Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

January 24, 2009

Earlier this month, I wrote that the brief given to a South Asian envoy by President Barack Obama could prove to be the first test of the success of Indian diplomacy after the Mumbai attacks. At issue was whether the envoy would be asked to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan or whether the brief would be extended to India, reflecting comments made by Obama during his election campaign that a resolution of the Kashmir dispute would ease tensions across the region.

That question has been resolved – publicly at least — with the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. No mention of India or Kashmir.

India has long resisted overt outside interference in Kashmir and argued – with great vehemence since the Mumbai attacks – that tensions in South Asia were caused by Pakistan’s support for, or tolerance of, Islamist militants rather than the Kashmir dispute.  For India, a public reference to Kashmir following Mumbai would amount to endorsing what it calls cross-border terrorism.

So does that mean the end of the road for efforts to ease tensions in Kashmir? Analysts think not. Unlike British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, who riled India this month by linking security in South Asia to Kashmir, the United States appears to have decided that by keeping quiet in public, it can achieve more in private.

In The Cable, Washington reporter Laura Rozen – who says India’s U.S. lobby worked hard to make sure there was no reference to India in Holbrooke’s brief – quotes Philip Zelikow, a former counselor to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as saying the omission might make things easier. “Leaving India out of the title actually opens up (Holbrooke’s) freedom to talk to them,” Zelikow says. In Pakistan’s Daily Times, columnist Ejaz Haider writes that “Obama will not overtly offend India by putting in place a special envoy for Afghanistan-Pakistan-India. But discerning analysts in New Delhi know the fine print.” Indian analyst Raja Mohan made a similar point when he wrote before Holbrooke’s appointment that, “although in deference to New Delhi’s objections, Obama might not name Kashmir as part of the special envoy’s mandate, reworking the India-Pakistan relationship will be an inevitable and important component of his initiative.”

And India may actually be less defensive about U.S. involvement in Kashmir than it was when Obama first raised the idea. It has since concluded elections in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, conducted in conditions of relative peace that many reckon would not have been possible without the active cooperation of Pakistan in restraining militants from disrupting the polls. 

There’s a window of opportunity there that Raja Mohan says should persuade India to embrace U.S. involvement in the region, but on its own terms. “India has no reason to deny that during the Kargil war with Pakistan in the summer of 1999, the military confrontation with Islamabad during 2001-02, and in the effort to pressure Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attacks, the US role has been a positive one.”

India’s terms, especially with a parliamentary election coming up in India, are likely to include a requirement that the United States avoids public involvement in Kashmir. Instead, Raja Mohan is quoted as saying in this article, it should help create the conditions in Pakistan for a resumption of back-channel diplomacy between India and Pakistan that before Mumbai was beginning to bear fruit.

The United States appears to have conceded the first point by quietly dropping public references to Kashmir following the Mumbai attacks. Can Holbrooke now pull off the much trickier task of working behind the scenes to reach private understandings to ease tensions in the region?

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at the State Department in Washington January 22, 2009. From left are Richard Holbrooke, envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Vice President Joe Biden, Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Mideast envoy George Mitchell/Kevin Lamarque)

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