Peacemaking in Kashmir: from Physical Tremor to Political Earthquake?

Michael Renner and Zoë Chafe

Without bolder steps in earthquake diplomacy, India and Pakistan are in danger of squandering an opportunity to bring peace to the subcontinent.

The massive tremor that struck northern Pakistan and Kashmir on October 8 cut through a fault line of conflict that has divided the two nations for more than 50 years. It inflicted death on a scale comparable to that wrought by 15 years of conflict over Kashmir: currently pegged at close to 90,000 deaths, the earthquake's toll surpasses the estimated 40,000 to 80,000 people killed in regional fighting since 1990.

Just as the earthquake paid no heed to human-drawn boundaries, humanitarian operations must transcend them. The shared suffering, and the need for common relief and rebuilding, present a unique opportunity for India and Pakistan to bury decades of enmity.

Post-disaster cooperation has brought the two neighbors closer together, but the recent terrorist attacks in New Delhi carried out by Kashmiri militants underscore the urgency of achieving a basic breakthrough before the emotional impact of the quake fades and new flashpoints emerge.

Goodwill prevailed immediately after the tremor. Within two weeks of the disaster, India had delivered close to 300 tons of food, medicine, and tents to Pakistan, consented to let Pakistani helicopters operate in a no-fly zone along the border, and temporarily re-established cross-border phone links severed nearly 16 years ago. Both governments negotiated an agreement on opening five crossing points along the "Line of Control" to facilitate cross-border relief and allow divided families to meet.

But the agreement is tightly circumscribed, and distrust between the two neighbors remains strong. An Indian offer to have its army helicopters join search-and-rescue missions foundered because Pakistan, referring to "military sensitivities," refused to allow Indian pilots to fly the aircraft. India in turn insisted on using its own crews. Such proposals and counter-proposals threaten to descend into a propaganda contest that wastes precious time and can even cause new ill will.

One month after the catastrophe, it is time to put human needs ahead of narrow military and political calculus. Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh should meet as soon as possible, to shift earthquake diplomacy into high gear. Joint rescue and relief operations between the Indian and Pakistani armies must be prioritized-and publicized-without delay. Side-by-side cooperation will build mutual trust and could lead to the creation of joint institutions focused on rebuilding.

Successful earthquake diplomacy would likely breathe life into halting efforts to thaw Indo-Pakistani relations. Recognizing the danger of a nuclear exchange, New Delhi and Islamabad have gingerly stepped back from the brink of war. They adopted a cease-fire in November 2003 and agreed to pre-notify each other of ballistic-missile tests. In April 2005, bus service between parts of divided Kashmir resumed, reuniting families that were separated in 1947.

As other cases demonstrate, disasters can indeed dramatically reshape the political landscape. In late 1999, a series of powerful earthquakes shook Turkey and Greece, two countries that have long been at odds and almost went to war in 1996. The tremors triggered an outpouring of mutual goodwill, and earthquake diplomacy facilitated a détente between Athens and Ankara.

And the catastrophic December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed almost 170,000 people in Indonesia's Aceh province—more than ten times the number that perished there in three decades of civil war—triggered a fundamental change in attitudes that led to successful peace negotiations.

The United Nations, national donor agencies, NGOs, and the media play crucial roles in translating goodwill into lasting commitments for peace. They can boost transparency and reduce the likelihood of continued violence. And they may encourage and cajole warring parties to resolve the underlying conflict, as was the case in Aceh. While humanitarian aid should never be conditional, international donors need to leverage relief and reconstruction aid as a peacemaking tool.

Post-disaster goodwill can translate into far-reaching political change. But the warring parties must act decisively and imaginatively to navigate the straits and narrows of peace processes. India's and Pakistan's leaders are truly in a position to make history, provided they take the lessons of post-disaster diplomacy to heart.

Michael Renner is Director of the Global Security Project and Zoë Chafe a Staff Researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. They study natural disasters and peacemaking. This analysis first appeared on on November 9, 2005.