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Beyond "Af-Pak"

Analysis: A myopic view of Afghanistan and Pakistan misses challenges and opportunities in the region.

In the world viewed through America's lens, "Af-Pak," the catch-phrase of the moment in Washington foreign policy circles, makes a good deal of sense. With 17,000 more American troops en route to Afghanistan, and with the Taliban operating largely beyond their reach in the Pakistani tribal lands, the need to deal with both problems in tandem has become conventional wisdom.

Yet focusing solely on what goes in Afghanistan and the largely ungoverned lands south of its border misses a larger, even more difficult reality. After seven years of virtual stalemate in Afghanistan, and with Pakistan looking shaky at best, other, larger powers in the region are placing their bets — and not necessarily on America and its NATO allies. Russia, Iran, China, and India all have vital interests at stake, and all have moved in different ways to hedge their bets.

Nowhere is this more true than in the long-running territorial dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. According to new revelations from Steve Coll, an American journalist and author, concerns about the direction of the India-Pakistan nuclear rivalry over Kashmir so unnerved both sides that these sworn enemies launched a secret peace process that very nearly took the issue off the table in 2007.

Coll, president of the New America Foundation, revealed in the New Yorker magazine last week that the two sides came so close to agreement that, in the words of one senior Indian official involved, "we'd come to semicolons." Without American mediation — indeed, one former American official told me the U.S. was aware of, but not involved in, the negotiations — these sworn enemies very nearly solved on the the world’s major conflicts.

The effect such a peace would have on the region would be profound. Pakistan's unwillingness to accept India's hold on a large part of that northern region led successive governments to use Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency to train Islamic militants to infiltrate the Indian-rule portion of Kashmir. The ISI already had ties with the Afghan Taliban and other groups there dating to the anti-Soviet resistance. Tolerance of terrorism — as an end to a means winning back Kashmir and maintaining influence in Afghanistan — has poisoned the ISI's reputation and nearly led to war with India in the Kargil region in 1999. On most expert lists of top 5 potential causes of nuclear war, Kashmir is 1, 2, or 3.

Sadly, however, the secret peace talks failed. Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the controversial American ally who backed the talks, put them on hold as his domestic standing crumbled. In December 2007, Coll reports, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the effort stalled. The terrorist attack on Mumbai last November, which India blames in no small measure on ISI, appears to have ended any hope of reviving them.