted the story. “Just a few years ago, we used to drink whiskey together in my office.”

Meanwhile, a new generation of disenfranchised Kashmiri youths raised around guns and with troops in their schools is beginning to concern observers. The young people I talked to were intelligent, articulate, principled, and disinclined to violent extremism. But that’s partially — perhaps principally — because they believe violent extremism is what India wants, since every act of violence justifies the presence of India’s troops in Kashmir.

“These youths will never get any jobs,” said Morifat Qodri, a Kashmiri journalist. “Or even passports to travel abroad. So they have also been pushed to the wall.” The young men I talked to shared stories that suggested a similar phenomenon. When Kashmiris go into Indian provinces, they told me, they feel discriminated against; when they want to buy property, they’re subjected to endless background checks; when they go to police stations to make complaints about government abuse, they’re called terrorists; when they throw stones at the army, the army responds with guns.

It’s the combination of a shift towards a more politicized, ardent kind of Islam and a disenfranchised generation of Kashmiris that concerns observers like Qodri. Ghulam Rasool Dar, General Secretary of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, told me that the “youth will rectify the situation. It reigns in their subconscious minds. As a small kid, I saw the Indian army kill three people. If we had one pistol, I would have killed ten soldiers. Now, they have guns and they can do it. And no one in the world is interested.”

“This is why I am worried,” Qodri said, “that any terrorist organization will capitalize on the situation.”  

The region may well become not only a central point of contention between Pakistan and India, and a distraction to Pakistan from its other counterinsurgency chores, but a site of a renewed violent extremist campaign with ripple effect across the region, and perhaps the world. Indeed, this summer saw an uptick in violence throughout Kashmir; killings, car bombings, protests, and a double rape-murder that ignited regional tensions, as many Kashmiris blamed India for both the crime and cover up.

This June, the people of Shopian, a community a few hours outside of Srinagar, learned that two young women had been abducted, raped, and murdered. When I visited the town in September, a young man named Khalid Moshtaq took me to the site of the alleged abduction, and to the places where the bodies were found. “This is where they picked up the girls,” Khalid told me. He’s a member of the Majlis, a committee Shopian’s leaders formed to investigate the crimes after deciding the government wouldn’t do a thorough job. Twenty-four and severe-looking, Khalid’s bearing is decidedly serious, as though he knows he’s been wronged, and is skeptical that I take him seriously.  It’s an affectation amplified by an infected eye that waters from behind a patch.

Standing on a bridge over a shallow river, he points to where everything happened: the girls were picked up alive and returned dead, cast out into the river. Drowned, the State said, though the water is only inches deep. “Never has there been record of a drowning in this river,” Khalid says, the explanation alone seeming to strike him like an insult, a statement of domination, that we will do what we want with your women, and we won’t take the time for an explanation, and you will have no recourse.

“At that store,” he says, gesturing toward a convenience store in small shack, “that man was a witness. He heard the girls scream. Down there, that’s where they found Nelofar-jan,” one of the victims. “Asiya was up near that bend.” 

Khalid turns back to consider me, face to face.  “We decided not to use violence.  But in ten or fifteen years, Nelofar’s son won’t be able to walk into a market without people talking behind his back.  He will say to us ‘why did you not do something to defend her honor?  They gang raped her.'” 

“In the past,” Obama said in his speech last week, “we too often defined our relationship with Pakistan narrowly. Moving forward, we are committed to a partnership with Pakistan that is built on a foundation of mutual interest, mutual respect, and mutual trust.” Broadening that definition will mean a holistic approach to Pakistan, acknowledging that Taliban militancy on the border with Afghanistan is not Pakistan’s most pressing concern even if it is the United States’. It will mean acknowledging Pakistan’s grievances with India. Redefining the relationship will mean moving towards a workable resolution to Kashmir. Only then can Pakistan begin to be the partner the U.S. needs to confront al Qaeda and its allies, buttress Western efforts in Afghanistan, and to keep Kashmir itself from exploding.

Jeffrey Stern is the international engagement manager at the National Constitution Center and a journalist who spent much of the last two years traveling across South Asia, focusing on Afghanistan.


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