Pakistan and India; breaking the logjam
President Barack Obama chose his words carefully when asked in an interview with Dawn earlier this week why the United States has been silent on Kashmir in recent months:
“I don’t think that we’ve been silent on the fact that India is a great friend of the United States and Pakistan is a great friend of the United States, and it always grieves us to see friends fighting. And we can’t dictate to Pakistan or India how they should resolve their differences, but we know that both countries would prosper if those differences are resolved,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.
“And I believe that there are opportunities, maybe not starting with Kashmir but starting with other issues, that Pakistan and India can be in a dialogue together and over time to try to reduce tensions and find areas of common interest,” he said. “And we want to be helpful in that process, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be the mediators in that process. I think that this is something that the Pakistanis and Indians can take leadership on.”
During his election campaign, Obama said the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute so that Pakistan could focus on tackling militants on its western border with Afghanistan. “We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants,” he said in an interview with MSNBC in October 2008, shortly before the presidential election.
The U.S. public position changed after the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, blamed by India on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group. Under pressure from India, which argued that any talk of resolving the Kashmir dispute would be rewarding terrorism, the Obama administration quietly dropped any reference to Kashmir.
But has the U.S. position on India, Pakistan and Kashmir really changed, or just gone underground?
It’s hard to believe that the U.S. position has changed dramatically. As I discussed in this analysis, the Lashkar-e-Taiba — once nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India in Kashmir — is increasingly being seen as a potential threat to the West comparable to al Qaeda (scroll down on this pdf document from CTC Sentinel to see a detailed background report on the LeT and its Jamat ud-Dawa charitable wing).
Neither the United States nor Britain can afford to turn a blind eye to the Lashkar-e-Taiba when its training camps can be used by disaffected Pakistanis from the diaspora. And that suggests that the old “hands-off” approach in which the West tended to view the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan no longer works. It needs to convince the Pakistan Army to turn its sights on the LeT while also nudging India to resume a peace process that might — over the long term — help reduce tensions over Kashmir.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari met at a regional conference in Yekaterinburg in Russia this month. But they remain a long way off from resuming a formal peace process broken off by India after the Mumbai attacks. While the Pakistan government has said it wants to resume the peace process — a position supported in detail in Pakistani op-eds, including by former Pakistan ambassador Maleeha Lodhi and by retired Lieutenant-General Talat Masood — India wants Pakistan to take action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba first before it will resume formal talks.
In the meantime, the Pakistan Army is engaged in what looks as though it will be a very protracted and difficult battle against the Pakistani Taliban in Waziristan. So even if it were determined to target the Lashkar-e-Taiba, it would be unlikely to do so until it has defeated the Pakistani Taliban. Yet without a reduction in tensions with India, it is also unlikely to move significant numbers of troops from the eastern border with India to use against the Pakistani Taliban on the western border with Afghanistan.
So how does the United States break the logjam?
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits India in July, and while she is likely to choose her words in public as carefully as Obama, privately she is expected to try to enlist Indian support for U.S. policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan — including by moving forward on peace talks. In advance of her trip, she has promised to “create a new era” in the relationship between the United States and India. Given India’s reluctance to respond — or be seen to respond — to American pressure on talks with Pakistan, that’s probablythe kind of language New Delhi needs to hear if it is to be won over.
The challenge for Clinton, and U.S. administration as a whole, will be in winning over India without offending Pakistan, where people are intensely wary of a U.S.-India relationship that would squeeze the country from both sides, from Afghanistan and from India.