Between the lines: Obama’s comments on Kashmir

November 8, 2010

nubra reducedPresident Barack Obama’s words on relations with Pakistan were always going to be carefully scripted during his visit to India, where even to say the word “Kashmir”  aloud in public can raise jitters about U.S. interference in what New Delhi sees as a bilateral dispute.

So first up, here’s what he had to say during a news conference in New Delhi with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in response to a question about what role the United States could play in resolving the Kashmir dispute (NDTV has the video).

“With respect to Kashmir, obviously this is a long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan; as I said yesterday, I believe that both Pakistan and India have an interest in reducing tensions between the two countries. The United States cannot impose a solution to these problems but I have indicated to Prime Minister Singh that we are happy to play any role that the parties think is appropriate in reducing these tensions. That’s in the interests of the region; it is in the interests of the two countries involved and it is in the interests of the United States of America.

“So my hope is that conversations will be taking place between the two countries; they may not start on that particular flashpoint; there may be confidence building measures that need to take place, but I am absolutely convinced that it is both in India’s and Pakistan’s interest to reduce tensions and that will enable them I think to focus on the range of both challenges and opportunities that each country faces.”

“I do want to make this point though, that I think Prime Minister Singh throughout his career and throughout his prime ministership has consistently spoken out both publicly and privately on his desire, his personal commitment to reduce tensions between India and Pakistan and for that I very much commend him. I think Prime Minister Singh is sincere and relentless in his desire for peace.  And so my hope is that both sides can, over the next several months, several years, find mechanisms that are appropriate for them to work out what are these very difficult issues.”

A quick reading between the lines suggests that he is unfraid of referring to Kashmir in public and keeping it on the agenda, while also acknowledging that resolving the dispute may take years rather than months, and that the two countries might need to build confidence by agreeing on other issues first. He also steered a middle course between Pakistan’s insistence that Kashmir is the core issue, and India’s demand that ”cross-border terrorism” must end before it will agree to talk.

Obama has moved quite some distance since his 2008 election campaign, when he raised hackles in India by suggesting a resolution of the Kashmir dispute could help in the war in Afghanistan by convincing Pakistan to focus on tackling militants holed up on its border rather than its traditional enemy.

“The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan, is actually deal with Pakistan,” Obama said in an interview with MSNBC in October 2008.  “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.”

Within a month of him giving that interview, Pakistan-based gunmen attacked Mumbai, killing 166 people in a three-day siege. India blamed the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant group once nurtured by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight India in Kashmir, and broke off talks. When the dust has settled and the history books written on the Afghan war, Mumbai may well come to be seen as a turning point when Obama’s hopes that a Kashmir settlement might help turn the tide in Afghanistan were dashed.

But then pay close attention to what happened next, as understanding what went wrong will be key to predicting the chances of any future improvement in relations between India and Pakistan.

After a six-month lull and with a renewed mandate after a national election in India, Prime Minister Singh met President Asif Ali Zardari in the Russian town of Yekaterinburg in June 2009 for the first high-level talks since Mumbai. After a flurry of diplomatic activity aimed at easing tensions between the two countries. Singh held more talks with Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, this time in Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt. Then, even after running into  criticism at home from politicians and a jingoistic media which accused him of being too soft of Pakistan, Singh insisted on pressing ahead with peace talks

Hence Obama’s words of praise for Singh’s commitment to peace at their news conference in Delhi.  But after that the trail went cold . What went wrong?

In October 2009 in Chicago, the United States arrested David Headley, a Pakistani American accused of scouting out targets in Mumbai before switching allegiance to al Qaeda-linked militant commander Ilyas Kashmiri and plotting an attack in Denmark.  Headley, who has since turned witness for the prosecution, provided fresh insight into why Mumbai happened in the way it did - see my story on testimony given by Headley to Indian investigators, based on Indian government documents.

The details he provided — again according to the Indian government documents — also suggested that many other targets in India were under consideration for attack by different Pakistan-based militants, even after Mumbai. In other words, if Singh had continued peace talks with Pakistan he would have been exposed to political criticism at a time when he could not be sure there would be no more big attacks in India.

