Journalist | Writer | Analyst
27 January 2009
Promise and pitfalls of Obama’s South Asia policy
If Richard Holbrooke is to deliver on the promise of addressing the “deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the veteran American diplomat who has just been named U.S. President Barack H. Obama’s special representative for the two countries will have to resist the temptation of mission creep.
It is an open secret that Mr. Holbrooke’s original brief included India, mainly because Mr. Obama let it be known that he believes the Kashmir issue forms an integral part of the military-strategic puzzle the U.S. is dealing with in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But that was before New Delhi unleashed a silent but strenuous campaign to ensure that the ‘I word’ did not figure in any official announcement of the special envoy’s mandate. India told the outgoing Bush administration through Richard Boucher and David Mulford and sent strong signals to the Obama people directly as well as through key business interest and lobbying groups that any appointment which smacked of linkage with Kashmir would be seen as an unfriendly act.
In the event, the Indian government has had its way on this point. An envoy with the words ‘Kashmir’ in his designation would probably not even get a visa to enter the country and would end up poisoning the bilateral relationship in every sphere. India hands in the Beltway know this only too well. No administration would like to sabotage a strategic partnership that has been so assiduously built over a decade-and-a-half, especially when the long-awaited military payoffs are believed to be just round the corner.
At the same time, New Delhi would do well to remember that Mr. Obama’s special representative revels in the image of being a troubleshooter. For his efforts in the Balkans, Mr. Holbrooke has been nominated seven times for the Nobel Peace Prize. The temptation of getting an eighth nomination by trying to “solve Kashmir” would be too great for a man of his ambition. Indeed, his remarks at the State Department last Thursday, just after being named to the job by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, make it clear that Mr. Holbrooke does not see his work as confined to the Durand Line. “In Pakistan,” he said, “the situation is infinitely complex and I don’t think I would advance our goals if I tried to discuss it today … But I will say that in putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy, we should underscore that we fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent, dangerous tribal areas on its western border. And we will respect that as we seek to follow suggestions that have been made by all three of the men and women standing behind me [President Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden and Ms Clinton] in the last few years on having a more comprehensive policy.”
There can be no doubt that the “more comprehensive policy” envisaged is one in which Mr. Holbrooke will have a richer menu of carrots and sticks to show the Pakistani military authorities than the current offering of drone attacks, weapons sales, military assistance and non-military aid. In his pre-presidential interviews, Mr. Obama had indicated that he saw a link between Afghanistan and Kashmir. “Managing a more effective strategy in Afghanistan will be a top priority. Recognising that it is not simply an Afghanistan problem but it’s an Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Kashmir-Iran problem is going to be a priority,” he told the Time magazine on December 5.
Regardless of his designation, then, Mr. Holbrooke will soon come round to discussing Kashmir with the Indians. As Philip Zelikow, a former advisor to Condoleezza Rice, told Foreign Policy magazine last week: “Leaving India out of the title actually opens up [Holbrooke’s] freedom to talk to them.” By itself, however, this doesn’t mean India has any reason to panic, feel nervous or get extra prickly. For one, America’s appetite for questioning the accession of Jammu and Kashmir or the human rights situation there is not what it used to be before 9/11. Pushing an outcome where violent extremists could secure another base of operation at a time when the U.S. is trying to pacify Afghanistan is not something Washington is dying to do. For another, the entire dynamic of the Indo-U.S. bilateral relationship has changed since the days of Narasimha Rao, even if America remains broadly wedded to the policy of ‘no war, no peace’ on the subcontinent. Finally, India’s capacity to stare down any power that tries to impose a settlement in Kashmir is much greater today than it ever was.
New Delhi’s worry
The worry for New Delhi, then, is not the damage Mr. Holbrooke might do to India’s interests in Kashmir. Rather, the danger is that Pakistan’s military establishment will run circles round him by linking the level of its cooperation on the Afghan front to the amount of political lifting Washington is prepared to do on the Indian front. This link, of course, was first made by Pervez Musharraf in 2001, when he told his country soon after 9/11 that Pakistan was sacrificing the Taliban to the Americans in order to keep its strategic assets alive. Those assets were precisely the jihadi investments the Pakistani military had made over the years on the Kashmir front. If Mr. Holbrooke gets sidetracked or is seduced by such arguments, he will end up allowing the Pakistani military to avoid making the fundamental course correction it has to take. And it is the people of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India who will have to pay the price.
The November 26-29, 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai have underscored the de-territorialised nature of the threat posed to India by the continuing links Pakistan’s military establishment has with various jihadi and terrorist groups. The jihadi groups play the role of a force multiplier for the army in domestic politics as well as on Pakistan’s eastern and western fronts. What the Obama administration needs to do is facilitate the withdrawal of the Pakistani military from the country’s political life. The military’s policy cannot be dismantled piecemeal. Time is also fast running out. GHQ, Rawalpindi’s control over the bewildering array of jihadi players who have emerged, is fraying. As the deadly terrorist attack on the Marriot hotel in Islamabad demonstrated, not all players in the increasingly cacophonous jihadi orchestra are willing to respect the conductor’s baton. An army that still harbours dreams of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan and wresting control of the Kashmir Valley has ceded vast swathes of Pakistani territory in FATA and Swat to the Taliban, the al-Qaeda and its kindred organisations. And yet, as the Pakistani scholar, Haris Gazdar, has astutely analysed, this ceding of territory is essentially an act of outsourcing in which the chaos engendered by cadre-based militant outfits allows the military to retain control over the polity against the competing claims of democratic politics and civilian authority.
The problem with Washington’s policy until now is that it has combined a politically soft approach towards Pakistan’s military and the ISI with a militarily hard approach within Afghanistan and a politically confrontationist stand towards Iran, the only other country that could provide a viable supply route into the landlocked battle zone. The over-reliance on lethal and poorly conceived military force in Afghanistan and the frontier regions has created fertile ground for the Taliban to recruit new fighters. And laxity towards the Pakistani brass has allowed extremists to develop an extensive support infrastructure within Pakistan. If there was any doubt about the military’s indulgence towards these elements, the recent interview of the ISI chief, Major General Shujaa Pasha, to Der Spiegel ought to settle the matter. “It is worth listening closely when the general explains why he too is unwilling to apprehend the Taliban leadership, even though many claim that Taliban leader Mullah Omar, for example, is in Quetta, a city where Pasha lived until a few years ago,” the German magazine wrote. “Shouldn’t they be allowed to think and say what they please? They believe that jihad is their obligation. Isn’t that freedom of opinion? he asks, defending extremist rabble-rousers, who are sending more and more Koran school students to Afghanistan to fight in the war there.”
Until now, Washington has tended to turn a blind eye to these links. Just as the Pakistani military sees value in keeping alive its old jihadi assets, the U.S. military presumably does not want to squander six decades of investment it has made in the Pakistani armed forces. That is why the Pentagon and State Department have avoided applying the kind of pressure Pakistan sorely needs in order for it to rid itself of military control once and for all. India needs to drive home this point repeatedly in all its interactions with the U.S. and the West. The “core issue” is no longer Kashmir but the nature of the Pakistani establishment. As for Mr. Holbrooke, if he helps bring about a fundamental change in American policy towards Pakistan, who knows, he might get lucky with the Nobel committee the eighth time around.