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Obama rollback on Kashmir?

world Updated: Nov 10, 2008 00:35 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The Barack Obama government-in-waiting has quietly rolled back its campaign talk about a more active US role in the Kashmir peace process.

New talking points issued in the past two weeks for the president-elect and his officials state India and Pakistan need to solve the Kashmir problem "bilaterally" and that they will have full US “support” in this effort.

However, the points, which were approved by Obama’s senior foreign policy team, did not make a decision on whether the appointment of a special envoy on Kashmir would be good or bad, said Teresita Schaffer of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has seen the document.

In an interview in Time magazine in October, Obama said Kashmir was a place he wanted to “devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach”. He felt there was “a moment where potentially we could get” the attention of India and Pakistan.

Obama said he had spoken with Bill Clinton about this issue over lunch. During the campaign, Obama repeatedly spoke of a more active Kashmir policy. This was the first time he had spoken of an envoy.

The statement caused considerable concern both in New Delhi and among South Asian experts in the US. Prominent Indian-Americans close to the Obama campaign and various think tank members warned that such a Kashmir move could lose the US the goodwill it had earned by completing the India-US nuclear deal.

The review of the policy is possibly why, when Indian officials met members of Obama’s South Asia team over the past few weeks, the US side did not mention the “K-word”.

Indian officials are sanguine about any Kashmir move, noting both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush began their administrations with abortive peace efforts.

But the Kashmir kerfuffle raises a larger concern: is there anyone in the Obama administration who focusses on long-term India policy and will try to avoid short-term dust-ups over Kashmir, the test ban treaty, climate change and the like. A key reason for Bush’s successful India policy was his willingness to overrule single-issue bureaucrats.

Washington observers say it is unlikely the president-elect has a coherent policy for the subcontinent. “It’s early days and he hasn’t collected his thoughts on South Asia,” said Ambassador E. Ashley Wills, who served in India and Sri Lanka.

“His immediate focus and only focus will be the economy. All other issues will take a back seat,” said Ashok Mago of the lobby group, the US-India Forum.

And as the policy comes together, the many ex-Clinton aides he has absorbed will help shape a more positive agenda.

Sanjaya Baru, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s former media advisor, believed terrorism and economics would be uppermost in the Obama India policy. In a recent article, he noted how Obama had written to Singh in September this year: “I would like to see US-India relations grow across the board to reflect our shared interests, shared values, shared sense of threats, and ever burgeoning ties between our two economies and societies.”

Obama said “our common strategic interests call for redoubling US-Indian military, intelligence, and law enforcement cooperation”.