Obama’s Mumbai Problem

January 27, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Guardian (UK) on January 27, 2009.

One immediate consequence of last November’s Mumbai terror attacks was a further aggravation of India‐​Pakistan relations. Another may be the inability of President Barack Obama to promote a diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries over Kashmir, a step he deems critical for stabilising the situation in Afghanistan. Until a road map to resolve the Kashmir crisis is drafted, Obama says, the enmity between India and Pakistan will continue to play out in Afghanistan, an area long considered Pakistan’s strategic backyard. But the assault on Mumbai may have thrown the final wrench into the new president’s hopes to resolve the Kashmir issue.

After six decades of mutual hostility, three full‐​scale wars and numerous assaults on each other by proxy, relations between Islamabad and New Delhi are once again at sword’s point. Indian officials have long distrusted Pakistan. Pakistan uses its disputed territory of Azad Kashmir to house training camps for militants slipping into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir to attack Indian troops. In the past, Pakistan has led Indian officials to believe that they were entering discussions on Kashmir in good faith, while at the same time infusing Indian‐​held Kashmir with trained guerillas in 1947, again in 1965 and later with Pakistani troops in 1999.

On the other side, Pakistan’s national security strategy is still driven by its perceived existential threat from India. This fear has been exacerbated the latter’s rising influence across the border inside Afghanistan.

Over the past several years, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has introduced an increasingly pro‐​India policy stance within the Afghan government. He has sent Afghan officers to train in India, and soon, according to local news reports, he will allow the Indian Army to train Afghan troops inside Afghanistan in counterinsurgency operations. India is also the largest regional donor of aid to Afghanistan, giving $750m to the war‐​ravaged country since 2001 and pledging another $450m just last August.

Because India has proven a vital partner for Afghanistan, and US cooperation with Pakistan is critical for the success of its mission in Afghanistan, US policymakers do not have the luxury of choosing sides in this regional dispute. The growing tension between the two nuclear‐​armed powers has motivated their intelligence arms to turn the region into a proxy war zone.

In addition to the apparent connection between Pakistan’s national intelligence agency, Inter‐​Services Intelligence (ISI), and the Mumbai terror attacks, US intelligence officials allege that elements of the ISI also provided support to pro‐​Taliban insurgents responsible for the 7 July bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

Pakistani officials claim India’s external intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing, uses Indian consulates in Afghanistan to secretly funnel weapons to separatists in Pakistan’s restive region of Balochistan, and may have even had a hand in the 20 September bombing of the Islamabad Marriot Hotel.

If Pakistan’s ISI was indeed behind the Mumbai attacks, it demonstrates the tenuous influence that the country’s civilian leaders have over policy towards India. After all, for 38 of the country’s 61 years, Pakistan has been ruled directly by its military. As a result, the army and ISI have grown into parallel governing institutions. Today, the ISI’s rogue behaviour has compromised not only the desire of Pakistani civilian leaders for peace within the region, but New Delhi’s ability to secure a consistent policy from Islamabad on Kashmir.

Like America’s efforts to broker a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, attempts to temper Indo‐​Pakistan relations have been disrupted by each side’s inability to rein in the more intractable elements of their political structures. As in the Middle East, militants in South Asia have successfully subverted any progress towards peace accomplished so far.

If Obama decides to proceed with his diplomatic push by injecting the Kashmir issue into the Afghan morass, he must not allow hawkish elements within Pakistan’s security and intelligence forces to derail substantive dialogue. In addition, the recent appointment of Richard Holbrooke as US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, with the intentional exclusion of India, is pragmatic because it takes into consideration India’s resistance of internationalising the Kashmir dispute. Leaving India off of Holbrooke’s official envoy duties may enhance up his ability to talk with New Delhi on a very delicate subject.

President Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton must work to resolve both countries’ festering suspicions of the other. This will necessarily include trying to soothe Pakistani fears of Indian hegemony. Previous US presidents, such as Truman and Eisenhower, unsuccessfully tried to broker lasting peace between the two countries. After Mumbai, the probability of success of a fresh attempt by Obama just got that much smaller.

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