Obama and his South Asian envoy

January 12, 2009

There’s much talk about President-elect Barack Obama possibly appointing Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to South Asia. The New York Times says it’s likely; while the Washington Independent says it may be a bit premature to expect final decisions, even before Obama takes office on Jan. 20.

But more interesting perhaps than the name itself will be the brief given to any special envoy for South Asia. Would the focus be on Afghanistan and Pakistan? Or on Pakistan and India? Or all three? The Times of India said India might be removed from the envoy’s beat to assuage Indian sensitivities about Kashmir, which it sees as a bilateral issue to be resolved with Pakistan, and which has long resisted any outside mediation. This, the paper said, was an evolution in thinking compared to statements made by Obama during his election campaign about Kashmir.

Before last year’s Mumbai attacks, Obama had suggested that the United States should help India and Pakistan to make peace over Kashmir as part of a regional strategy to stabilise Afghanistan. In this he was supported by a raft of U.S. analysts who argued that Pakistan would never fully turn against Islamist militants threatening the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan as long as it felt it might need them to counter burgeoning Indian influence in the region. Obama’s suggestion raised hackles in India, and broke with a tradition established by the Bush administration which had tended to be – publicly at least — hands-off about the Kashmir dispute. 

But since the Mumbai attacks, India has argued that any attempt to link these to the Kashmir dispute would be to reward what it has called cross-border terrorism from Pakistan. Pakistan, which denies involvement in the Mumbai attacks, has in turn insisted that the best way to resolve tensions with India would be to seek a solution on Kashmir. So the brief given to a South Asia envoy could turn out to be one of the first clear tests of how successful Indian diplomacy has been post-Mumbai in trying to convince the United States to see Pakistan, rather than Kashmir, as the problem. 

Of course, in the way of diplomacy, it may not turn out to be quite so simple.  India has just held elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir which produced a turnout of more than 60 percent despite a boycott call by separatists. According to former Indian diplomat M K Bhadrakumar India may be feeling far more confident about its standing on the Kashmir issue following the success of the elections and therefore be ready to show flexibility on the role of a South Asian envoy.  The election campaign was also remarkable for its absence of violence, in marked contrast to the previous polls in 2002. As discussed in an earlier post, this suggested to some that Pakistan had cooperated by making sure that Pakistan-based militants did not disrupt the election — again offering a small window for progress.

At the same time, India is keen to have its voice heard in Afghanistan — it sees itself as an important regional player along with Russia and Iran, and denies Islamabad’s assertions that the primary motive of its expanding Afghan presence is to threaten Pakistan from both west and east. Pakistan,  however, would resent any attempt by the United States to encourage Indian influence in Afghanistan – especially if Kashmir and India were specifically dropped from the brief given to a South Asia envoy.

So if Obama’s team is gong to bring what Slate called “a return to professionalism” in defence and foreign affairs, it’s going to have to weigh every single word carefully before announcing not only who will be the South Asia envoy, but what exactly he will do.

(Reuters photos: Preparing for the inauguration in Washington; new Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdallah)



You’ve misunderstood my last comment on Kashmir. Like it or not, American influence in Kashmir already exists; case in point look at the US involvement during the Kargil war and the ongoing diplomacy between India & Pak after Mumbai attacks.

US will not actively mediate to solve Kashmir issue but it’ll also not allow India & Pak to slide into a situation of conflict.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


—Firstly, there is no such problem called ‘Kashmir’, the real problem is the ‘Red Fort’ where the Pakistani’s Establishment 24×7, hallucinate to hoist their ‘Islamic Flag’ (sic)- what all active involvement would you like the cunning Americans to be mediators i.e. Officially- Junagadh? Deccan(Hyderabad)?
—You state that the US will ‘not allow India & Pak to slide into a situation of conflict.’, maybe not in their present situation & their needs for Afghanistan , but once they are over with it, would they care? remember Kargil, it was before 9/11…any toehold given to US in any territory globally, has proven to be disastrous to that region… they better far off..

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

To get more information about developments in Pakistan and in the region, please visit



you have not understood USA foreign policy. the strategic relation ship with pak for the past 60 years is to destroy all major economies in the region. with pak help they destroyed USSR, next their aim will be INDIA and next will be china. their presence in afganistan is also for the same.

Posted by venkat | Report as abusive

nikhil, the very purpose of creating the pakistan by uk itself is for the US to have military base in the region. otherwise how a western type muslim can create a islamist state of pak. it is because of pakistan today, the enemy to the world peace and enemy of major countries in the region is having military base in the region.

Posted by venkat | Report as abusive

To, Anup & Venkat,

I usually refrain from starting parallel conversations but, after reading your comments, I chose to briefly respond. Here, I am only focusing on the external factors that may affect the outcome in Kashmir.

Anup, I disagree with your views. The dispute in Kashmir is political one. No military/jihadi outbursts or economic hand-outs are going to give durable solution in Kashmir. India knows Pakistan’s hypocrisy better than anyone; needless to say, India has to deal with it smartly. Although Kashmir dispute will be resolved bilaterally between India and Pak, the US will continue to play an invisible hand there. Without confirmation from a third party (the US), Pakistan will continue to violate peace agreements keeping Kashmir on the boil.

