Dealing With The Pakistan-India Impasse

16 November 2009
The News International
Dr Maleeha Lodhi

Islamabad: Those who hoped that the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent statement expressing his readiness to discuss all issues with Pakistan would presage an end to the persisting diplomatic impasse were bound to be disappointed. Mr Singh actually said little that was new. During his visit to Srinagar on October 26, he said he was not setting pre-conditions but the 'practical aspect' was that talks would not make headway unless Pakistan took effective action against terrorism. His readiness for talks was, therefore, placed squarely in the context of Pakistan being able to create an 'atmosphere that is fruitful for negotiations'. This pronouncement was neither accompanied nor followed by any move by Delhi to re-engage Islamabad in a dialogue. Quite the contrary. Delhi declined to respond to the 'road map' for resuming talks that Pakistan had conveyed to Indian officials on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) session in New York. It is quite customary for Indian leaders visiting the troubled valley to talk peace. The timing of Prime Minister Singh's remarks provides an even better indication of his intent. His peace rhetoric coincided with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Pakistan. The remarks also came ahead of his upcoming visit to Washington - the first state visit of the Obama presidency. Thus one aim could have been to preclude the possibility of the US injecting itself into the Pakistan-India equation on Kashmir. Far from foreshadowing any resumption of the Pakistan-India dialogue, suspended since the Mumbai terrorist attack a year ago, Prime Minister Singh's statement signalled more of the same, albeit calibrated in a way that prompted Islamabad to welcome it. In actual fact, his government has rebuffed repeated Pakistani offers to restart formal dialogue. In New York, when the foreign ministers of the two countries met in September, Pakistan proposed that the foreign secretaries should meet between September and November to pave the way for the resumption of the composite dialogue that could be announced at the Port of Spain during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Not only did this proposal not fly, but Delhi also said no to the idea - encouraged by Washington and London - of renewing the backchannel. The UNGA meeting between foreign ministers Shah Mahmud Qureshi and S M Krishna failed to break the deadlock and turned into a restatement of positions by both sides. India insisted on Pakistan taking decisive action on the Mumbai attackers before the start of any dialogue; Pakistan called for the unconditional resumption of the composite dialogue process even as it reassured Delhi of its commitment to deal with the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. India rejected Pakistan's argument that the peace process should not become a hostage to acts of terrorism. Indian officials also questioned the utility of the composite dialogue - the broad gauge structure of Pakistan-India diplomatic engagement since this framework was drawn up in 1997 - indicating that they now envisaged future talks to be recast around the issue of terrorism. This notion of a selected and fragmented dialogue has only deepened the impasse. The possibility of any summit level meeting - like that in Sharm-el Sheikh - being able to overcome this impasse, is now ruled out. Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani is not even attending CHOGM, a decision dictated by domestic political considerations. Even if the foreign ministers meet during CHOGM, this is unlikely to be a game changer. Bilateral exchanges have now been reduced to encounters on the sidelines of multilateral conferences. Efforts by Pakistani officials to invite the Indian Foreign Secretary, Nirupuma Rao to Islamabad for 'talks about talks' have also come to naught. The question now is whether the US-led international community can encourage India to modify its no-talks posture. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the White House on November 24 offers an opportunity to the Obama administration to play a role on an issue that impinges directly on its regional goals, especially at a time when Washington is about to roll out its new strategy. When Hillary Clinton visited Islamabad last month, she heard a clear message from her Pakistani interlocutors about the need for the US to engage with issues that are at the heart of Pakistan-India tensions: Kashmir, India's escalating arms build-up, Delhi's provocative 'cold start' military doctrine, and the water issue. The same message was also conveyed to the American National Security Advisor General James Jones. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama had repeatedly spoken about the importance of devoting 'serious diplomatic resources' to resolve the Kashmir crisis as a way of stabilising the region to enable Pakistan to focus on its western frontier. But faced with vigorous Indian opposition, his administration backed away from the idea of a special envoy that Obama had himself floated, once even mentioning Bill Clinton for this role. Indian opposition also served to circumscribe Richard Holbrooke's mandate with the India-Pakistan equation excluded from his formal brief. Twice in the recent past, his efforts to even visit Delhi have been rebuffed on one pretext or another. The Obama administration would do well to heed the counsel contained in a remarkable and richly researched new book, written by an experienced American diplomat, Howard B. Schaffer. Titled The Limits of Influence: America's role in Kashmir, the book comprehensively charts the history of efforts made by the parties to the dispute and the US to resolve Kashmir. Howard Schaffer served in both Pakistan and India during the 70s and twice as deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for South Asian affairs. While disagreeing with his prescription for a settlement - which can only emerge from a peace process that includes Kashmiri representatives - his conclusion that the time may be ripe for a fresh effort to resolve the Kashmir dispute, is one that one fully concurs with. Schaffer's book offers an absorbing account of Washington's efforts over three generations to engage with the Kashmir issue, written from an American perspective. He details the major high-level initiative undertaken by President John F. Kennedy, in the wake of the Sino-India war in 1962, to promote talks on Kashmir - the famous Zulfikar Ali Bhutto-Swaran Singh negotiations of 1963. The failure of these negotiations persuaded the US to disengage. Consequently 'Washington lost its appetite for intervention'. While subsequent American administrations saw Kashmir as a danger to regional peace and a major complication in US relations with India and Pakistan, over the next 15 years Washington adopted a hands-off approach. After the Kashmir uprising began against Indian occupation in 1989, American engagement took the form of crisis diffusion, with an aversion to play the role of peace builder. Schaffer argues persuasively why this should now change. Today 'the US enjoys stronger ties to both India and Pakistan than ever before'. Even though he counsels an 'unintrusive' US role, he urges the Obama administration to take a more active approach to Kashmir. Among the reasons he cites as arguing for an enhanced US role are: vastly improved relations between Washington and Delhi, the unresolved Kashmir issue acting as an impediment to India's prospects for gaining a seat at the international high table, and the fact that a Kashmir settlement has become even more important to American interests in South Asia and beyond. With Washington's stakes having substantially changed since the last time it tried to seriously engage with the Kashmir dispute in 1962, the Obama administration, Schaffer says, may well be able to give the Kashmiris, Indians and Pakistanis the ability to get across the 'elusive finish line' they have never reached on their own. These recommendations are valuable ones for the Obama team to review as the White House prepares to receive Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later this month. The Bush administration squandered an opportunity to push a Kashmir settlement when it was negotiating the nuclear deal with India. The Obama White House should not pass up another opportunity to help secure a durable peace in South Asia.