Why Kashmir Killers Failed to Stop Peace Talks

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The massacre this week of 90 Indian pilgrims in Kashmir may prove to be more of a headache for Pakistan's General Parvez Musharraf than for India's Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. Tuesday's killings are believed to be the work of Kashmiri separatist guerrillas aiming to preempt historic peace talks between the largest separatist organization, Hizbul Mujahideen, and the Indian government. Pakistan hosts and sponsors all of the separatist groups fighting to end Indian rule in the disputed, predominantly Muslim territory and unite with Pakistan. But General Musharraf, under pressure from the West to ease tensions with India, has supported Hizbul Mujahideen's cease-fire and decision to talk peace with New Delhi. Still, there may be elements in his security forces that oppose such a dialogue. Indeed, while Hizbul remains a predominantly Kashmiri organization that is mostly nationalist in character, its rivals, such as Lakshar-e-Toiba (suspected of being behind Tuesday's massacre), Al Badr, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and others are essentially Pakistani organizations, whose members include large number of Punjabis and Afghanis committed to a "jihad" against India. And the fact that they may have some support in Pakistani security circles to act in defiance of Islamabad's wishes has to worry Musharraf.

There's certainly a pattern here: The last time Vajpayee traveled to Pakistan for talks, in February 1999, there were massacres in Kashmir on the eve of his departure, also blamed on Pakistani hard-liners opposed to the rapprochement. Indeed, the muted response to the recent killings in India suggests they weren't entirely unexpected. India's leaders are keeping their eyes on the prize, starting the peace talks, despite the killings — after all, stopping the talks may well have been the killers' objective.

Although the two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir and went to the brink of a third last summer, both also have compelling reasons to settle the dispute. Pakistan's basket-case economy is in desperate need of Western assistance, and Washington has made clear that this is no longer a Cold War entitlement — aid now is dependent on easing tensions with India and reining in terrorism. For India, there's the simple fact that the insurgency in Kashmir is bleeding its defense budget, while a military solution remains as elusive as ever. And Vajpayee's Hindu nationalist government is better placed than any of its predecessors to open such a dialogue without being accused of treachery. Still, as Tuesday's slaughter demonstrates, the search for a solution in Kashmir may be a prolonged pilgrimage.