Some of the harsh choices Americans face on Afghanistan might have been avoided had secret efforts by Pakistan and India to end their dispute over Kashmir not been derailed in 2007.
When former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf visited Philadelphia this week, I asked him about the framework for a Kashmir peace that was worked out during his tenure, and whether it could be revived in the future. "We were close," he said in an interview yesterday. "I only wish the two governments would start again. The leaders need to be open-minded and bold."
Indeed, such a peace deal could undercut jihadi groups in the region; it would make Pakistan and Afghanistan more stable.
So what makes Kashmir so important and Musharraf's near miss on peace so sad?
Since India and Pakistan achieved independence in 1947, they have fought three wars over mountainous Kashmir, a disputed territory now divided between them. For decades, Pakistan trained local jihadis to infiltrate the dividing line - known as the Line of Control - and attack Indian soldiers.
These jihadis are now linked with al-Qaeda and eager to provoke a war with India via terror attacks within its borders. The Kashmir dispute also gives the Pakistani military reason to focus more on its eastern border with India than on its border with Afghanistan.
Skeptics claim Pakistanis have little interest in ending this standoff, which provides the huge Pakistani army with its raison d'etre. But, contrary to the skeptics, Musharraf sought a paradigm shift in relations with his neighbor.
"I thought we had to have peace for the sake of the entire region, and for India and Pakistan," he said. He added, "We could reap a lot of economic advantages." Once a hard-liner on Kashmir, Musharraf also came to realize that the internal Talibanization of Pakistan had become an existential threat.
So the Pakistani leader authorized secret "back channel" talks by special envoys in hotel rooms in Bangkok, Dubai, and London from 2004 to 2007. The talks got little notice in the U.S. media until a detailed article by South Asia expert Steve Coll in the New Yorker in March 2009.
The envoys worked on a framework for resolving three major boundary disputes. Musharraf said the first two - over the 20,000-foot Siachen glacier and the Sir Creek waterway between India and Pakistan - "could be solved tomorrow."
As for Kashmir, Musharraf devised a compromise for a seemingly intractable problem: India insists it will never negotiate its current Kashmir border, including the Line of Control, and Pakistan insists this is unacceptable.
"I came out with a broad outline," Musharraf said. This included gradual demilitarization of the Line of Control and Kashmiri cities; maximum self-governance on both sides of the line for the Kashmiri people; a joint governing mechanism for Kashmir, to include Pakistanis, Indians, and local Kashmiri leaders; and, most important, a porous Line of Control.
"I wanted to make the Line of Control irrelevant, to open it on six to eight places and let trade flourish," Musharraf said. That way, Pakistan could say the line was finished, and India could say it still existed.
Musharraf had hoped to implement this framework "for 15 years, and then (both sides could) revisit it and see how to move forward." He repeated: "The Line of Control would become almost irrelevant after 15 years."
For a Pakistani leader, this compromise was a daring gesture. I asked Musharraf whether the Pakistani army and Inter Services Intelligence agency would have agreed. His response: "The army and ISI would have 100 percent accepted. They are disciplined organizations."
Sadly, that hypothesis never got tested. Just when both sides were close to a deal, in the spring of 2007, Musharraf fired the chief justice of the Supreme Court (a move he still insists was constitutional). The ensuing domestic furor made it impossible to sell a Kashmir deal to his public and led to Musharraf's August 2008 resignation.
Jihadi groups linked with Kashmir then resurfaced and conducted the November 2008 terrorist outrage in Mumbai. India understandably rejects new peace talks until Pakistan cracks down convincingly on those jihadis. (Musharraf responds that the best way to undercut such groups would be to defuse the Kashmir issue.)
Pakistan's current president, Asif Ali Zardari, would like to resume Kashmir talks but may be too weak. Could we help? Musharraf said, "The United States has a role to play in pushing the process forward."
However, India is wary of any overt U.S. intervention on Kashmir. Yet the importance of a Kashmir deal for regional peace is so huge that the Obama administration should quietly encourage a renewed back channel.
Meantime, one can only mourn what might have been if Musharraf's political misstep hadn't derailed peace prospects. "Yes, it is one of my regrets," Musharraf said pensively.