Kashmir and the Arrogance of Ignorance

August 15, 2000

Comment: #377


[1] David E. Bonior, The Kashmir Flash Point, Washington Post, July 31, 2000, Pg. 19. Excerpts attached.

President Clinton has called the Indian subcontinent the "most dangerous place in the world." He was referring, of course, to the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and the possibility of escalation to nuclear war.

Quite frankly, after more than 30 years in the defense business, I know very little about this conflict. My guess is that my high degree of ignorance is shared by most readers of this list. But, given the President's fears, not to mention our national predilection for meddling in the affairs of others, recent events suggest it may be time for the public to begin learning something about Kashmir before their representatives take them for a ride.

In a July 31 op-ed in the Washington Post, for example, Congressman David Bonior asserted that "America has a unique opportunity to help ease tensions in this volatile region" and proposed a more direct involvement in yet another peace process (see Reference 1).

Bonior based his proposal on a dangerous mix of flimsy historical inaccuracies as well as a short-sighted view of recent developments.

Let me first begin with the short-sighted view of developments, which can be confirmed by subsequent events:

Bonior's conclusion that "America has a unique opportunity to help ease tensions in this volatile region" rests on at least two premises:

The first is that a unilateral ceasefire offers a "strategic" opportunity for a productive U.S. involvement, because "Over the last week, Kashmir's largest insurgent group, the Hezbul Mujahedeen, announced a unilateral cease-fire. To its credit, India reciprocated and suspended operations against the group."

His second premise was that Pakistan's leader (General Pervez Musharraf ) was  "pressing for a halt to militant insurgencies into Kashmir. This, together with his stated desire to launch discussions with India, is helping to create the strategic opening necessary to settle the Kashmir crisis."

Bonior's analysis of the strategic opening collapsed one week later when the Hizbul rescinded its ceasefire offer on August 8, because, as it alleged, India refused to allow Pakistan to participate in peace talks. The reasons for the refusal are murky, however, and some experts believe that Hizbul withdrew before India's refusal. Whatever the case, Hizbul was ready for action. Days later, Hizbul claimed credit for a well-planned bomb explosion in the Kashmiri summer capital of Srinagar that killed 14 people. On 12 August, a series of distributed attacks killed 26 people. On 13 August, General Musharraf said Pakistan ''Pakistan stands united with its Kashmiri brothers and sisters in their just cause,'' ''and will continue to extend all moral, diplomatic and political support to their indigenous struggle against state-sponsored terrorism.'' Musharraf's oblique reference to India's state sponsored terrorism, now doubt, was made in part to express Pakistan's continuing support for the basing, training, and infiltration into Kashmir of outside Mujhadeen (e.g., Afghani, Saudi, etc.) fighters. (Hizbul is an indigenous rebel force)

One reason why Mr. Bonior's "strategic opening" lasted only two weeks flows from his flimsy use of history to support of his thesis. As I said earlier, I know next to nothing about this conflict. So I asked my good friend Professor Harold A. Gould of the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia for his analysis of Bonior's proposal:

-------[Analysis by Hal Gould]--------

Congressman Bonior's Flawed Perception of the Kashmir Dispute

By Harold A Gould
Center for South Asian Studies, UVA.
13 August 2000

On July 31st, Congressman David O. Bonior published an op-ed in the Washington Post which is a grievously inaccurate analysis of the Kashmir dispute. While he was correct in saying that "the roots of the Kashmir crisis run deep," almost everything that follows this truism betrays a blatant anti-Indian bias. One of the principal respects in which he reveals his bias is by equating the two countries as "two unstable nuclear powers.....on a collision course."

He goes on to say that the roots of the Kashmir crisis lie in the fact that a United Nations plebiscite, which was to be conducted in 1948 "in the wake of Indian and Pakistani independence" for the purpose of determining Kashmiri self-determination, was never honored.

He implied that the failure to hold this plebiscite occurred because India refused to give up its military occupation of Kashmir and that, indeed, the reasons why the crisis persists to this day is because India "continues to occupy Kashmir."

