The South Asia Channel

The forgotten front

By Joshua Gross

Kashmir is a void in U.S. foreign policy, all the more noticeable for its absence in our diplomats' discourse. Ashley Tellis, a former political adviser in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, told journalist Steve Coll earlier this year that the best advice for the Obama administration was to "keep hands off." The conventional wisdom holds that prospects for peace are too fragile for a ham-fisted American mediation that pushes India and Pakistan too hard, too fast. In a region where capitulating to the Americans is political suicide, our good intentions would surely backfire.

However, the "hands off" approach ensures the prolongation of a perilous status quo.  A perpetually unstable South Asia flooded with jihadi groups, with two combustible nuclear powers, undermines U.S. national security. In the interim, American troops are caught in the web of a conflict dynamic that extends far beyond the borders of Afghanistan. The Obama Administration must finalize the next steps for America's strategy in Afghanistan with a regional perspective. In the quest to stabilize Afghanistan, breaking the diplomatic impasse over Kashmir is a necessity, not a luxury.
 
Twenty-four of Pakistan's 26 military divisions remain idling on the Indian border, waiting and watching. They refuse to redeploy to the extremist heartland in the west, even as the country is wracked by brazen acts of terrorism. Although bilateral negotiations have identified shared interests in a settlement on Kashmir, the much-trumpeted backchannel between the two governments remains dormant. History and the high-stakes of domestic politics get in the way of a just and sustainable settlement.

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Foreign policy experts are divided over the utility of U.S. mediation. Both Indians and Pakistanis distrust American the motivation behind U.S. involvement. Moderate Pakistanis blame the U.S. for opening the floodgates of extremism through their support of the Afghan mujahideen's jihad against the Soviets. Furthermore, U.S. support of India's nuclear program, despite their flouting of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, reinforced the perception of a double standard that unfairly favored India. Indians -- proud of their ancient civilization and superpower status -- have no desire to kowtow to an American babysitter. Indian analysts argue that a U.S. envoy could not offer Pakistan a better deal than those already offered by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In an October 29 interview, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna bristled at the notion that the United States would persuade India to restart talks with Pakistan. "India is an independent country, we take our own decisions...We are guided by ourselves and not by others," he said.

U.S. policy remains timid. The Indian government successfully lobbied the Obama Administration to have Special Representative Holbrooke's overt responsibilities limited to AfPak. Holbrooke has allegedly been pressured to avoid using the "K-word": Kashmir. Indian and Pakistani journalists are adept at baiting high-level U.S. officials into showing their cards on Kashmir, which only encourages the U.S. officials to calcify their poker faces. When pressed this summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told an Indian interviewer, "[O]ur role is not to be involved..." Her insistence last week that the United States will not attempt to pilot a solution signals that Kashmir remains a low priority in Washington.  

Now it is time for President Obama to demonstrate genuine faith in diplomacy through a tangible turnaround on Kashmir. The presence of Holbrooke in the region can dramatically enhance the efficacy of U.S. statecraft. In another promising development, Kashmiri separatist leader Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has requested U.S. mediation.

President Obama should pave the way toward formal negotiations through close consultations with Prime Minister Singh. The Prime Minister's upcoming visit to Washington will provide Obama with an ideal opportunity to propose a stronger U.S.-India relationship and greater support for more visible Indian leadership in international organizations like the G20 in exchange for reactivating negotiations with Pakistan. A public track would explore water resource management, an attenuation of the Indian occupation, and the expansion of trade and transportation linkages. Concurrently, a reopened backchannel would negotiate the intractable issues: establishing the borders and the final status of Kashmir; a referendum of the Kashmiri people on independence; counter terrorism cooperation to neutralize Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed; and a mutual troop drawdown along the Line of Control that separates the two armies. Throughout this process the United States should not be in the spotlight, but it should have a seat at the table.

Past back channel negotiations have failed when negotiators did not prepare their domestic constituencies for the painful compromises ahead. Political elites must manage expectations in both countries. The U.S. could further bolster the process by employing a routine framework that keeps the parties at the table, especially when terrorists seek to disrupt reconciliation with more 11/26-style attacks. 

Even if American insistence on formalized negotiations is deemed imprudent, a change in tone is needed. Holbrooke should be liberated from his narrow mandate. Such a move would signal the Obama administration's preference for movement on Kashmir.

Secretary of State Clinton's trip to the region this week was yet another example of a missed opportunity to propose a more ambitious policy. Clinton rebuffed Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani's request for U.S. mediation on October 28, a rare demonstration of Pakistani political will. Hopefully, Pakistan will continue to coax a U.S. about-face.

In his attempt to defuse the 1999 Kargil crisis -- the last time Pakistan and India were eyeball-to-eyeball with their fingers on the nuclear button -- President Clinton talked down then-Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif by promising to "take a personal interest in the Kashmir dispute." Now is the time for another visionary U.S. leader to live up to that oft-broken promise.

Joshua Gross is a master's candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He formerly served as the director of media relations for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington. The views expressed are his own.

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