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Obama must stay away from Kashmir issue: Experts

By Aziz Haniffa
November 03, 2010 03:37 IST
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Noted South Asia analysts have warned the Obama administration to stay away from trouble-shooting in Kashmir despite the upsurge of violence in the Valley that has prompted some policy wonks urge the United States to be pro-active acquire a high profile vis-à-vis this dispute to stave off another India-Pakistan conflict if the situation unravels, reports Aziz Haniffa.

Erstwhile veteran diplomat Howard B Schaffer, author of The Limits of Influence: America's Role in Kashmir, said, "US intervention, when it takes place -- and this is not a propitious time for it to take place -- needs to be quiet."

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Schaffer, currently Director of Studies, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at the Edmund A Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, said, "We should look of course, to the Indians and Pakistanis to come up with ideas around which we could insert some of our own."

But he asserted that "I strongly oppose the idea of a special envoy. We don't want that kind of (intervention)…." and noted, "We've seen how badly the Indians have reacted."

Schaffer, who was the lead panelist at a conference titled, Trouble in Kashmir: Roots of Current Unrest and Ways Forward, hosted by the conservative Heritage Foundation, hoped that President Obama during his visit to India would "sympathetically and privately urge his Indian interlocutors to move forward" on the steps already envisaged by the Indian government to alleviate the unrest in Kashmir "that would temper the enormous sense of alienation and antagonism the Kashmir Valley Muslims have toward India and the Indian Union."

Describing "implementation" as always being "the Achilles heel of these initiatives," Schaffer said, "the Indian government will need to act urgently and with an imagination lacking in the past if it is to have any hope of moving forward effectively."

Meanwhile, he said it's imperative for Washington to firmly impress upon Pakistan "to refrain from meddling and trying to sabotage India's domestic initiatives."

Schaffer said Obama would "be well advised to urge India and Pakistan to resume back-channel talks like those that were interrupted initially by (former Pakistan president Pervez) Musharraf's political problems and finally the Mumbai attacks."

Lisa Curtis, who heads the South Asia Program at Heritage, and an former CIA analyst and senior Congressional staffer, who also had a stint at the State Department as a diplomat serving in both Islamabad and New Delhi, said, she too would caution against any US trouble-shooting in the region over Kashmir.

"I would point out that without an invitation from New Delhi, any such initiative would be counter-productive and would inevitably fail in any case," she said.

Taking strong exception to the recent argument by Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, who in a article in the New Yorker some weeks ago had called for the US to assume a more high profile role on the Kashmir issue, Curtis said, "I would say that a more visible US role risks exacerbating tensions by raising false expectations among the separatists as well as within the Pakistan army, which frankly provoked the 1979 Kargil border war, precisely to force US involvement on the issue."

"For these reasons, I would caution against any kind of high profile US role on this issue," she reiterated, and took issue with Coll who had also argued "in this article that the 2008 Mumbai attacks were a warning on Kashmir for the US.'

Curtis said, "I would disagree with this as well," and asserted that "the Lashkar-e-Tayiba simply has no role to play in Kashmir," and added: "It is very significant that one of the main separatist leaders in Indian Kashmir, Yasin Malik, head of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, recently lambasted Pakistani militant groups for hijacking the Kashmir issue and telling them to stay out of the dispute."

"So, I would say, if the Mumbai attacks demonstrated anything, it is that Pakistan-based terrorists are not so much interested in Kashmir, as they are in wreaking havoc throughout India in an attempt to put a dent in the idea of India as a rising global power," she said.

Curtis said, "The LeT did not emerge because of Indian misrule in Kashmir. The LeT is a terrorist organisation that is taking advantage of the situation in Kashmir and using the issue to push its broader pan-Islamist agenda."

"So rather than pursue a high-profile intervention," echoing Schaffer's advise, she said, "I would argue that the US should exercise quiet diplomacy that spurs New Delhi to address some of the Kashmiri grievances which are real, but to do this on its own."

