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India and Pakistan balk at bold Kashmir peace plan

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf this week urged steps to end the bitter dispute.

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Within hours of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's dramatic proposal this Monday to demilitarize the disputed region of Kashmir, both India and Pakistan demurred.

Refusing to consider its merits, Indian officials said that the proposal should have been sent through "proper channels." Pakistani leaders, meanwhile, said their president shouldn't have made the offer at all, calling it a "betrayal" of the Kashmir cause.

Ironically, what appeared to be a breakthrough only underscored both countries' inability to resolve even the simplest matters in the 57-year territorial dispute that has sparked three wars and cost tens of thousands of Kashmiri lives.

Observers blame timing, politics, and military power.

Neither the new Congress-led government in Delhi nor Mr. Musharraf's freshly handpicked Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has the political strength to pass any radical proposal through their parliaments.

Also, neither country has the military power to control Kashmir outright. Given that, experts say, negotiation can only bring superficial change.

"This kind of posturing is not intended to further the peace process, but ... obstruct it, and the media inevitably play into the trap by shaking up an international storm over 'new proposals'" says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank. "The idea that negotiations ... can create a different outcome than the facts dictated by the balance of power is ridiculous."

To be sure, there has been some progress from the yearlong series of talks started after India's then-Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee extended his "hand of friendship" to Pakistan last winter. Bus services between the Pakistani city of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar have restarted, air links between the two countries have been reopened, and this week, a group of Pakistani pilgrims were allowed to visit Sufi shrines in the Indian section of Kashmir.

At face value, Musharraf's proposals are bold. He suggested that Pakistan would be willing to set aside its demand for a Kashmir vote for self-determination if India would set aside its policy of making the current cease-fire line into a permanent boundary. Instead, he urged both sides to pull back their troops, identify each of the seven regions of Kashmir, and decide their status afterward.

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