Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rethinking Obama’s Kashmir Musings

Let’s understand the statement in the right perspective

It is always inspiring to witness the power of speech and words. Many amongst us have for too long subscribed to the dictum that actions always speak louder, but US President-elect, Barack Hussein Obama may yet prove us all wrong: Words are no less actions - they truly can match the healing power of deeds.

Obama’s recent words about Kashmir have many sections of the Kashmiri leadership, as well as people all across the state, in a jubilant mood…and New Delhi up in arms. The debate over the true nature of his inner ruminations has already begun, with New Delhi responding to the US President-elect’s statements with a knee-jerk reaction, and Kashmiri dissident leadership blowing their significance far out of proportion. Differing reactions from New Delhi and Kashmir notwithstanding, we must be clearheaded, maintain our sense of history, and consider cannons of realpolitik, when analyzing the complexities of Obama’s words. What does Obama really mean when he talks about Kashmir? Does he really intend to delve into Kashmir’s many conflicts? Even if he is serious, how much can he really achieve? Will the liberal interventionist stance of the Democratic Party bear fruit in an increasingly anti-American world? When all is said and done: How should Indians and Kashmiris interpret Barack Obama’s statements? 

Let us first begin by trying to deconstruct the comments Obama has made about Kashmir, and discuss how his words can be interpreted. To summarize, he has said that Pakistan must concentrate more on confronting militants along its Afghan border, and that resolution of the Kashmir issue would help Pakistan to focus on this extremely important task. Additionally, Obama has asserted that to help resolve the Kashmir issue, Bill Clinton could potentially be sent in the role of a special envoy. What does this mean, in essence? It could be understood as suggesting, contrary to the various interpretations flowing out of New Delhi and Srinagar, that Pakistan will be asked to ‘forget’ about Kashmir, and get its own house in order. It may also mean that the US would work to persuade Pakistan and India to think in terms of the newly emergent set of ideas about Kashmir that I wish to term as a ‘quasi-consensus’ regarding a potential solution to Kashmir (with items such as cross-LoC institutions and trade, non-alteration of borders, phased demilitarization, and the eradication of militancy etc.). Such a set of ideas may not be rejected out of hand by India. These feats could all potentially be accomplished through the good offices of a special envoy. Overall, Obama’s words might be construed as meaning that America’s primary concern is militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan. As such, it will seek to ‘help Pakistan out of Kashmir’, in order to allow the direction all of Pakistan’s effort towards the, apparently more pressing, matter of Pakistan/Afghanistan instability. 

Would this be such a bad arrangement for New Delhi? Perhaps not, substantively speaking; a liberal reading of what Manmohan Singh, Musharraff and Zardari have articulated over the years regarding a possible Kashmir resolution formula may indeed result in something like this, minus direct US mediation of course. But what of this possible US mediation? America has refereed between the two neighbours in the past, most prominently during the Kargil War, and its actions were apparently acceptable to India at this time. Therefore, if the Kashmir solution and US mediation can follow the path of the above ideas, New Delhi might be talked into accepting it.

Now, how might the Kashmiris react if Obama has indeed meant the above, and nothing more? The aforementioned strategy may not be such a bad deal for them either. After all, a significant number of mainstream and dissident Kashmiri leaders, and in fact, many people in general, are talking along these lines. Have they realized that this is perhaps the most realistic way of getting what they want? 
A number of fears have found voice as a result of Obama’s recent words: What if Obama intends to make Kashmir the next target and laboratory of his Party’s traditional liberal interventionist agenda? What if he is talking about becoming aggressive with India and Pakistan to resolve Kashmir in a US-designed manner? What if the US puts pressure on India to hold a plebiscite in Kashmir? Quite simply, he is unlikely to make any such types of decisions. Additionally, despite UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s gentle reminder that “[i]f and when both parties (India and Pakistan) to this issue (Kashmir) request ... ask me to provide my good offices, I am willing to do that”, in reality the UN resolutions concerning a plebiscite in Kashmir are long forgotten. Thirdly, if the US was naïve enough to exert too much pressure on New Delhi, this would most likely backfire. India’s leadership, and citizens in general, are unlikely to accept any such pressure from Washington. Following this course of action would only increase the already prevalent anti-American feeling among many sections of Indian public. More importantly, hardball diplomacy from the US would almost certainly cause New Delhi to harden its stated position on Kashmir, and the forward momentum that has been gained so far would be lost. In other words, a belligerent liberal interventionist Obama administration would do more harm than good to Kashmir, and to the political arguments of the Kashmir cause.

So how should New Delhi, and the Kashmiris themselves, respond to Obama’s proclamations about Kashmir?  New Delhi should have been, and still can be, more nuanced, cautious, reflective and statesmanlike in its reactions to Obama’s statements. It needs to find the political maturity and diplomatic self-confidence to see the merit in what the US might be saying, and in doing so, it may be able to turn the argument in its favour. This would be true statecraft. New Delhi must stop believing that it can prevent the countries of the world from recognizing and discussing Kashmir. If India truly desires a conclusion to the Kashmir imbroglio it must listen to the ways powerful world leaders are suggesting it could be resolved, especially given that these suggestions are very much along the lines promoted by New Delhi in the recent past. Why not see reason and move forward? 

Having said this, those who would like to see US mediation in Kashmir, in whatever shape or form, should also remember that US interventionism has a turbulent and controversial history. It has frequently had ulterior motives, and has rarely benefited the nations that have experienced its full force. On most occasions US intervention, for all its good intentions, has only made things worse. However, if Obama has genuine and peaceful intentions vis-à-vis Kashmir, he must be willing to work hard to initiate constructive dialogue between the many stakeholders involved in the conflict. To do this, he must get all parties on board (Pakistan has yet to respond to Obama’s remarks with any sort of coherency) by clarifying the basic parameters and starting points, and by being cautious and careful. In short, by employing some seriously smart diplomacy. The final question remains, though: Is the US really ready, willing and able to take on a challenge as grand as this one?

(Source: Greater Kashmir, NOVEMBER 12, 2008. URL: http://greaterkashmir.com/full_story.asp?Date=12_11_2008&ItemID=12&cat=11)

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