Bonior claims furthermore that Pakistan's preoccupation with maintaining a large war machine and spending inordinate amounts of its national wealth on the military (to the detriment of efforts to combat poverty and illiteracy) is India's fault. It stems from the "belief that war with India is all but inevitable," he says.

Finally, the Congressman Bonior advocates a more active role by the United States in resolving the Kashmir dispute, because he sees this as the only way that eventual nuclear war in South Asia can be averted.

Mr. Bonior's analysis doesn't help us understand the Kashmir question.

He avoids or ignores certain basic historical facts that must be recognized and acknowledged before a serious discussion of the South Asian crisis can occur.

We must start with the 1948 UN's call for a plebiscite on self-determination for Kashmir. No mention is made of the fact that the UN's call for such a plebiscite occurred only after a UN-negotiated cease-fire was brought about between India and Pakistan following the first war that was fought between them over who should control Kashmir.

The war occurred because Pakistan engineered an invasion of the state following the decision of its ruler to accede to India. A stalemate followed, because Pakistani forces occupied half of Kashmir, and refused to withdraw so that a fair election could be held (which was what the UN mandate required), something the Indian side was prepared to do on a mutual basis. Consequently, a de facto partition occurred and remains in place to this day, and India and Pakistan "occupy" portions of the original Kashmir state, not India alone.

The skirmishes and wars that subsequently followed have occurred mainly because Pakistan attempted repeatedly to impose its version of what the final solution for Kashmir should be (viz., total accession to Pakistan), rather than accept a negotiated settlement which recognizes the existing realities and the legitimate rights and interests of all parties to the dispute, that is, the Kashmiri people, India and Pakistan, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs.

To an important extent, Pakistan's prolonged intransigence was reinforced by the United States's misguided South Asian policy of recruiting them into its anti-Soviet alliance system. This policy led two generations of Pakistani leaders to believe that America tacitly favored their version of the dispute.

The anti-Soviet Pakistani-American alliance also contributed to the growth of Pakistan's military culture, whose existence Congressman Bonior appears to blame on the Indians.

As early as the 1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru grasped the dangerous implications of this misbegotten alliance. He foresaw that it would encourage Pakistan's reactionary dominant elites to resist needed social and political reforms, such as those India undertook, and thereby evolve a war economy that would divert precious resources away from addressing the country's pervasive poverty, illiteracy and social inequality.

It is the legacy of these policies that really explain Pakistan's impoverishing, obsessive belief that "war with India is inevitable." Pakistan's failure as a nation, born of its client status and its failure to face the challenges of major social reform, are responsible for this state of mind, not India, and not Kashmir.

The war threat has perennially emanated from Pakistan, not India. The three wars that have been fought between India and Pakistan (1948, 1965 and 1972) were all initiated by Pakistan. This in itself should give pause to Mr. Bonior's opinions.

In the most recent instance of military conflict between the two states, it is once again Pakistan who fired the first shot, crossed borders, and launched an invasion of the Kargil region.

Yet, Mr. Bonior depicts what is known to have been an outright act of aggression against India as just another "clash," for which he implies both sides were equally culpable Nothing could be further from the truth. That this act of wanton aggression did not escalate into full blown war, nuclear or otherwise, is a tribute to India's self-restraint and maturity in the face of the most dire provocation.

The tragedy is further compounded by the fact that only months earlier an accord had been reached at Lahore. It seemed to offer a real chance for conflict resolution between India and Pakistan. This had been importantly due to Prime Minister Vajpayee's willingness to go the extra mile (literally, it would seem!) in search of a mutually acceptable formula. It was Pakistan's descent once again into political fratricide, military dictatorship and saber-rattling that doomed this crucial initiative to failure.

Mr. Bonior makes much of the nuclear threat in South Asia and exhorts the US to appoint some sort of "special envoy for Kashmir." Such American meddling is not the answer.

