At War in Kashmir, India and Pakistan Wage Lunch in Washington

Bullets are flying in the Himalayan Mountains, but the South Asian rivals are spinning reporters over chicken masala and Roghni naan.

An Indian Punjab policeman stands guard as Border Security Force (BSF) personnel sit in a vehicle near the Indian-Pakistan border at Rear Kakkar, about 40km from Amritsar, on October 4, 2016. / AFP / NARINDER NANU        (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
An Indian Punjab policeman stands guard as Border Security Force (BSF) personnel sit in a vehicle near the Indian-Pakistan border at Rear Kakkar, about 40km from Amritsar, on October 4, 2016. / AFP / NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)

Indian and Pakistani troops continued to exchange gunfire in Kashmir this week in a dangerous escalation of tensions in the disputed Himalayan region. But in Washington, the two adversaries waged war by other means: dueling luncheons at their respective embassies.

Armed with platters of chicken tikka masala, mutton korma and steaming cups of masala tea, senior officials from both countries simultaneously hosted reporters on Tuesday afternoon in an effort to claim the high ground in a complex but increasingly deadly conflict.

Under the curved linear roof of the Pakistani Embassy, an imposing pavilion in Washington’s residential Cleveland Park neighborhood, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s special envoy on Kashmir, Sen. Mushahid Hussain Syed, blasted India’s human rights record in the disputed region, citing a rising death and injury toll, including from shrapnel pellet guns. Pakistan claims 12,000 have been injured since July, including some 150 people who lost their vision due to injuries from the shrapnel pellets.

At the same time, 3 miles south, Indian officials held a briefing for reporters at New Delhi’s mission on Massachusetts Ave., situated in the heart of Embassy Row. Originally intended as an off-the-record briefing, a senior Indian official volunteered a few words after being informed that the Pakistanis were hosting an event without any ground rules.

“We reserve the right to defend ourselves against terrorist organizations,” said the Indian official.

Tensions escalated dramatically between the two nuclear-armed foes after a militant offensive in Kashmir on Sept. 18 killed 19 Indian soldiers. Both countries claim sovereignty over the mountainous, Muslim-majority region, but Kashmir remains divided between Indian and Pakistani-controlled areas. The region had already been more tense than usual after Indian security forces killed Burhan Muzaffar Wani, the leader of a separatist Kashmiri militant group, in July.

Then, last week, New Delhi announced what it called a “surgical strike” across the border to eradicate “terrorist launching pads” controlled by Islamabad-backed militants. India has breached the so-called Line of Control dividing Kashmir before, but the attack was unique because the Indian military publicly admitted to doing so — something it has refused to do in the past. Pakistan, for its part, denied the claim but said an Indian cross-border attack killed two of its own soldiers.

The dueling luncheons demonstrated the importance both capitals place on their respective images in Washington, which maintains a complicated relationship with both South Asian rivals.

In Pakistan, Washington has spent billions of dollars over many decades to prop up Islamabad’s government and military, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks. But Pakistan’s apparent harboring of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and continued support for militants both inside Afghanistan and in Kashmir, has led to steadily rising frustration among administration officials in Washington.

Washington’s financial support of Pakistan has long infuriated India, but the budding personal “bromance” between President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has raised the possibility of a new opening for the world’s two largest democracies. Modi has to some extent shaken off decades of “non-alignment” to position Delhi closer to Washington on security issues, as both countries are concerned by the increasingly aggressive rise of China — an “all-weather friend” of Pakistan.

During the respective briefings on Tuesday, both sides cited the United States as a potential gamechanger in the decades-long conflict, although not always in the most diplomatic terms.

Pakistan’s Hussain Syed blasted Washington for not doing enough to address human rights concerns in Kashmir and accused the United States of having an “infatuation” and a “love affair” with India. He speculated that a recent deal between Modi and Obama, which will allow the United States to use land, air, and naval bases in India, has helped play into the United States’ apparent willingness to look the other way on human rights concerns in Kashmir.

“It seems that politics seem to have trumped principles; in this case, the principles of human rights,” he said. He spoke to reporters directly after a meeting with State Department officials in Foggy Bottom.

Hussain Syed also acknowledged that other crises, including the conflict in Syria, have contributed to the Obama administration’s placing of Kashmir on the back burner. But he reminded U.S. officials that, since Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers, “the stakes are very high” and said that “the Obama administration should have placed a higher premium on the issue.”

“Just because Kashmiris do not have oil or are not in Europe or do not belong to a certain religious domination, they should not be denied those rights,” he said. “We feel that there are double standards.”

Despite his frustrations with Washington, Hussain Syed said he secured a promise from the State Department to include the information about recent human rights abuses and injuries sustained by civilians at the hands of Indian forces this summer in its next human rights report.

When asked, a State Department official noted that “information about human rights in the Kashmir region periodically appears in the India and/or Pakistan reports depending on the human rights conditions and events in a given year.”

Back on Embassy Row, the Indian official blamed Pakistan for using militant terrorist groups as a geopolitical tool — a decades-old tactic that has spawned attacks inside Afghanistan, as well as in India and the United States, he said.

Indian officials have long pointed out that Pakistan hosted bin Laden, America’s most wanted terrorist for years before the 2011 U.S. raid that killed him. And while the bulk of Pakistan’s support for militants has been targeted at is neighbor, Indian officials say Pakistan has also been linked to a range of other terror plots in the United States.

In San Bernardino, authorities identified Pakistani national Tashfeen Malik as the female shooter in the deadly assault. Most recently, authorities charged Ahmad Khan Rahami with detonating powerful bombs in Manhattan and New Jersey. The 28-year-old made several overseas trips to Pakistan, including a three-month stay in Quetta in May 2011 and a longer trip to Quetta again starting in April 2013.

“Pakistan needs to be held accountable for its actions,” said the official.

Despite the heightened tensions, Hussain Syed said that Indian and Pakistani national security advisers have spoken twice in the past three days, and that “the bottom line” is “let’s lower the temperature,” he said.

As for the story behind the coinciding lunches? Hussain Syed said it’s nothing more than a “remarkable coincidence.”

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