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Wednesday, June 16, 1999 Published at 00:02 GMT 01:02 UK

World: South Asia

Analysis: US cautious on Kashmir

The US is resisting a more active role in Kashmir

By BBC State Department Correspondent Richard Lister

Washington usually chooses to say as little as it can in public about Kashmir, knowing how carefully both India and Pakistan scrutinise the words for the merest hint of impartiality.

The American position, repeated ad nauseam when tensions flare in the region, is that the two sides should:

  • Respect the Line of Control through Kashmir, which was established by the Simla agreement 27 years ago
  • Avoid inflammatory actions
  • Establish a continuing talks process to resolve the conflict once and for all.

US role low-key

Behind the scenes of course, American diplomats in India and Pakistan are in regular contact with the two governments to urge restraint and dialogue.

The US government does not believe that either India or Pakistan actually want another war over the Kashmir, but there is concern that a conflict could escalate through overreaction, posturing, or misinterpretation of the actions of one side or the other.

President Clinton's decision to speak to both prime ministers indicates the level of concern about the current hostilities.

And the fact that the White House chose to publicise Mr Clinton's request to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to withdraw Muslim militants from within Indian-controlled Kashmir is a slight departure from Washington's usual public neutrality.

Pakistan denies controlling the militants, but a White House spokesman, PJ Crowley, said the United States believed Mr Sharif had the "ability to withdraw the forces", and should do so.

He declined to say how Mr Sharif responded.

But the United States is resisting playing a more prominent peacemaking role.

The State Department spokesman, James Rubin, said: "We have taken the view if both sides want us to play a role, we would want to be helpful."

But there is little appetite in Washington to take the lead in the process, in the way that the US has in the Middle East.

Historical interest

[ image: Mrs Albright has a historical interest in the region]
Mrs Albright has a historical interest in the region
There was a time when it appeared the US was going to make a more substantial commitment.

When the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was first appointed two years ago, she spoke several times about her father's involvement in the region.

He was a Czech diplomat with responsibility for Kashmir, and wrote a widely-respected book on the subject.

Mrs Albright also spoke of her desire to visit Kashmir, and the need to revitalise the relationship with South Asia.

Washington's full plate

But her first trip to India and Pakistan was cut short by a crisis with Iraq, and the overwhelming message was that while the US would like to engage more fully with South Asia, Washington's agenda was rather crowded.

It still is, of course.

Kosovo has affected Washington's capacity for diplomacy in other areas.

Nuclear wake-up call

[ image: Nuclear blasts focused attention on the region]
Nuclear blasts focused attention on the region
Strobe Talbott, the number two at the State Department, played the leading American role in non-proliferation talks with India and Pakistan after last year's nuclear tests.

But he is now bogged down in talks with the Russians over Kosovo and is unlikely to be able to re-direct his attentions until that situation is resolved.

Had the latest flare-up in Kashmir occurred immediately after last year's nuclear tests by the two countries, more alarm bells might be ringing in Washington, but the Clinton administration is confident both India and Pakistan have stepped back from the nuclear brink.

No one here believes that the current conflict is likely to become a nuclear one.

US stays its course

So, for now at least, US policy is to continue working with the two sides, largely behind the scenes, and to monitor the situation carefully.

Mr Talbott may well be sent shuttling around the region again, but the overriding message from Washington is that the two countries themselves must take the lead in resolving their problems.

And Mr Clinton will not make his long delayed visit to India and Pakistan, until they appear more committed to resolving their differences.

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