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)

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