Obama averts diplomatic disaster on Kashmir for now

By Mayank Chhaya, IANS,

Good sense seems to have prevailed in excluding India in general and Kashmir in particular from the mandate of Richard Holbrooke as the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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It would have been a diplomatic disaster to have added India to Holbrooke’s brief that could have seriously undermined US-India relations at a time when President Barack Obama needs all the goodwill he can get in South Asia. Such inclusion would have forced New Delhi to take an unequivocally confrontationist stance against Washington, a development the new administration could not risk within just days of taking office.

Including Kashmir in Holbrooke’s mandate would have implied some sort of parity between what is going on in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan and the situation in Kashmir. There was genuine apprehension that Obama would appoint a special envoy for Kashmir with former President Bill Clinton being mentioned as the likely appointment.

Apart from earning New Delhi’s displeasure such a move would have also handed Pakistan a significant justification to claim that Kashmir was finally coming under the kind of international attention it has always wanted. In the acute cross-border politics of symbolism of South Asia, there could not have been a more symbolically profound development than the appointment of a special envoy for Kashmir.

Besides, it is possible that the Obama administration is waiting to see how the Kashmir Valley progresses in the aftermath of fairly successful state assembly elections which have ensured the rise of the young but seasoned politician Omar Abdullah as its chief minister.

Compare this with the worsening situation in the Afghan-Pakistan border areas, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which constitute a grave danger to the world. In a detailed report on FATA for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) principal author Shuja Nawaz recently said this: “This most dangerous spot on the map may well be the source of another 9/11 type of attack on the Western world or its surrogates in the region. Should such an attack occur, it likely will be spawned in the militancy that grips FATA and contiguous areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan today.”

It makes perfect sense for Obama to pay particular attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan, even though it may be tempting to call for the resolution of the Kashmir problem which has been successfully exploited by groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba to draw in aimless young men and turn them into terrorists.

Another reason why India has been left out of Holbrooke’s Terms of Reference could be that the Obama administration believes by doing so it has earned New Delhi’s trust to separately broach the subject of Kashmir’s resolution as a means to the larger end of overall stability in the region. It would not be surprising if India has subtly indicated its willingness to discuss Kashmir with the US informally.

Considering that Obama had specifically spoken in terms of stepping up US engagement in Kashmir during his election campaign, the absence of that from Holbrooke’s brief must be regarded as an important concession. The fact that Hillary Clinton is Obama’s secretary state and that she has a strong Indian American constituency may also have played a role in the decision. Usually such diplomatic concessions are made incumbent upon a future quid pro quo.

To saddle India with a special envoy after the US leaned on it heavily against mounting any surgical strikes on Pakistani targets in retaliation for the Nov 26 Mumbai terror attacks would surely have made the Manmohan Singh government’s position particularly vulnerable. Even the generally amenable Singh government would have openly opposed the US.

It would be interesting to see how Holbrooke’s plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan plays out in the next few months. No one should be surprised if Islamabad does make Kashmir resolution as one of the conditions to cooperate with the Obama administration.

(27-01-2009-Mayank Chhaya is a US based writer and commentator. He can be contacted at [email protected])