Mr. Obama must focus on moving Indo-US relations forward; bringing up Kashmir is not the way to go about it.
Barack Obama’s first official visit to India approaches. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao was in D.C. recently, working with N.S.A. Jim Jones to give shape to Mr. Obama’s India agenda. The president will, in the course of the next few weeks, receive advice from writers, think-tankers, analysts, and just about everyone else on what his priority list of issues to tackle in India should be.
One item relating to India-Pakistan peace is certainly going to resurface — Kashmir. More specifically, the “solve Kashmir, and bring about peace between India and Pakistan” mantra will be chanted by many in D.C. in the weeks to come. In an article in The Daily Beast, Bruce Riedel, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy at Brookings, supported U.S. encouragement of talks between India and Pakistan on settling Kashmir, in the context of the war in Afghanistan.
The Filter Coffee has previously debunked the notion that solving “Kashmir” will bring about peace between India and Pakistan. I will therefore restrict myself to discussing three points that Mr. Obama should consider in the context of the India visit.
First, Mr. Obama’s immediate priority must remain the ongoing war in Afghanistan-Pakistan. Taking focus off Afghanistan-Pakistan and reorienting himself and his administration into resolving a conflict that has been ongoing for 63 years (and will no doubt go on for many more) will not be a wise course of action for an embattled president heading into mid-term elections in 2012. Stay the course on Afghanistan.
Second, bet on India. Indo-U.S. relations have taken a backseat since Mr. Obama took office. This is partly due to uncontrollable circumstances and priorities. But the president has a real opportunity during his India visit to both arrest the slide, and reaffirm that the nature of the Indo-US relationship is indeed strategic, and one between two natural partners. In this context, India and the U.S. should move forward on strengthening their defense relationship, which U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mullen only recently described as “strong and important.” The nature of the relationship need not necessarily be restricted to the acquisition of military equipment and transfer of technology.
As two large and diverse democracies, India and the U.S. have a vital interest in securing key sea lines of communication in the Indian Ocean and beyond and ensuring a strategic balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region. While India and the U.S. already cooperate in patrolling the Malacca straits, changing geopolitical equations will make greater cooperation between India (and indeed, other Asian democracies) and the U.S. in the greater region more critical.
On Afghanistan, as much as the U.S. may have to indulge Pakistan in the interim, its interests lie in denying sanctuary to extremist groups, from where they may attack the U.S. or its interests. Whether the U.S. likes it or not, this means ensuring that Pakistani influence in Afghanistan is counterbalanced with powers that are averse to the spread of Wahhabi extremism in Asia. India has an important role to play in this regard and further Indian involvement in Afghanistan must be encouraged.
Next, India and the U.S. should use this opportunity to expand economic ties and address irritants that have affected Indo-US relations (the nuclear liability bill, and outsourcing are chief among them). Ongoing education reforms in India translate into opportunities for U.S. universities to establish satellite campuses in India. India and the U.S. should also use this opportunity to move forward on progress made on climate change, both during Secretary Clinton’s visit, and at Copenhagen.
But perhaps most importantly, Mr. Obama will do well not to rake up Kashmir on his visit to India. Pressuring India at a time when it faces a raging conflict in the Valley is asking it to act at a very sensitive time and from a position of weakness. If the economically weak India of the past refused to yield to international pressure on Kashmir, the possibility of this happening is even more remote in today’s resurgent India.
Were Mr. Obama to bring up Kashmir in India, two things are nearly certain to happen. One, India will not budge from its position on the issue, and two, Mr. Obama will risk further hurting Indo-US relations. Some early signs indicate that the Obama administration is still not in full appreciation of the premium that India attaches to Jammu and Kashmir; dangling carrots will not work and indeed, aren’t called for. One can only hope that better sense will prevail before the president’s visit. Where Kashmir is concerned, there is no need for the U.S. to think outside the box. Stay within the box. In fact, stay clear of it.