The Indians won't accept it, and the Pakistanis have unreasonable expectations for the role they want American meddling to play. They haven't recovered from their Cold War illusions about what the American relationship should be. Moreover, tying the nuclear issue exclusively to the Kashmir crisis, coupled with the insinuation that India bears all the responsibility, is an unrealistic and unworkable strategy.

Kashmir is more a symptom than a cause of the deepest threats to peace in South Asia. The greatest threats emanate from the fragility of public institutions in Pakistan and the immanent danger that Pakistan may soon politically implode. If this occurs and the politics of desperation, driven by Taliban-style fundamentalist fanaticism, takes hold, then the nuclear trigger could slip from the hand of what remains of responsible government in Pakistan, with what terrible consequences one can only imagine.

When Congressman Bonior had his meeting with Pakistan's latest military dictator, he might have done well to have stressed these points, instead of pandering to him, and suggested that the most constructive thing General Musharraf might do to assure peace and stability in his own country and in the region, would be to concentrate his efforts on restoring and enriching democracy there before it is too late.

At the same time, Mr. Bonior should have urged the General to open a mature political dialogue with his already robustly democratic neighbor, India, which is institutionally and temperamentally equipped to engage in mature diplomacy. Surely these measures would provide great reassurance not only to the people of Kashmir and South Asia writ large, but to the entire world as well.

Prof. Harold A. Gould, Center for South Asian Studies, UVA.


Like the wars of secession in Yugoslavia, Gould's analysis (even if it is partially wrong - which I doubt) suggests the conflict in Kashmir is the legacy of a complex history involving a volatile interaction of outside great-power politics with internal ethnic/religious/factional struggles. Also, like Yugoslavia, the Kashmiri conflict was been largely ignored, albeit exacerbated from time to time, by the great-power machinations of US policy makers obsessed with the bi-polar dynamics of the Cold War - the blowback of the Afghani Taliban (who used to be called freedom fighters) being a relevant case in point.

When our leaders say the Indian subcontinent is the most dangerous place in the world, politicians run the risk of succumbing to the temptations of the ARROGANCE OF IGNORANCE, to borrow a memorable phrase from Robert Asprey's seminal history of guerrilla war, "War in the Shadows," and they are led to commit ill-advised precipitous action with counter-productive long-term consequences.

Bonior's vision of a "strategic" opportunity illustrates the danger of succumbing to the ARROGANCE OF IGNORANCE (AOI). On the one hand, AOI makes it difficult to resist our national predilection for meddling in the affairs of others. On the other hand, AOI inflames the hubris of a tired foreign policy cartel that is trying to prop up its cold-war preeminence with the half-baked grand-strategic theory that America is the world's indispensable power.

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]

Reference #1

Washington Post
July 31, 2000
Pg. 19

The Kashmir Flash Point

By David E. Bonior


Since 1990, as many as 70,000 have died in a continuing cycle of protest, violence and repression. India, which continues to occupy Kashmir, now has about 600,000 troops stationed there. Firefights between Indian security forces and militants are commonplace. One clash last year in the city of Kargil claimed 1,000 lives.


Clearly both India and Pakistan have a common interest in resolving the crisis in Kashmir. Allowing it to fester will only lead to more violence and terror. But the chances of achieving a lasting peace are remote without American leadership. Even more, the chance for success has never been better.


First, President Clinton must now appoint a special envoy for Kashmir. ...

Second, America must invest in democracy in both India and Pakistan. Although leaders in both nations are committed to democracy, the civic institutions necessary to sustain it must be strengthened. ...

Third, it's time to provide economic aid, not sanctions. ...

Today, the threat of nuclear conflict in South Asia is greater than ever before. It's in America's strategic interest to reduce this threat; unless the Kashmir crisis is resolved, that will prove impossible. If we turn our attention away from the region, as our government did after the conflict in Afghanistan, we will not only see further violence, we may witness nuclear war itself.

The writer, a Democratic representative from Michigan, is House minority whip.