The recent revelation that the Pakistani military spy agency ISI covertly funded a lobbying operation in the U.S. championing the Pakistani cause in Kashmir comes as no surprise to veteran Pakistan watchers. Over the years the Pakistanis have shown an unerring ability to shoot themselves in the foot (or worse) on the Kashmir issue. The Pakistanis believe that India unfairly stole the heavily Muslim region away from them during the partition of the British Raj and they have never been able to reconcile themselves to its loss. Their self-inflicted wounds over Kashmir, in fact, extend all the way back to the partition era. They jumped the gun on accession talks with its Hindu ruler that were headed in their direction by sending irregular forces into the territory. This caused the spooked maharaja to call on the Indians for help, who agreed to send in troops in return for his agreement to incorporate Kashmir into India. The Indians then managed to seize most of Kashmiri territory in the year-long fighting that followed.
The Pakistanis never accepted the loss of Kashmir and, after almost twenty years of pining, actually started a war with India over it. This was in 1965 when they sent guerilla forces into the region in an effort to foment a popular uprising among the Muslim population. Not only did the effort fail, it provided the Indians with a pretext to launch an armored counterattack further to the south, forcing the Pakistanis to accept a humiliating ceasefire. Nonetheless, the Pakistanis were back at it once again in 1989. This time they decided to take advantage of a popular uprising in Kashmir against heavy-handed Indian rule. Anti-Indian sentiment had been building in the region for many years, and Indian rigging of local elections finally provided the spark. Once again the Pakistanis sent guerilla forces into the region, but this time they found a welcoming audience. Many young Kashmiri Muslims streamed across the Line of Control into Pakistani territory for insurgent training. The Pakistanis also began employing jihadist groups formed during the recently concluded anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Along with the young Kashmiris, they succeeded in making life miserable for the Indians, who eventually felt obliged to send up to half a million security forces into the region just to maintain control.
In 1995, however, one of the jihadist groups the Pakistanis were using kidnapped and beheaded several young Westerners backpacking in the region. This generated more press in the Western media (all of it bad) than the Kashmir insurrection itself ever had and helped to tar it with a radical Islamic brush. The use of jihadist groups in Kashmir also undercut longstanding Pakistani efforts to convince the United States it should seek to play a mediating role in the Kashmir dispute. Not only was India adamantly opposed to third party involvement, but with the emergence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan next door, Washington was beginning to realize that jihadist groups, whose goals it had supported during the anti-Soviet jihad, were now taking on a virulently anti-Western complexion. The United States started pressing the Pakistanis to stop using them in Kashmir or anywhere else. President Clinton even gave a televised address to the Pakistani nation during a whistle-stop visit to Islamabad in early 2000 in which this was the centerpiece of his remarks.
The fact is that, although the use of jihadist groups in Kashmir succeeded in putting real pressure on India, it cost the Pakistanis dearly on the stage of world public opinion. Lost in the shuffle was the very real plight of the Kashmir people. Even by Indian calculations tens of thousands of them have lost their lives since the beginning of the insurrection. Indian bunkers and checkpoints litter the landscape. The early years of the rebellion, which were dominated by native Kashmiri guerillas, featured frequent roundups of young males, with suspected guerillas marched off to interrogation centers where torture was not infrequently used. As the ranks of Kashmiri insurgents became depleted, the Pakistanis made increasing use of the Pakistani jihadist groups. As their profile grew, the Kashmiri population began to withdraw into itself and only recently has the insurrection begun to re-gather local momentum. Although this year has been relatively quiet (so far), the previous three summers saw numerous large-scale demonstrations featuring young, stone-throwing males, many of whom lost their lives when Indian security forces responded with bullets.
Recent polls show that the overwhelming majority of the Kashmiri people want to break away from Indian rule. This has left the New Delhi government in a tight spot. India is not a homogeneous nation but a vast mosaic of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. The Indians fear that if they were to let Kashmir go it could precipitate a much broader race for the exits. Nor is admitting that a portion of its population is permanently disaffected something that a nascent superpower is readily inclined to do. During peace talks with Pakistan that culminated in early 2007, the Indians were apparently prepared to grant substantial autonomy to Kashmir and even form a joint commission with Pakistan to oversee the demilitarization of the region. But the Pakistanis balked at the last minute and the deal fell apart.
Which brings us back to the Pakistani penchant for foot shooting. The Pakistani use of jihadist groups in Kashmir has not only cost them all hope of international support for their position on Kashmir, it has also lost them the support of the Kashmiri people themselves. Although the overwhelming majority of Kashmiris wish to break away from India, an equally impressive majority opposes being incorporated into Pakistan. Most Kashmiris are aware of what is going on inside their Islamic neighbor—chronic poverty, feckless feudal rule mixed with military dictatorship, radical Islamists on the rampage—and do not like what they see. Far from welcoming the jihadists the Pakistanis have sent their way, they believe they have only made things worse. The Kashmiris do not want to become part of Pakistan. What they seek is independence.
So, if ISI really has been covertly funding a Kashmir lobbying campaign in the United States, it should come as little surprise. In their obsessive (and quixotic) desire to right what many outside Pakistan watchers agree is a historical wrong, the Pakistanis have only made things worse. Not only do the Kashmiri people have no desire to join them, Pakistan is itself increasingly threatened by the very same jihadist groups it originally sent into Kashmir, most of whom joined forces with al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 and have turned against the state. There are now so many of them abroad in the land that the Pakistanis probably lack the resources to defeat them all even if they tried. And if that is not shooting yourself in the foot, I don’t know what is.