For me, the real question is can Indian politicians & diplomats influence the outcome in Kashmir in their favor? India should upgrade its relations not only with the US but also with the Central Asian countries. The more India asserts itself in Afghanistan and beyond, the more it’s seen as part of the solution in Asia, in the eyes of the US. Within short time you’ll see the Kashmir solution falling permanently in India’s favor.

Venkat, I disagree with your views. I believe you underestimate India’s abilities and overestimate American capabilities. The US/UK cannot defeat emerging powers such as India, China among others because time has changed. We’ve seen China using its economic prowess to silence the US in Tibet & Taiwan, Israel using its Jewish lobby in the US to bend the rules in Gaza and Russia sending chill down the EU/NATO countries by threatening to cut off oil & gas supplies. Can India take a cue from other countries? There lies the answer how to deal with the US. India must quickly use its military, economic & diplomatic weight to influence the Kashmir outcome ‘permanently’ in its favor.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive

“Without confirmation from a third party (the US), Pakistan will continue to violate peace agreements keeping Kashmir on the boil.”
—It shall be naïve on our part to expect such a confirmation, nor is any amicable solution to the mess already created in the name of Kashmir & be rest assured Pakistan will continue it’s diatribes, irrespective of Kashmir or no Kashmir-
@Venkat’s observation is Bullseye, with retrospection it’s now obvious who were the surreptitious forces behind the formation of Pakistan & for what purpose…

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive


You are confusing between India’s strategy in dealing with Kashmir and that with Pakistan. In 21st century, India needs new strategies for both. It’s smart, not naive, of India to deepen its relations with the US, with an eye on a permanent solution in Kashmir. Because in the past, the US chose to take sides with Pakistan in Kashmir, the US will not necessarily continue to do so now. We know that Pakistan is fidgety. Even if Kashmir is resolved bi-laterally, Pakistan will not give up on its nefarious plans against India. As a result, India simultaneously needs different strategy to reign in Pakistani state.

According to Venkat, the west may have sinister designs in its covert support to Pakistan. On the same token, we can talk about the west’s designs in Taiwan vis-a-vis China. However, with passage of time, the west cannot mess with a cash-rich China anymore. Can India not take a leaf from the Chinese experience? In addition, India cannot harp of non-alignment, like it did in the past, and hope that the world will stand by her when she needs the most. Be it dealing in Kashmir or dealing with perpetrators of Mumbai attacks, India must develop internally and deepen links with other countries, simultaneously.

Posted by Nikhil | Report as abusive


–I am not suggesting returning to the cold-war ways, ofcourse I am in complete support of India strategically allying with the west, but never rely on them, American policies / priorities drastically change according to the whims & fancies of the incumbent President, Pakistani Establishment have mastered the art of fawning them & they are comfortable with the Pakistani loyality & Kashmir issue will be kept alive, 1-to keep India in check, 2- to humor Pakistani Establishment, who need Kashmir symbollicaly to amuse their locals… China is a ower, whereas, on the Global Map, India is still irrelevant & insignificant, no, the Chinese have expansionist plans, not applicable to India, non-allignment was idealistic stupidity.

Posted by Anup | Report as abusive

Pakistanies more worried about others problems than thier own. Here are my suggestions to Pakistanis
1. First free your land from Taliban and save inncocent Pakistani people before you lend help to others. Around 400 schools closed by Taliban.
Here is the link to read further

http://www.dawn.net/wps/wcm/connect/Dawn %20Content%20Library/dawn/news/pakistan/ sindh/destroyed-girls-schools-to-reopen- soon-sherry–qs

2. Try to take decision on your own without acting on behalf of someone.

3. Your counrty is on the edge of bankruptcy but you guys are still talking about war and nuke. What a joke?
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/finan cetopics/financialcrisis/3147266/Pakista n-facing-bankruptcy.html

Posted by Murgan | Report as abusive

Some intelligent guy had said that you shall harvest what you sow—- meaning what happen in mumbai is what india should expect —-have you all forgotten about the destruction of “Babri Mosque”, have you forgotten about killing, raping and molesting young an old women in Kashmir in front of thier fathers, brothers, sons and husbands, have you forgotten about killing of hundreds of muslims in Gujrat…If yes then somebody will remind you soon… the real terrorist state is only India, which has been terrorizing its people particularly non-hindus sincs beggining of 19th century.. because you call it “Hindustan”, land of hindus. Hindus brutality results in creation of Pakistan. and you they stop doing this they see more division of India.
regarding Pakistan involvement in mumbai incident…just answer why Miliband instruct india to solve Kashmir issue…why the picture of Kasab re-worked to remove his wrist band… why all things found on boat are marked as made in Pakistan. why india has stepped back when Pakistan said she is ready for anything from india…………..The world has accepted that mumbai incident was self created by india itself in order to get rid of Pakistan the biggest threat to india

Posted by Peace | Report as abusive

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