“History repeats itself, that’s one of the things that’s wrong with history.” -Clarence Darrow

American Policy and Kashmir Dispute

Vijay K. Sazawal, Ph.D.

26 July 2012

The official U.S. views regarding the Kashmir dispute have remained unchanged for decades. Nevertheless separatists, some media outlets, and other related constituencies in the Kashmir valley continually re-interpret the U.S. position on the issue with pronouncements that are based on wild imagination rather than cold reality.

The United States of America (U.S.) and India held their 3rd Bilateral Strategic Dialogue on June 13, 2012 in Washington, DC. As is a customary practice, most think tanks in the town like the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), the Brookings Institution, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), and others held open forums to discuss the state of bilateral relationship between the U.S. and India, including its positive achievements and major disappointments. In all such meetings, a very senior U.S. diplomat or an official would make a presentation, followed by a question and answer (Q&A) session. There were other presentations as well from South Asia experts. I was invited to such meetings and attended most of them.

I made an interesting observation at these meetings organized at various Think Tanks. Even though there was no mention of “Kashmir” in any of the lectures given by either U.S. officials or third party experts, in every meeting either a Pakistani diplomat or a Pakistani journalist in attendance raised the issue of Kashmir in one form or the other. In each case, the responding official would diplomatically respond without ever saying the word “Kashmir” in his or her reply, but would dwell on the broader context of thorny issues (including trust deficit) between India and Pakistan.

The practice by Pakistani diplomats and journalists to make a point about Kashmir during a Q&A session with U.S. officials is an old one.

The response by the foreign official, irrespective of whether anything significant is said or not, becomes immediate news in Kashmir and Pakistan, re-energizing despondent believers with new hope that Kashmir continues to be an international issue. This practice was curtailed during the time Husain Haqqani was the Pakistani Ambassador, but seems to have been revived by the new Ambassador Shehrbano “Sherry” Rehman.

There are two key points that are vital in understanding the U.S. approach to the Kashmir dispute. First, the U.S. does recognize that it is an international issue, and the final closure will require the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), leading to the removal of the U.N. Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) from both sides of the Ceasefire line. This fact has not changed and I do not know why anyone would scour world media daily to catch snippets on Kashmir in order to reassure their psyche that Kashmir issue is still an international issue, when in fact that status has neither changed nor has been disputed by the major powers.

The second point, though, is even more important. The U.S. position on resolving the Kashmir issue has changed over the years. This change is neither dramatic nor topsy-turvy; it is merely a slow evolution that was inevitable given the level of knowledge and the depth of comprehension within the U.S. national security apparatus that existed about the dispute in 1947-1948 as compared to today, as well as by growing stature of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. India. Garnishing that deep chasm between the past and the present official views of the U.S. (and all western major powers) towards the Kashmir issue are changes that have taken place within Pakistan before and after the “9/11” attacks, which end up reinforcing the core reasons that led to a change in the U.S. policy.

So, it should not surprise anyone when President Obama repeated what has been a long standing bipartisan (meaning both Democrats and Republican governments share the same) point of view that the Kashmir issue should be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan. It has diminished neither the nature of the issue nor its ramifications, but it has condensed possible options for the final solution of the issue.

Pakistani analysts and separatists in Kashmir have expressed disappointment over President Obama’s statement, some going as far as to say that it was a surprise. But American policy on this issue has not changed for decades now. Even in the “best case scenario,” where Pakistan’s relationship with the West improves to its highest potential again and the U.S. policy on Kashmir “tilts” towards Pakistan, some options on Kashmir are gone for good.

For example, the possibility of an “Independent Kashmir” or an “Independent Jammu & Kashmir” is a thing of the past. This option was not explicit in the U.N. Security Resolutions of 1948, but there was a time during the Cold War when the U.S. (and the U.K.) toyed with such an idea. The “Third Option,” as it was being called, died with the demise of the Soviet Union. Not only did Kashmir lose its strategic significance in the post-Soviet era, but the speed and success with which militant Islam came to fill in the vacuum created by receding communism, made even the Chinese apprehensive about the “Third Option,” given the proximity of Kashmir to their volatile Xinjiang region. So while the “Third Option” has many supporters in Kashmir (some would argue a majority of residents in the valley), it has no international support from the world community that matters. In so far as the U.N. Resolutions go, a line of succeeding Secretary Generals of the U.N. in the last few decades have reiterated over and over again that U.N. Resolutions on Kashmir cannot be implemented without the consent of both India and Pakistan, and are not enforceable without approval from the two countries. So calling for “international intervention” is basically a dead end today. No wonder many separatists in the valley admit that the international community does not care.

