Will President Barack Obama make some public remarks on Kashmir during his trip to India next month?
At a White House press briefing, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes refused to be pinned down on specifics, beyond saying that the United States would continue to express support for India and Pakistan to pursue talks.
“I wouldn’t — I don’t want to get into prefacing with precision what his comments are, in part because he’ll be answering a lot of questions there in the town hall and press conference and we haven’t — we’re still working through his remarks on certain things,” he said.
Yet it is a question that cannot — and will not — be left to chance.
Indian is deeply sensitive about foreign visitors talking about Kashmir — as British foreign ministers have learned to their cost on earlier trips. It regards Kashmir as an integral part of India and refuses even to recognise the territory at the heart of more than 60 years of enmity with Pakistan as disputed. Moreover, it has consistently rejected outside interference, saying that its disputes with Pakistan must be settled bilaterally.
Obama, who raised hackles in India during his presidential election campaign by suggesting the Washington should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute, is hoping to use the trip to help US business tap into India’s growing economy. With a flagging economy at home, he cannot afford to offend his hosts.
But at the same time, the biggest foreign policy challenge of his administration is over how to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. The war in Afghanistan cannot be ended without Pakistan’s help. And Pakistan itself faces serious instability — potentially a much bigger worry than Afghanistan with its 180 million people and nuclear bombs. Pakistan’s identity in turn is intimately bound up with India – its past support for Islamist militants was driven by its belief that this was the only way to neutralise the influence of its much bigger neighbour both in Kashmir and in Afghanistan. Depending on who you listen to, it either will not, or can not, tackle Islamist militants based in Pakistan without a peace settlement with India, including on Kashmir.
According to Bruce Riedel, who advised Obama on his Afghanistan and Pakistan strategy, “it will be Pakistan that dominates the private conversations between the president, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, because it is the future of Pakistan that is the most uncertain question in South Asia today. Pakistan has become the most dangerous country in the world for everyone, but especially for America and India. It is the epicentre of the global jihadist movement … The army remains the patron of parts of the jihadist Frankenstein even as it fights other parts of the monster,” he writes in The Times of India. “All this, and the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.”
“Obama’s visit will also take place against the backdrop of the revival of the Kashmir question. Pakistan will surely move to capitalise on the unrest. The intifada that exploded this summer in Kashmir cannot be ignored by the president during the visit but any comments on it will be potentially explosive,” he adds.
As US president, whose every word will be closely scrutinised, Obama does not have the option of simply avoiding any public use of the word Kashmir, as his special adviser for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke has tried to do. Not mentioning it will be as remarked upon as mentioning it.
The region has been hit by a fresh wave of protests this summer, increasingly drawing in a new generation of teenagers who have never known peace, in what Kashmiri author Basharat Peer calls Kashmir’s Forever War.
Yet there is little sign of progress either in resolving the dispute, or of improving relations more broadly between India and Pakistan. India broke off talks with Pakistan after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai — an attack which ended Obama’s presidential election hopes of a peace deal between the two which might make his task easier in Afghanistan. As of today, it is not clear whether he has a fall-back plan.
After a flurry of peace efforts in mid-2009 India and Pakistan have settled into a diplomatic limbo – their latest attempt at engagement, a meeting of the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers in July, ended in acrimony. The two countries have not been this far apart since 2001/2002 when they nearly went to war over a December 2001 attack on India’s parliament. And the Indian government’s efforts to engage with Kashmiris themselves also appear to have fallen flat.
It is hard to see how Obama can end this deadlock without some fairly muscular diplomacy that spills out into his use of language in public during his visit to India. Yet equally, it is hard to imagine that a president who needs to shore up his image and his country’s economy at home, can take the risk of speaking out about Kashmir in public in India. Many words will be written in South Asia about how he resolves that conundrum.
And meanwhile the people of Kashmir have other reasons for anxiety. When then US president Bill Clinton visited India in 2000, 35 Sikhs in the village of Chittisingpura in Kashmir were massacred to draw attention to the dispute. The big worry, is that something like that happens again.