Curtis, also agreed with Schaffer that the US should make in clear to Pakistan in the strongest terms that it "does not try to exploit the situation like it did in the 1990s."

She acknowledged that "the US does have a role to encourage better relations between India and Pakistan, but trying to insert itself into some kind of Kashmir settlement is most likely going to backfire and there's really nothing to be gained from it."

Both Schaffer and Curtis, however agreed that any initiative by New Delhi to resolve the crisis in Kashmir has to involve Pakistan and cannot be a separate deal between just the Indian government and the Kashmiris.

Schaffer predicted, "Neither Kashmir's politicians nor its young protestors are likely to take seriously an Indian initiative that does not include some kind of engagement with Pakistan."

"The Srinagar-New Delhi axis will not be enough to move Kashmir back towards a greater degree of tranquility," said. "A New Delhi-Islamabad axis also needs to be brought into play," and hoped that Obama would "quietly make that point to the Indians as a friend," during his visit.

Curtis said that even though the current crisis doesn't involve any cross-border fomenting and is purely an indigenous protest, there is no way Pakistan could be excluded from a resolution of the problem "because such a move would once again result in Pakistan playing the spoiler as it has over the last several decades."

She said, "We also need to acknowledge that this is an emotional issue for many Pakistanis. There is some pride involved. So, there has to be some kind of acknowledgement of Pakistan's role, even if we are talking about a solution where no territory is going to swap hands."

"We do have to acknowledge it is an emotional issue for many Pakistanis," Curtis reiterated, but added, "not to mention the fact that the Pakistanis have been fed a diet of propaganda over the last 20 years, that I think within Pakistan, something needs to be done about that."

She referred to "the images that have been shown of Kashmir, where they have really exaggerated some of the human rights issues that happened there. So, there is a most surrealist or lack of perception of what's really happening in the Valley within Pakistan that needs to be rectified."

Curtis also said it was imperative that India provide much more "access to the area -- maybe more visits," by international observers and the media, so that the misperceptions that are rampant in Pakistan can be corrected.

Walter Andersen, Associate Director of the South Asia Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, in a comprehensive academic presentation, argued that 'the violence has its roots in a dramatic change in the social order of the urban Muslim population of the Valley and this reveals itself in the growing despair on the part of the losers -- and especially their children, whose future seems bleak."

"What triggers this violence," he added, "usually is the heavy handedness of the security forces -- and there are some 400,000 troops in Kashmir with special powers to search, seize, detain and shoot in order to maintain law and order. Both issues need to be addressed, if there needs to be stability."

Andersen said, "The rioting is characterised not just by its intense anger -- visualized by intifada-like rock-throwing -- but most significantly by virtually dissociation from organised political life," and noted that "even the secessionist leaders like Yasin Malik and Mirwaiz Farooq -- from the ranks of the Hurriyat -- and the Islamist jihadi groups, both local and those rooted across the border in Pakistan, admit to having almost no influence on the protestors -- and thus have not been able to mobilise them for political purposes."

He said that "the rebellious youth are the product of educational reforms adopted by the early National Conference governments as part of their larger reform program to benefit the Kashmiri Muslim population, who had long occupied a socially and economically subordinate position to the state's Hindu aristocracy from Jammu and to the small, but highly influential Hindu Pandit population of the Valley, who were favoured by their co-religionists from Jammu."

Andersen, who also served in the diplomatic service for over 25 years, mostly in the subcontinent, and before he retired was for nearly a decade the chief of the South Asia office in the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau, acknowledged that there was "a dramatic improvement in literacy" in Kashmir since 1947, "but the rapid expansion of education was no accompanied by a similar expansion of jobs—or by programs to modernize the traditional enterprises of Kashmir's central cities, or to provide alternative entrepreneurial routes, such as in information technology."

"Thousands of young Kashmiris, for example," he said, "are scattered over India engaged in careers based on IT, when they should be in Kahsmir, and probably would be if there were opportunities."

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