Today, all major powers echo the statement made by President Obama that the Kashmir dispute can only be resolved by the two countries themselves. In some ways, this situation represents progress towards resolution that Kashmiris have been seeking, though some (as we have noted previously) may not share that point of view. There are two political schools of thought in the U.S. on how to proceed in the future, given that everyone in authority – from American politicians to bureaucrats to non-governmental experts – generally agree that: (a) the resolution of the issue should be a matter of high priority between India and Pakistan, (b) the resolution will not happen without building trust and creating friendly conditions between the two countries, and (c) people of Jammu and Kashmir should be treated with dignity and fairness in the process of achieving the final resolution of the issue.

The first school of thought has evolved from traditional diplomatic community within the U.S. where many of them were part of the policy- making or contributed to the policy-making represented by the “third option.” Even though these people now realize that an independent Kashmir is unfeasible, they nevertheless see possibilities where perhaps one region (the valley) could have a different political dispensation than other regions of the State. Nevertheless, even this group believes today that the division of the territory of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir should be formalized promptly, with the line of control (LOC) becoming the international border between India and Pakistan. There are a few proposals on the table on how to proceed with providing regional personality to the Kashmir valley and even making the international border in J&K as open as possible, but none of that is likely to happen until the border issue has been settled permanently.

The second school of American thought is of more recent origin having less connectivity with the past history of Kashmir (that has yielded practically no political movement towards the resolution of the dispute in the last 65 years), and more in tune with meeting public aspirations for democracy and justice in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and inter-dependent. This school of American thought has evolved from American experiences in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan, putting emphasis on quality of local governance, human rights, ethnic pluralism, law and order, and social justice, which provide key dimensions for judging how public aspirations are being met.

This school of thought considers the Indian approach to the Kashmir dispute to be pragmatic, while not perfect, that could lead to an eventual resolution of the issue. In fact, other major world powers – including China (with some reluctance and reservations) – also share a similar point of view.

American policy makers and political experts, who are taking a fresh look at the Kashmir dispute, find following factors are inhibiting an early resolution of the Kashmir dispute:

  • The empowered class (“elites”) in J&K have compelling interests in preserving the political status quo
  • India is unlikely to hasten any Kashmir specific talks until it gets some signal from Pakistan that it is willing to accept the LOC as the international boundary
  • Pakistan is unlikely to provide for local governance, ethnic pluralism and social justice in their region of Jammu and Kashmir that would meet the regional criteria for dignity and equality.

At least one proposal is evolving where some or all of these inhibitors are being addressed.

In summary, the Obama statement is a reaffirmation of a long standing position of the United States. The Kashmir dispute has dropped from the radar screens of the U.S. as a non-priority issue. While the U.S. Government has kept its hands off the matter, policy analysts outside of the government have maintained some interest. The growing trend recently has been to encourage both India and Pakistan to settle the dispute taking into consideration urgent needs for democracy, peace and justice on both sides of the LOC.

This article appeared in the July 27, 2012 edition of the Rising Kashmir, a major daily English newspaper published from Srinagar, Kashmir. Please click here to read the newspaper article.


1. Dr. Michael Krepon, Founder and President Emeritus of the Stimson Center, the leading Think Tank in Washington which has been at the forefront of promoting confidence building measures (CBM’s) between Pakistan and India:


Beautifully written. Also has the advantage of being honest and true.
It’s good that this was published in Rising Kashmir.
I miss flying into the Valley. Indelibly beautiful sight.
Best wishes,

2. Ambassador Howard B. Schaffer is a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who spent much of his 36-year career dealing with U.S. relations with South Asia. He served as Ambassador to Bangladesh (1984-87) and Political Counselor in India (1977-79) and Pakistan (1974-77), and he was twice Deputy Assistant Secretary of State responsible for South Asian affairs. He became Director of Studies at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Georgetown University in 1995. He is the author of the book,”The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir,” published in 2009.

