Wednesday, February 2, 2011

American diplomacy

Although US President Barack Obama is unlikely to ruffle feathers by mentioning Kashmir during his India visit, Kashmiri separatists have planned their own strategy to gain attention. The hardline faction of the Hurriyat Conference, currently leading the agitation, has called for fresh demonstrations, describing the next 10 days as “crucial and significant.” On its part, the moderate section has launched a campaign to collect signatures on a memorandum to be handed over to Obama, urging him to press India to resolve the Kashmir issue.

Unlike its stand in Palestine, the West has been inclined to support the Muslim majority view in Kashmir since 1947. American diplomat and author Howard B Schaffer divides American engagement in the state into three phases: Washington’s deep engagements to bring about a settlement (1948-63); American diplomatic quiescence arising out of the failure of the 1963 negotiations; and focus on crisis management from 1990, coinciding with the onset of militancy. However, it is evident that due to a host of factors culminating in 9/11, the US has been losing interest, even in crisis management.

In recent years, the international community’s standard position for maintenance of stability has been to discourage the redrawing of boundaries and thwart secessionist movements. But with Afghanistan pushing the international community to the limits of its patience and al Qaeda on the offensive, the West has focused on preventing Islamic flashpoints from getting out of hand.

A Carnegie Endowment paper recently mentioned Kashmir as a challenge for the US, which it can neither avoid nor resolve. George Perkovich, award-winning author and director of nuclear policy programme at the think tank, believes that successive American administrations have recognised that India has the power to rebuff unwelcome US involvement.

Most American scholars also suggest that while the Obama administration should ask Pakistan’s military to prevent infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC) and shut jihadi centres, it should also ask New Delhi to remedy misgovernance and redress human rights abuses. They maintain Obama cannot avoid disappointing either Pakistan or India, or both. Afghanistan, therefore, underscores the limits of US partnership with India and Pakistan.

In the past, the US had actively supported Kashmir as a struggle for the right to self-determination, much to India’s annoyance. In September 1993, India was offended by then US President Bill Clinton referring to Kashmir as a major trouble spot in his address to the UN General Assembly. He had also said his country shared Pakistan’s concern about human rights abuses in Kashmir. The previous year, in his speech to the General Assembly, Clinton had referred to Kashmir in the same breath as Bosnia.

US ambassadors in New Delhi, too, had frequently visited Srinagar and met separatist leaders. Former American envoys Frank Wisner, Richard Celeste and Robert Blake met Hurriyat leaders. Former President George Bush senior (when out of office) had a long meeting with Shabir Ahmed Shah in Delhi, whom both India and the West wanted to project as a leader at one time.

Similarly, then US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel had said during a one-day visit to Mumbai in October 1994 that she was not convinced with the credibility of the elections in Jammu and Kashmir.

In November 1994, she met then Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah and reportedly offered full US support for reverting to the pre-1952 situation. Abdullah has himself gone on record saying that the US backed his party’s demand for greater autonomy and conversion of the LoC into a “soft border” between India and Pakistan.

Raphel had also hinted during her meetings in Delhi that a political package must be made known to Kashmiris. She had earlier earned the ire of Indians by questioning the state’s accession to India.

In fact, soon after top separatist leaders were released from jail in 1993, US diplomats in Delhi and Washington played a major part in banding them under the banner of the Hurriyat Conference. Even before the alliance took shape in Srinagar, much to the chagrin of various leaders, Abdul Gani Lone announced its formation in Washington.

In 1995, then Indian Home Minister SB Chavan had accused the US of harbouring “evil designs,” hampering the political process in Kashmir and seeking to gain a “foothold” there. The American response was to term the charge as “nonsense,” saying their policy on Kashmir was to encourage an end to the violence and a resolution of the dispute through negotiations between India and Pakistan.

Another US official in Washington was harsher. “Chavan pops off like that once a month or so. He is an embarrassment to his colleagues in the government,” the official had said.

But in May 1995, then US Secretary of State Warren Christopher said India’s willingness to hold elections in Kashmir was an important step towards resolution of the conflict, and that certain steps taken by New Delhi were encouraging.

In July 1999, a Congressional panel overwhelmingly rejected plebiscite as a possible solution. By a vote of 20 to 8, the House International Relations Committee defeated an amendment sought by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabachar. The amendment wanted the US to urge India and Pakistan to hold a plebiscite as per the UN Security Council Resolution of 1948.

Almost 25 years later, it is not surprising President Obama has dropped the “K” word from his vocabulary after taking office, though he had raised the issue two days before election. American diplomats still assert – in private – that Washington guides India and Pakistan’s strategic dialogue from behind the scenes, trying to keep the two in line.

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