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Barack Obama’s Kashmir thesis!

As Obamamania grips much of the world, including India, the man who might become the next US President has ideas on Jammu & Kashmir that should cause some concern to New Delhi.

As Obamamania grips much of the world, including India, the man who might become the next President of the United States has ideas on Jammu and Kashmir that should cause some concern to New Delhi.

Given its vastly improved relations with the United States and Pakistan, India has no reason to press the panic button. Yet it should be quickly flagging its concerns with the foreign policy team of Senator Barack Obama, should he be declared the Forty-fourth President of the United States on Tuesday night.

In an interview broadcast on MSNBC, Obama suggested that his administration would encourage India to solve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan, so that Islamabad can better cooperate with the United States on Afghanistan. Obama’s definitive thesis comes in three parts.

“The most important thing we’re going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan. And we’ve got to work with the newly elected government there (Pakistan) in a coherent way that says, terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should — try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they (Pakistan) can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants”. India entirely agrees with the first two elements but should strongly object to the third.

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Put simply, the Obama thesis says: the sources of Afghan instability are in Pakistan; those in turn are linked to Islamabad’s conflict with New Delhi, at the heart of which is Jammu and Kashmir.

For months now, New Delhi has been assessing Obama’s seeming hard-line towards Pakistan, including a threat to bomb terrorist bases there if Islamabad failed to act against the al-Qaida and the Taliban. India, however, has paid less attention to the carrot

Obama was offering Pakistan—American activism on Kashmir in return for credible cooperation in Afghanistan.


Obama’s remarks on Kashmir are by no means off the cuff. They have been remarkably consistent since he launched his presidential campaign. In the first comprehensive articulation of his world view in the journal Foreign Affairs during the summer of 2007, Obama argued, “If Pakistan can look towards the east (India) with confidence, it will be less likely to believe its interests are best advanced through cooperation with the Taliban.”

If Obama’s Kashmir thesis becomes the policy, many negative consequences might ensue. For one, an American diplomatic intervention in Kashmir will make it impossible for India to pursue the current serious back channel negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir, the first since 1962-63.

India and Pakistan have made progress in recent years, because their negotiations have taken place in a bilateral context. Third party involvement will rapidly shrink the domestic political space for India on Kashmir negotiations.


For another, the prospect that the U S might offer incentives on Kashmir is bound to encourage the Pakistan Army to harden its stance against the current peace process with India.

Finally, the sense that an Obama Administration will put Jammu & Kashmir on the front burner would give a fresh boost to militancy in Kashmir and complicate the current sensitive electoral process there. Kashmiri separatist lobbies in Washington have already embraced Obama’s remarks.

To be sure, Indo-U S relations are much stronger today to suggest a return to the discordant early 1990s, when Kashmir topped the bilateral agenda. Yet, New Delhi cannot ignore that Pakistan is likely to be at the very top of a President Obama’s national security agenda and his perception of a linkage between Kashmir and Afghanistan.

India’s chattering classes may be carried away by Obama’s talk of ‘change’ in Washington. On Kashmir at least, India badly needs ‘continuity’ with President George W Bush’s deliberate hands-off approach.

Although his historic civil nuclear initiative got all the attention, President Bush’s Kashmir policy has contributed even more significantly to the transformation of Indo-U S relations.


Despite relentless pressures from Gen. Pervez Musharraf, Bush refused to inject the U S into the Indo-Pak conflict. By ending the traditional American meddling in Kashmir, Bush created the conditions for purposeful bilateral negotiations between New Delhi and Islamabad. India would not want Obama to disrupt this positive dynamic in the subcontinent.

India does not disagree with Obama that a Pakistan secure within its own borders is good for the whole region. That indeed is the basis on which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee explored solutions to the Kashmir dispute on a bilateral basis.


India’s problem with the Obama thesis is in the simplistic trade-off it sets up between Kashmir and Afghanistan. More than seven years after 9/11, Washington has begun to understand that the source of the problem in both Kashmir and Afghanistan is the Pak Army and its instrumentalisation of extremism to achieve political objectives.

Ending the Army’s right to define Isalamabad’s national security goals would make it a lot easier to resolve Pakistan’s disputes with both India and Afghanistan. That in turn would demand Indo-U S cooperation in accelerating Pakistan’s democratic transition by establishing firm civilian control over the military.


(C. Raja Mohan is a Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University and a Contributing Editor of The Indian Express.)

First published on: 03-11-2008 at 02:31:41 pm
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