US ‘concerned’ over Jammu and Kashmir, says Pakistan must stop terror
The US believes a dialogue between India and Pakistan is the most effective way to reduce bilateral tensions, but the success of such talks depends on Islamabad taking “sustained and irreversible steps” against terrorists on its soil, America’s top diplomat for South Asia said on Tuesday.
US acting assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs Alice Wells said the US supports the Indian government’s stated objectives for scrapping Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) special status, such as increased economic development, but the state department “remains concerned about the situation in the Kashmir Valley, where daily life for the nearly eight million residents has been severely impacted since August 5 [when India scrapped the region’s special status and put in place a security and communications lockdown that has now been partially lifted].”
Testifying in a hearing on the human rights situation in South Asia, including in Kashmir and Assam, convened by the US House committee on foreign affairs, Wells said that Pakistan’s continued backing for groups engaged in cross-border terror was the “chief obstacle” to creating trust between the two sides.
“While conditions in Jammu and Ladakh have improved, the Valley has not returned to normal. The department has raised concerns with the Indian government regarding the detentions of local residents and political leaders, including three former Chief Ministers of Jammu and Kashmir. We have urged Indian authorities to respect human rights and restore full access to services, including internet and mobile networks,” she said.
Wells and assistant secretary Robert Destro of the US bureau of democracy and human rights faced pointed questions from members of Congress such as Ilhan Omar and Pramila Jayapal on the detention of people without charge, the lockdown in J&K, and the exclusion of 1.9 million people from the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.
In her statement at the hearing, Wells said the US believes a direct bilateral dialogue under the Simla Agreement “holds the most potential for reducing tensions”. She said: “We believe the foundation of any successful dialogue between India and Pakistan is based on Pakistan taking sustained and irreversible steps against militants and terrorists in its territory.”
Wells added: “Restarting a productive bilateral dialogue requires building trust, and the chief obstacle remains Pakistan’s continued support for extremist groups that engage in cross-border terrorism.”
She said there were historical precedents of India and Pakistan being able to make progress in talks, such as backchannel negotiations during 2006-07, when the two sides “reportedly made significant progress on a number of issues, including Kashmir”.
Describing the ties between the US and India, Wells said: “It’s not a relationship of dictation, it’s a relationship of partnership.”
Responding to a question from a member of Congress on whether the current tensions between India and Pakistan could trigger a conflict, Wells said the US recognises the Indian government’s characterisation of Kashmir as an “internal problem” but added it was a “problem that has external consequences”.
“We take very seriously the escalation in rhetoric and contentions between two nuclear-armed countries. President [Donald] Trump has engaged both Prime Minister [Narendra[ Modi and Prime Minister [Imran] Khan on multiple occasions... to express his concern over the tensions between the two countries and to offer his services to mediate if requested by both sides,” she said.
However, she said, a look at the broader issue of Kashmir has to take into account a “long history of terrorism... that’s been encouraged and fanned by organisations present in Pakistan”. The US has urged Pakistan to “implement what Prime Minister Khan has said needs to occur, which is the elimination of these non-state actors and militant proxies and to ensure that they can’t reach out across the border, undertake terrorist acts inside...what was the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and India proper”, she said.
Destro said the situation in Kashmir was a “humanitarian crisis”, agreeing with a description offered by Representative Sheila Jackson, a Democrat who chairs the House Pakistan caucus.
Jayapal, one of the four Indian-American members of the House of Representatives, who was born in India and whose parents still live there, said: “I was in India at the time (when the status of Kashmir was changed) and I have made clear my concerns about a communications blockade and the detentions,” she said. “I recognize the situation is complex — and Pakistan is not without responsibility, (but) mutual commitment to human rights remain.”
Wells described the release of small numbers of political leaders and the Supreme Court planning to hear petitions related to Kashmir on November 14 as “incremental” steps, and that the security situation remained tense.
“We are concerned about reports of local and foreign militants attempting to intimidate local residents and business owners in order to stymie normal economic activity. The US supports the rights of Kashmiris to peacefully protest, but condemns the actions of terrorists who seek to use violence and fear to undermine dialogue,” she said.
But Pakistan’s harbouring of terror groups such as Lashkar-e- Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which “seek to foment violence across the Line of Control”, is “destabilising, and Pakistani authorities remain accountable for their actions”, Wells added.