Tales from the Trail

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama’s South Asian envoy and the Kashmir conundrum

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."

from Pakistan: Now or Never?:

Obama and his South Asian envoy

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.