 We’ll come back to that lower down, as there are many sides to this story, but for now let’s stick to the timeline. As a caveat, I’d also add that this timeline is from the perspective of India-Pakistan relations, and their influence on the war in Afghanistan — Afghan specialists would probably see it differently.

By January this year, analysts had concluded that any hope of an easing of tensions between India and Pakistan would come too little, too late to make much difference to the war in Afghanistan. That same month, the idea of reaching a peace deal with the Taliban made it onto the international agenda at the London conference on Afghanistan. And as the months went by the possibility of holding talks, once seen as beyond the pale, then  gathered traction until all parties to the conflict are by now considering a peace deal.

In the interim, India and Pakistan reverted to their “one step forward, two steps back” approach.  An agreement between Singh and Gilani reached in April in Bhutan to hold more talks foundered during a rather sour meeting between the foreign ministers of India and Pakistan in July.

Scroll forward now to Obama’s visit to India.  Despite his offer of  U.S. support to India for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council – something that will take years to come to fruition — his carefully chosen words on Kashmir and on relations between India and Pakistan do little to change the overall dynamics.

As the documents on Headley’s testimony suggest, Pakistan has a hard time keeping groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba in check when al Qaeda and its affiliates appear to be waging a more successful – or at least more eye-catching – global jihad in Afghanistan and beyond.  Reading through his testimony, it is also clear how much the LeT is ideologically committed to Kashmir — many of its commanders have lost  relatives fighting there — and how difficult it might be to disarm the group without movement on a political settlement.  It is also clear why the latest summer of unrest in Kashmir might have made it even harder for Pakistan to control some of its militants, whose zeal on ending what they see as Indian oppression in the region has them straining at the leash.

From an Indian point of view, any prime minister who holds peace talks runs the risk of being embarrassed by an attack on Indian targets which coincides with his or her diplomatic initiative.  Prime Minister Singh made that point in his news conference with Obama. Personally I was struck by the way he used the word “request” rather than “demand” in this comment:

“As far as India’s relations with Pakistan are concerned, I have always maintained a strong, peaceful moderate Pakistan is in the interests of India; is in the interests of South Asia, and the world as a whole.  We are committed to engage Pakistan; we are committed to resolve all outstanding issues between our two countries including the word K; we are not afraid of that,  but it is our request that you cannot simultaneously be talking and at the same time, the terror machine is as active as ever before.  Once Pakistan moves away from this terror-induced coercion, we will be very happy to engage with Pakistan to resolve all outstanding issues.”

From an international point of view, the jihadi soup in Pakistan appears to be getting thicker and thicker, even as the country itself, to use the words of one Pakistani official, undergoes a “paradigm shift” in its readiness to tackle Islamist militants.

Headley, according to his testimony, moved relatively easily between the Kashmir-centric Laskhar-e-Taiba and Ilyas Kashmiri, with his al Qaeda inspired global agenda. But he was not alone in that. The documents also speak of two separate “setups” in Karachi to plan attacks on India using Indian Muslims. While one was run by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the other was run by a man identified by the alias Abdur Rehman, who in turn was in contact with Kashmiri and claimed to have met Osama bin Laden.

We already know, to quote former CIA officer Bruce Riedel, that “the bad guys don’t stay in their lanes”.  What we really need to know, however, is whether the inter-mingling of militants focused on Kashmir with those favouring the global jihad is getting stronger. If so, that will have increased the threat not just to India, but to the world as a whole and, perhaps most significantly, to Pakistan.

I would also suspect that no amount of carefully chosen words by President Obama would change those dynamics.  And if that were the case, I might ask whether the Afghan Taliban can be taken out of the thickening jihadi soup by reaching a separate peace deal with them on Afghanistan.  That would depend on whether you think Afghanistan can be dealt with separately from India and Pakistan. And whether you think the Taliban are ready to deal.

(Reuters photo: the source of the Nubra river in Siachen/Pawel Kopczinski)


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