November 9, 2010Pax Indicageopolitics

Obama and the K word

His thinking on the Kashmir issue matters, because if he sticks to his dogmatic insistence on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year, he will face internal pressures to buy a face-saving exit from the war.

This is an unedited draft of my Pax Indica column for Yahoo! (2010-2011)

Two years ago, in the final stage of his presidential campaign, in an interview to TIME magazine’s Joe Klein, candidate Barack Obama said that he intended to work with Pakistan and India to try to resolve, and Kashmir, crisis in a serious way. Those are all critical tasks for the next administration. Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically. But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this? …I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.”

Here’s what President Obama said in New Delhi yesterday: 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’ve indicated to Prime Minister Singh that we are happy to play any role that the parties think is appropriate in reducing these tensions. 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’m absolutely convinced that it is both in India’s and Pakistan’s interests to reduce tensions…Prime Minister Singh is sincere and relentless in his desire for peace. My hope is that both sides will, over the next several months, several years, find mechanisms that are appropriate for them work out, what are these very difficult issues.”

That’s change. In fact, President Obama’s position is closer to President George W Bush’s than Candidate Obama’s. On his visit to New Delhi in March 2006, George W Bush, with his much smaller vocabulary and rhetorical skills had simply said: India and Pakistan have an historic opportunity to work toward lasting peace. Prime Minister Singh and President Musharraf have shown themselves to be leaders of courage and vision. And I encourage them to continue making progress on all issues, including Kashmir.”

Both the Pakistan government and Kashmiri Sunni Muslim separatists had hoped that Mr Obama would, given the views he expressed in the TIME magazine interview, coax India to resume negotiations over the issue. They will certainly be disappointed.

In his informative little book (The South Asia Story: The first sixty years of US relations with India and Pakistan”, Sage Publications) Harold Gould writes that in addition to the underlying geopolitics, the personalities, levels of awareness and intellectual capacities of US presidents determined their policy positions over Kashmir. The hopes Mr Obama raised in Islamabad, in parts of the Kashmir Valley and indeed in Washington, were not unfounded. So it will be interesting to know what caused him to change his position: was it merely an acknowledgement of the limits of US influence or does he now have a better appreciation of the subject two years after coming to office?

Mr Obama’s thinking on the Kashmir issue matters, because if he sticks to his dogmatic insistence on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan by the middle of next year, he will face internal pressures to buy a face-saving exit from the war. Unless there is a dramatic change on the ground, the United States depends upon the Pakistani military-jihadi complex to prevent a bloodbath once US troops leave. General Ashfaq Kayani will not oblige without extracting a price. It’s hard to say what Pakistan won’t ask for. But its top three demands are likely to include: the handing over of the keys to Kabul to its Taliban proxies; legitimacy for its nuclear weapons in the form of a nuclear deal; and, of course, a settlement of the Kashmir issue”.

Top US military officials in charge of the Afghan war like Admiral Mike Mullen, General David Petraeus and General Stanley McChrystal (when he was still in service) have shown remarkable credulousness in accepting the Pakistani army’s warped worldview. For instance, last week the New York Times reported that American military officials and diplomats worry that even the existence of [a military strategy to respond to a terrorist attack against India] in any form could encourage Pakistan to make rapid improvements in its nuclear arsenal.” It must take a certain desperation for presumably smart people to argue that the very notion that India will respond to Pakistani terrorism with a military attack scares the Pakistani army and therefore, India should not even think of it.

There are many more Pax Indica columns here

As pressure mounts on them in the coming months, US military officials are even less likely to challenge General Kayani. Mr Gould’s book presciently concludes that there are clearly possible eventualities that could draw the Obama administration in part or in whole back to the pre-Clinton and pre-Bush policy mode. However, the chances of this occurring do not seem to be great given the apparent level of Mr Obama’s intellectual depth, and the economic, political and strategic resources that have built up over the past decade-and-a-half.” Let’s hope so.

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