Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Obama's Kashmir conundrum

By Andrew Whitehead
BBC World Service News

Protest in Srinagar, 6 January
India does not want its control of the Kashmir Valley questioned

Kashmir, said Barack Obama just a few days before his presidential election victory, is "obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically".

Few could argue with that. Those outsiders who have sought to broker a deal in Kashmir, one of the world's longest running conflicts, have got themselves into a fix.

They have not solved the dispute; they have managed to embroil themselves in some very sour diplomatic rows.

For six decades, the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has defied attempts at resolution.

One of the United Nations' oldest military contingents is stationed there - it has also been one of the most ineffective.

Just suggesting outside mediation is usually enough to provoke an angry response from the Indian government.

Bill Clinton role?

Yet in that same interview with Time magazine, Mr Obama held open the prospect that his administration would get involved in sorting out Kashmir and might even send a high profile envoy.

Barack Obama
I think there is a moment where potentially we could get [Indian and Pakistani] attention. It won't be easy but it's important
Barack Obama

One of the "critical tasks" for his administration, Barack Obama told Time's experienced political commentator Joe Klein, was working with Pakistan and India "in a serious way" to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis.

He spoke of the need "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 messing with this?

"To make the argument to the Pakistanis: look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep on being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border?

"I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won't be easy but it's important."

Joe Klein then put it to Barack Obama that it sounded like a job for former President Bill Clinton.

"Might not be bad," responded Senator Obama. "I actually talked to Bill... about this when we had lunch in Harlem."

It was hardly a roadmap for Kashmir, but nor was it just a stray remark.

Amid the clamour of the closing days of the presidential election campaign, the remarks did not get a lot of attention in the US media.

But they were noticed and analysed across South Asia.

Kashmiri separatists were pleased, the Pakistan establishment did not seem to know what to make of it and the Indian authorities were distinctly annoyed.

There is no linkage between Kashmir and the terror India has been facing emanating from Pakistan
Congress Party spokesman

India controls the Kashmir Valley and believes it has largely vanquished the armed separatist groups, many of which have had links to Pakistan.

A US special envoy could be seen as throwing into question the Indian claim to Kashmir, and encouraging Kashmiris to campaign against Indian rule.

Ever since a peace accord with Pakistan back in 1972, India has insisted that the future of Kashmir is a bilateral matter.

Its message to the rest of the world's diplomats could be summarised as: "Keep away from Kashmir, it's none of your business."

Straws in the wind

The received wisdom in India was that either Barack Obama was naive in his remarks on Kashmir or he would be pulled back by the seasoned South Asia experts in Washington.

The Mumbai attacks in late November and then the broadly successful completion of state elections in Indian-administered Kashmir, were seen as strengthening India's stand.


Indeed the veteran American journalist and foreign affairs expert Selig Harrison declared this month that President-elect Obama had "made his first big foreign-policy mistake" even before taking office. The supposed mistake: pledging US intervention in the Kashmir dispute.

"By questioning Indian control of the Kashmir Valley," wrote Harrison in the Washington Times, "the United States would strengthen jihadi forces in both Islamabad and Srinagar, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. More importantly, it would undermine improving US-India relations."

But there have been some straws in the wind to suggest that the new administration will be more active over Kashmir.

Susan Rice, one of Mr Obama's closest foreign policy advisers, made reference to Kashmir last week during Congressional hearings for her nomination as the new US ambassador to the United Nations.

She commended the role of the UN in responding to threats to international peace and security - "from the Balkans to East Timor, from Liberia to Kashmir, from Cyprus to the Golan Heights".

That sent another shudder through the Indian external affairs ministry.

David Miliiband
David Miliband's words on Kashmir touched a nerve in India

Also last week, an article by Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband - published in the Guardian newspaper while he was on a visit to India - again turned the focus on the Kashmir conflict.

"Resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders," Mr Miliband wrote.

He did not suggest an international envoy. Nevertheless, the Indian establishment fired a sustained volley of criticism at their ministerial visitor.

"There is no linkage between Kashmir and the terror India has been facing emanating from Pakistan," said a spokesman for India's governing Congress party.

"The bureaucracy in the British foreign office should have educated him a little bit on the facts."

A leading figure in the main opposition BJP was even more forthright. "In recent years, there has been no bigger disaster than the visit of David Miliband," declared Arun Jaitley.

A British minister, of course, can hardly be said to reflect the views of the Obama administration. But the remarks will be seen as indicating a new line of thinking in Western capitals.

As the world seeks to get the measure of the new man in the White House, South Asia's politicians and diplomats are wondering whether there may now be a determined attempt by outside powers to promote a settlement of the Kashmir crisis.

Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC correspondent in Delhi.

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