India should not be defensive about any new U.S. activism on the issue of Kashmir
DNA newspaper, November 11, 2008
Saddled with problems of historic proportions, US president-elect Barack Obama has little time to savour his epochal victory. He inherits national and global challenges more formidable than any American president has faced at inauguration. The necessity to clean up the unprecedented mess that has occurred under the swaggering and blundering George W Bush means Obama will have little time for major new initiatives. Yet, there is concern in India that Obama may appoint ex-President Bill Clinton as his special envoy on Kashmir.
The first question to ask is: Why is India so defensive on Kashmir? Is it the terror-exporting irredentist party seeking to redraw frontiers in blood? Even if a special US envoy is appointed, what can he seek that India has not already offered under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh — from making frontiers “meaningless and irrelevant” so as to create a “borderless” Kashmir to the “sky is the limit” in negotiations? How radically Singh has changed Indian policy under Bush’s persuasion became known in September 2006 when he declared: “The Indian stand was that the borders could not be redrawn, while Pakistan was not prepared to accept the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir as the permanent solution. The two agreed to find a via media to reconcile the two positions”. By peddling an LoC-plus compromise, Singh has opened the path to inevitable concessions to Pakistan.
From Harry Truman to Bush, US presidents have tried to pitchfork themselves as peacemakers on Kashmir to help advance American interests. After all, repeated American attempts at Kashmir mediation or facilitation have helped the US to leverage its Pakistan ties vis-à-vis India. Truman’s suggestions on Kashmir, for example, prompted Jawaharlal Nehru to complain that he was “tired of receiving moral advice from the US”. After China launched a surprise invasion in 1962, Nehru sent two frantic letters to John F Kennedy for help. But the US began shipping arms only after the Chinese aggression had ceased and a weakened India had been made to agree to open Kashmir talks with Pakistan. The Clinton activism on Kashmir was driven by Robin Raphel and, in the second term, by Madeline Albright.
Bush would have attempted to play a more interventionist role on Kashmir had the US military not got bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and had his pet dictator, Pervez Musharraf, not struggled for political survival at home. Yet, it was the Bush White House that helped set up the 2001 Agra summit meeting, revealing its dates before New Delhi and Islamabad had a chance to get their act together. Also, when Singh sprung a nasty surprise on the nation by embracing Pakistan as a fellow victim of and joint partner against terror on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, he put forward a US-designed proposal — joint anti-terror mechanism.
In fact, the Bush administration’s trumpeted “de-hyphenation” of India and Pakistan in US policy was not a calculated shift but the product of Pakistan’s descent into shambles and India’s political and economic rise after 1998. But US policymakers, making a virtue out of necessity, sought to take credit for the de-hyphenation. Under Bush, US policy simply went from hyphenation to parallelism. That has involved building strategic partnerships with and selling arms to both, and seeking (as Bush did publicly in New Delhi) “progress on all issues, including Kashmir”. Such is Bush’s legacy that the US, for the first time ever, is building parallel intelligence-sharing and defence-cooperation arrangements with India and Pakistan.
Thanks to Bush’s cowboy diplomacy, however, an arc of contiguous volatility now lies to India’s west, stretching from Pakistan to Lebanon. Even while waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan, he had been itching for a military showdown with the only country in this arc not on fire — Iran. The war on terror he launched today stands derailed, even as the level of terrorism emanating from the Pak-Afghan belt has escalated. The recrudescence of major violence in Kashmir thus owes a lot to the baneful effects of the Bush Doctrine and a misguided approach on Pakistan that put a premium on political expediency.
Whatever may be the shape of Obama’s foreign policy, he has already acknowledged that Kashmir represents “a potential tar pit for American diplomacy”. In any event, Washington’s ability to intervene in Kashmir is tied to Indian acquiescence, however half-hearted or forced. Expressions of concern in India over the Obama administration playing an activist role on Kashmir thus reflect a lack of confidence in New Delhi not ceding space to US diplomacy — a diffidence borne from the historical record.
The writer is professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.