Vijay — Thanks for sending this. I find minimal interest both within the USG and elsewhere in this country in the Kashmir issue. Witness, most recently, the tiny attendance at Radha Kumar’s talk at Brookings on the Kashmir interlocutors’ report. Sure, if you ask people who have thought about Kashmir in the past they will offer opinions along the various lines you suggest. But you don’t find them volunteering ideas for a settlement, in important part because they recognize that there’s no realistic market for these here — or anywhere else for that matter.

This could change were the present relatively quiet situation in Kashmir to turn violent again. Witness the outburst of interest two summers ago when kids were being shot in the streets of Valley towns. But when things calm down “specialists” and others will again find other more profitable grist for their mills.

In January we posted on southasiahand.com an article I had written for the South Asia Journal, “U.S. Kashmir Policy in the Obama Administration and Beyond.” If you haven’t looked at it, you might usefully do so. I don’t think matters have changed since then. In fact, Obama’s recent interview confirms more plainly than ever that the U.S. will continue to do no more than cheer from the sidelines. The president didn’t even add, as the George W. Bush administration used to do, that Washington would we willing to play a more robust role if both sides wanted us to. (U.S. policymakers always recognized that given Indian views they could be confident that no such request would ever be made.) I can’t imagine a Romney administration taking a different approach.



3. Mr. Scott Bates, President of the Center for National Policy (CNP), a leading Washington based Think Tank devoted to national and international security issues. The former U.S. Ambassador to India, Timothy J. Roemer was the former President of the CNP.

Vijay, Congratulations on continuing your position as a clear, articulate and powerful voice on this issue. Outstanding. Scott



Reality Check on Kashmir’s Political Future

This is in response to the article, “Pakistan’s Reality Check on Kashmir” written by Shujaat Bhukhari in Rising Kashmir. I have read the article with great interest. As much as some Kashmiri commentators and columnists like to fantasize on the political future of Kashmir, the reality is that what will happen at the end, to a large extent, will depend on the deal that India and Pakistan will cook among themselves and get the major powers to endorse. Kashmiris can have a decisive role in the process, but that will not happen unless Kashmiris realize that such a role will only come out of a well thought out political strategy and not because these parties will come begging to Kashmiris to hear their wishes and grant them unconditionally.

Kashmiris have two choices – they can continue to ignore reality and aspire for impossible dreams (in my childhood we would call such wishful thinking as khayali pullao), or we can make the best out of a bad situation. The former approach is not only a favorite of the hard-core lobby personified by Syed Ali Geelani, but I would also lump the JKNC and the PDP with the same lobby, since fuzzy rhetoric apart none of those entities really want to see a change in the political status quo.

The Mirwaiz faction, on the other hand, knows the reality but this group does not command loyalty or passions to the same pitch that leaders of the status-quo lobby do. The media could show its smarts, but prefers the wishful thinking in so far as the solution to the Kashmir dispute is concerned. So Farooqs, Bhats and Lones do not know how to carry masses along. The net result is that the political status quo will continue.

In my commentary on “The American Policy and Kashmir Dispute,” published by this esteemed newspaper about 6 weeks back, I mentioned the prescription that some American policy makers have suggested. I strongly believe that if Kashmiris are proactive in demanding demarcation of the international boundary, many options for self-governance are possible on either side of the international border that will not be finalized without the assent of the major powers who do want to see Kashmiris treated with dignity and fairness. In return, the entire deal – from international border demarcation to quality of self-governance – forms a single package that will involve approval of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). I would like to propose that we move towards that goal now, rather than later, when India has a strong possibility to be a permanent member of the UNSC.

Such an approach will require courage on the part of Kashmiri politicians, and Kashmiri commentators and columnists have to get real to allow such a process to proceed. In my humble view, we can continue as usual or do something remarkable to bring peace and prosperity in the entire region.

This commentary appeared in the Rising Kashmir. Please click here to access the newspaper commentary.


About Me

Dr. Vijay Sazawal is a policy analyst and a commentator who specializes in local governance and intra-community issues affecting political dynamics within the Kashmir valley. He has written extensively on the current political turmoil in Jammu and Kashmir (commonly referred to as Kashmir), arguing for new and innovative approaches in understanding and resolving the simmering discontent in all communities and regions of the State.


Jammu & Kashmir Map