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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 30, July 17, 2010

America’s Role in Kashmir

Thursday 22 July 2010, by Salfie Muzaffar



The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir by Howard B. Schaffer; Viking Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd, 2009; price: 499; pages: 272.

Howard B. Schaffer, Deputy Director and Director of Studies of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, has tried to make a superb history of the many efforts made by the parties and international community to settle the long-running and dangerous Kashmir conflict. Schaffer brings personal experience, new research and well-informed insight to the task.
—Thomas R. Pickering

The dispute over Kashmir is the most central and inflexible of the problems that have bedeviled India-Pakistan relations for the last six decades. For Indians and Pakistanis, Kashmir symbolises the clash between their rival concepts of national identity. Pakistanis make out Kashmir as the one Muslim-majority area of Britain’s Indian empire that did not become part of Pakistan as was conceived by its founders as the homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Its possession by India makes Kashmir “the unfinished agenda of partition”. For Indians, Kashmir’s Muslim majority makes it a symbol of the country’s secular identity. This sentiment has grown stronger with time despite the evident unhappiness of most Kashmiri Muslims with their ties to India. Losing Kashmir because it is Muslim would, in India’s view, undercut its secular claims and confirm what has always been to most Indians the unacceptable view: that Hindus and Muslims are “two nations” who should have separate states. Moreover, many Indians fear if Kashmir or a part of it leaves the Indian Union there would be “a second partition” and massive anti-Muslim communal rioting would break out in India proper. Muslims make up about 12 per cent of Indian’s 1.1 billion people.

In December 2006, Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, suggested that his government could accept the existing Line of Control (LoC) as a permanent boundary provided India met other conditions regarding the governance of the State. By softening its stand on Kashmir Pakistan has implied that it could accept a separate status for Kashmiris of the Valley if they wanted it. Diplomats sometimes find that they must make policy on the fly on issues new and strange to them. This was surely the case when Washington suddenly found Kashmir on its agenda in 1948. American policy-makers had always regarded South Asia as a “British show”. So when fighting broke out in Kashmir, and India brought the issue to the United Nations, probably only a few of them could have found the princely state on a map. But over the years they and their successors became very familiar with the problem and its many consequences, if not with all the intricacies of Kashmiri politics and demographics. American involvement (and non-involvement) in Kashmir can be usefully divided into three phases:

First: Deep Washington engagement in efforts to bring about a settlement, 1948-63. The focus of America’s diplomatic activity in these years was usually the United Nations, which it saw as the appropriate forum for resolving such disputes.

Secondly: A quarter-century of American diplomatic stillness, 1964-89. The failure of the 1963 negotiations and the continuing preoccupation of India and Pakistan with Kashmir and other bilateral disputes contributed to a growing questioning in Washington about the value the two countries had for the pursuit of broad US foreign policy goals, especially as Vietnam increasingly became the focus of U.S.diplomacy.

Thirdly: focus on crises management, 1990-present.The outbreak of a broadly based rebellion in the Valley against Indian rule at the end of 1989 returned Kashmir to American attention. Since then America called upon India and Pakistan to settle the issue peacefully and bilaterally. It was worried that the Kashmir upheaval could lead to another India-Pakistan war, especially since Pakistan could not resist fishing in the Valley’s newly troubled waters. Both countries were by then well on their way to acquiring nuclear weapons. This made the prospect of another war even more alarming. After the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, the two nations claimed they would resolve their disputes, including Kashmir, through bilateral talks that pushed the US to the sidelines. The Kashmir conflict, however, was not resolved, and US diplomatic involvement returned in the 1990s following a wave of attacks in the Indian-held portions of Kashmir, which India blamed on Pakistan. The 26/11 terrorist attack on Mumbai, carried out by a radical Islamic group based in Pakistan, worsened the situation to the point that, according to Ambassador Schaffer, any solution to the conflict in the foreseeable future is now “unlikely”. But the United States should continue to pursue a peaceful outcome. Schaffer holds in his book that American involvement may continue in the form of “quiet diplomacy.”

AS this brief summary of the US role indicates, Washington has been more effective at crises management than peace building in Kashmir. The dispute has inflexibly resisted the diplomatic efforts of outside powers, even when the United States enjoyed great leverage with both claimants. The nature of the dispute has also shifted. The voice of the Kashmiris has become more prominent even as American concern for the stability of the nuclear-armed region has surpassed its interest in the rights and twists of the dispute.

Schaffer in the book has tried make it to clear that the broad outlines of a possible solution has started to take shape. As a new Administration (Obama’s) took office, the question before US policy-makers was whether in this situation and the new salience of South Asia for American global interests it is advisable—even necessary—for a fresh effort on Washington’s part to help resolve the Kashmir dispute. With South Asia now more important to US global interests than ever before, there will no doubt be further efforts by private American organisations and individuals to develop useful ideas on India-Pakistan relations in general and on Kashmir in particular. The government would do well to maintain contact with them as it develops new policy directions in the region.

From the Indian perspective, there is an answer to the question on what the Obama Administration should do about Kashmir as part of its Af-pak strategy. There were many direct US interventions in Kashmir over the last six decades. Some of these were not only unsuccessful but also prevented the construction of sustainable ties with India. New Delhi saw Washington’s Kashmir interest as part of a broader tilt toward Pakistan that began in the early years of the Cold War. If Kashmir has been at the heart of India’s accumulated distrust of the United States, the Bush Administration chose to ignore the issue as it tried to build a strategic partnership with India. Paradoxically, it was precisely during this period of American “neglect” that India and Pakistan made the biggest progress on resolving their conflict over Kashmir. In 2003-07, Delhi and Islamabad unveiled many confidence-building measures in Kashmir for the first time since the partition of the subcontinent. Above all, Indian and Pakistani leaders negotiated, through an official back channel, the framework of a political settlement on Kashmir. As it understood the costs of America’s blossoming ties with India, the Obama Administration quickly stepped back from the initial impulse to reinject itself into Kashmir. The Administration must nevertheless persist in building on Obama’s one important insight: the conflicts on the eastern and western borders of Pakistan are interconnected. This, in turn, is possible only if the United States can help Pakistan’s civilian leaders wrest control over national security policy. If and when he makes progress on these two objectives, Obama will find it no problem at all to convince Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to sign off on the Kashmir deal that he has already negotiated. Furthermore, it must be kept in mind that today India is very different from the India of the Cold War days, when it was economically and militarily weak and needed assistance from both the superpowers. American and British hostility, particularly on J&K, led India to depend on a Soviet veto in the Security Council. In return, India was forced to endorse the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. But India is now recognized as an emerging economic power, no longer dependent on foreign aid for pure economic progress.

Thus Washington should look for opportunities to play a more active role in helping resolve the dispute while recognising that this won’t be easy. These opportunities will arise only when there are strong governments. And both countries should be willing and able to make the difficult concessions necessary for a settlement. And before the United States becomes more involved, India-Pakistan relations must improve from their miserable state. Any eventual US diplomatic involvement should be low-keyed and bereft of any demonstrative display. If Washington does find a propitious opportunity to play a more active role, the settlement it promotes should call for making the Line of Control a permanent border that is porous; autonomy for Kashmiris on both sides; and joint institutions on an all-Kashmir basis.

The author is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at the Government Degree College (Boys), Baramulla, Kashmir. He can be contacted at

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