Will a Obama presidency be proactive on Kashmir? (Comment)

November 16th, 2008 - 12:47 pm ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaWhen Chris Mathews, the host of the popular political show ‘Hardball’ on MSNBC, mentioned as a throwaway comment that Kashmir is one of president-elect Barack Obama’s likely priorities, he unwittingly foreshadowed a potentially significant change in America’s South Asia policy.”But if those two (Obama and Senator Hillary Clinton) get together sitting around the table and on the phone at night figuring out together between these two very competitive people how to place America in the world, how to settle the Middle East, how to settle Kashmir, how to settle Darfur…” Mathews said while discussing the widely reported story that Hillary Clinton was being offered the job of secretary of state.

It is not common for a mainstream US political show to mention Kashmir along with top global flashpoints as requiring US diplomatic attention. While it is always possible that Mathews mentioned Kashmir without any specific thinking behind it, it is equally likely that his remark reflected a growing feeling in some quarters that an Obama administration could take a more proactive position on the issue that has remained at the heart of India-Pakistan relations.

In an interview with Time magazine in October Obama had said Kashmir was a place to which he wanted to “devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach”. The comment was viewed with concern by New Delhi then. However, after Obama was elected on Nov 4, there has been no explicit mention of the subject.

At the operational level, Obama’s approach towards Kashmir makes perfect sense from the American standpoint because he is expected to make Afghanistan and the rising influence of Al Qaeda/Taliban combine his long-term priority over Iraq. It is also widely expected that Obama would press Pakistan to step up its military campaign against the Islamic jihadists in the country’s lawless tribal region in the northwest. In order for Pakistan to devote more military attention to the northwest, it has to considerably divert its resources from its border with India, particularly in Kashmir.

Unless the Kashmir issue shows any significant progress towards a solution, Pakistan will not be able to carry out Obama’s mandate. A financially strapped Pakistan could ask Obama to lean on India to come to a reasonable settlement over Kashmir as a quid pro quo for more money as well as deploying more military assets in the northwest.

Between now and Obama’s inauguration on Jan 20, a lot could happen that may trigger a serious rethinking of the current policy option in South Asia. In the event that Obama does eventually pick Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, it would be interesting to see how she might recalibrate this approach.
As presidents, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were by and large hands-off on Kashmir and treated it as a bilateral issue. However, the South Asia of 2008 is fundamentally different from that of 2000 when Clinton left and Bush took over. Pakistan in particular is the most important frontier in the war on terror.

There is no way its military can effectively counter the jihadists on the northwest border even as it continues to protect its surrogates in Kashmir. Unless Islamabad is assured that India will not exploit its weakening military presence in Kashmir, the Pakistan government is unlikely to offer Obama any substantial help.
At the same time Islamabad ought to be conscious of Obama’s position that if Pakistan cannot or is unwilling to act against the Al Qaeda/Taliban combine, the US should. It would amount to US forces willfully disregarding Pakistan’s sovereignty while carrying out military strikes inside its territory.

In the early months of the new administration India-Pakistan may not get a lot of attention but overall a lot rides on the region for Obama’s foreign policy success or failure.

(Mayank Chhaya is a Chicago-based commentator. He can be contacted at m@literateworld.com)

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