Last month he traveled to Kashmir on what he described as a 'strictly fact-finding mission.' This was unprecedented, since both of his predecessors over nearly two decades, Richard Cronin and Barbara Le Poer, had not taken such a step.
In an exclusive interview with Rediff India Abroad Managing Editor Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC, Kronstadt, the Asian affairs specialist in the Congressional Research Service' Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Division, said he was trying to get facts on the ground by talking to the people in the Kashmir valley instead of relying on the views of Kashmiri leaders or Indian government officials visiting Washington, DC.
What was the rationale for this trip?
It was strictly a fact-finding mission. It's important for us to get our feet on the ground and talk to the people there. We were there while the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf was occurring (on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Havana, Cuba).
Was this a fact-finding mission that the CRS was pushing for sometime with the Government of India?
We just asked the embassy if it was possible and they had someone who could travel up there with us -- a foreign service official -- who was very well connected. So we had some great meetings.
Based on your findings, is this going to generate a CRS report?
Not specifically on this trip. But I'll incorporate a lot of the findings into my other reports.
What were your impressions? What were the perspectives you gained in the valley?
The major thing is that I came away with a much more optimistic view of the problem because the majority of those I talked to there were confident and optimistic about the long-term trends. Meaning that things are getting better for the Kashmiri people over the years and the outlook for an actual government-to-government -- Delhi-to-Islamabad -- resolution seems closer than ever before.
This was a major revelation for me because I went in feeling that Kashmir was an intractable problem and (laughing) very happy that I was not responsible for solving the problem.
I went in feeling fairly pessimistic about Kashmir because of the way I've seen the process fall apart numerous times in recent years. (I felt) that it's very fragile.
Was there anything else that really surprised you, helped calm your fears?
Another thing that surprised me on the ground there was how positive a view many people had of Pakistan's role, and how President Musharraf's role was not viewed with the negativity I had expected.
Many, many people in Kashmir were actually very positive about the role that Pakistan is playing and used the word flexibility in talking about Musharraf's role. The word came up again and again that he, more than any other Pakistani leader, had (exhibited flexibility).
Why did you go in with a perception that Musharraf's role would not be viewed favourably? After all, the Indians have always accused Pakistan of supporting and arming militants in Kashmir. Musharraf has always tried to give the Kashmir people the assurance that Pakistan would always be there for them and that Kashmir and the aspirations of its people is an issue always close to Pakistan's heart.
I think it was because of the so-called cross-border terrorism -- the message that comes from Delhi. Of course, we did talk to security people in Kashmir, and they were very clear that terrorists came across with the assistance of some elements in Pakistan. So they weren't optimistic or positive about Pakistan's role. But many of the people on the ground -- who I didn't get a chance to talk to when I was in Washington but only when they visit -- had a very different perspective about Pakistan's role.
And, what about the Indian government's role? Did you feel that when you spoke to the people on the ground, there were positive vibes -- anything on par of what they felt for Musharraf and the government of Pakistan?
Not necessarily on par. That was, I think, a little more mixed. Some people felt that Delhi was taking the complaints of the Kashmiri people more seriously. (But) it was very jarring to see the large security presence in Srinagar. This is something I hadn't expected.
I knew about it intellectually, but when I got on the ground, there were soldiers and police everywhere -- the police, of course, were like paramilitary troops, so they looked like soldiers.
There was something oppressive about the security presence in Srinagar and even out in the countryside. You really couldn't get away from it. It's like you were reminded, everywhere you looked, that there was a security problem. I could see how the people there might even feel like there was an occupying army because I do know some people feel that way.
On the other hand, there were people who were positive about Delhi's role -- that it seemed to be coming around. Of course, talking to people in the Jammu and Kashmir state government, people in the People's Democratic Party and the Congress -- I also talked to National Conference folks -- all felt good about the political situation in the valley. (They said) the 2002 elections were the most effective that the state has ever seen. So that was more mixed (response) among people about Delhi's role. I think the sense of an overwhelming security presence is still oppressive to some.
A significant reduction of this overwhelming security presence is what the Kashmiri leadership and international human rights groups have always been calling for as an important good-faith, confidence-building measure to get the peace process going. But Delhi argues it has to put down the militancy and counter cross-border terrorism which it says continues unabated and for which it blames Pakistan.
I heard a lot of stories about the impunity with which some of the security forces can act. (I heard) anecdotal cases of extortions on the street. I also happened to run into Brad Adams of Human Rights Watch while I was there. And so some of these stories really did come out. But in Delhi my meetings with government people were... there were other more immediate concerns. Obviously, the nuclear deal was very important and then the relationship with Pakistan more generally. So it wasn't about Kashmir. The Mumbai bombings were still reverberating, so Kashmir didn't come up much in Delhi.
In terms of what you do with your findings of this fact-finding mission; I know that CRS is a sort of think tank of the US Congress, but it's independent and non-partisan and always tries to provide an objective perspective to lawmakers. So in that sense, what will you be reporting to lawmakers and others vis-a-vis your meetings and your findings?
Some things I've already told you are the kind of new revelations that I've had, or indications of trends. Obviously, as you say, you know about CRS. We are to be objective. But that doesn't mean neutral, and that's the big distinction. So long as we are objective with the facts, we can draw certain conclusions. Some people think the earth is flat, some people think it's round. We go where the evidence seems to indicate.
With regard to some of the conclusions you've drawn, what role do you see for the United States in Kashmir, considering that President Bush during his joint news conference with President Musharraf last month spoke of the need for a resolution of the Kashmir problem etc, but asserted that there is no way the US could impose a solution. What would be your recommendations in terms of the US developing or updating its policy on Kashmir, which, after all, is what concerns everyone in the administration and Congress, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear weapons powers?
The United States playing a mediating role is out of the question. It's a non-starter, and I don't think it's necessary. In general, the approach needs to be between India and Pakistan and in some manner incorporating the wishes of the Kashmiri people.
It's important to not view this as a strictly bilateral issue. The United States in whatever way it acts, it needs to do so quietly. So it has to be mostly behind closed doors. I think good offices, some encouragement, diplomatic patting on the back, to bring this to a resolution, because everyone understands that a resolution of this is good for everyone. So if we can find a resolution that everyone can live with, it would do wonderful things for the subcontinent.
When you say diplomatic patting on the back, does this also mean simultaneous nudging?
Sure. I mean there can be a carrot and stick. But it needs to be very subtle and very understanding of and sensitive to the problems on the ground, which, to some extent, I have encouraged. And the administration understands this. Again, I just hope that we don't see the Kashmiri people feel left out of whatever comes out (with regard to the peace process). It can't be settled as government-to-government alone.