India-Pakistan relations may become Obama’s top priority

December 2nd, 2008 - 10:35 am ICT by IANS  

Barack ObamaChicago, Dec 2 (IANS) “Sovereign nations obviously have a right to protect themselves.” This axiomatic comment by President-elect Barack Obama, while unveiling his national security team on Monday morning, is fraught with significant implications for India-Pakistan bilateral relations. That it was made in response to a specific question whether India has the right to attack Pakistan in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks makes it doubly important.

“Beyond that I do not want to comment on the specific situation that has taken place in South Asia right now. It is important for us to let the investigators do their job to make determination as to who is responsible for carrying out this heinous act. My administration will remain steadfast in support to India’s efforts to catch the perpetrators of this terrible act and bring them to justice and I expect that the world community will feel the same way,” Obama said after making that comment.

His comments appeared to studiedly leave out saying he would necessarily stand in India’s way were it to choose to target terrorists in Pakistan in the event the latter did not or could not contain them.

It was expected that Obama would be asked about the situation in India and its impact on relations with Pakistan as he introduced Senator Hillary Clinton as his choice for Secretary of State. From all available accounts, the Obama team has been paying considerable attention to the clear sharpening of the rhetoric from the Indian side in the aftermath of the terror attacks and its potential to yet again put the two countries on in a volatile embrace.

Although Iraq and Afghanistan remain important items of Obama’s foreign policy to-do list, the dramatic appearance of the tensions between India and Pakistan could well constitute its top priority. Tied to the stability or lack thereof in Pakistan is Obama’s passionate advocacy of defeating the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine now known to operate on Pakistani soil.

There is already some speculation whether Obama might follow up on his idea of appointing a special envoy to deal with the Kashmir issue, if only to relieve the Pakistani military from deploying major human resource and assets to border with India and diverting it to the country’s northwest where the jehadi groups are in control. Once again popular current affairs show host Chris Mathews spoke of the possibility of former president Bill Clinton being asked to mediate in the dispute.

There are no indications at all whether Obama is even remotely considering a special envoy on Kashmir, but the talk has somehow remained in the air. Some experts believe that the Mumbai attacks lend particular urgency to the Kashmir issue, especially because the Lashkar-e-Taiba, whose core ideology is to challenge India’s sovereignty over Jammu and Kashmir, has come under serious suspicion for its possible role in the latest attacks.

The sharpening anti-Pakistan tone in New Delhi is unlikely to go unnoticed in the headquarters of the US government-in-waiting here in Chicago. There is also realization that things can clearly spin out of control in the rawness of the atmosphere in South Asia.

Not that anyone here expects that India and Pakistan might go to war and seriously mar Obama’s inauguration set for 50 days from now. But the incoming administration will be seriously chagrined at the idea of starting their term having to deal with two nuclear powers, one of them a haven for Islamist groups, locking themselves in a military conflict.

The Obama administration might feel reassured that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not given to rash actions, but at the same time they also recognize the growing political pressures on him to act tough a few months before the general elections.

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