Peace in South Asia: US factor

Published in Daily Times on February 2, 2004

It goes to the credit of the Pakistan leadership that it has swallowed its pride in the larger interest of the country and hopefully in the interest of the Kashmiris. It deserves support

Can the US mediate in the peace process between Pakistan and India? Instances of mediation are in fact uncommon in diplomatic history, and more often than not have involved minor issues between small powers that can be easily imposed upon.

Contentious disputes involving sizeable powers, and entangled with larger issues such as religion, nationalism, survival or hegemony, do not submit easily to outside influence, much less mediation. Nonetheless big powers cannot remain immune from the disputes’ impact on the international order or on their own national interests. Hence, they keep drifting between a studied distance from the dispute and quiet diplomacy whose essential purpose is fire-fighting and damage control.

In the 1950s and 1960s — the height of the Cold War — the US could not play a role in the Kashmir dispute because it had little influence over India, a Soviet ally. Then the American approach to South Asia changed, and for much of the time Pakistan suffered either from benign neglect or punitive treatment except during the Afghanistan conflict, in the dying days of the Cold War and now during the war on terrorism when Pakistan was, and is being, well compensated.

During the Afghanistan conflict, the US had the following options to choose from to compensate Pakistan: give economic aid, much needed by a profligate country, traditionally misruled by a rapacious elite, and some genuinely needed security assistance; lend legitimacy and strength to an isolated and struggling regime; and lastly, help in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. The US did what it could do easily; provided help in the first two categories, and only paid lip service to the Kashmir dispute, at no expense to its relations with India.

But things are different now. South Asia presents new dangers and incentives. It is a far more dangerous place, a threat to itself, and the world, especially US security. At the same time, with the growth of globalisation, the region offers attractive economic opportunities specially as a potential integrated market and has also acquired a new strategic value. It thus compels attention and engagement.

Curiously, September 11 has not only increased the region’s importance but also its dependence on the US. Ironically, both India and Pakistan have gained as well as lost from this tragedy and look to US ties for enhancing their gains and recovering their losses. Terrorism has revived Pakistan as a US ally, to become once again a ‘front-line state’, something which India sees as a loss. But this new status has not come without a cost as Pakistan now has diminished leverage in the Kashmir resistance, which has been a big gain for India. India has agreed to talks which may be a plus for Pakistan, but we may have to negotiate from a weakened position now. And finally, the issue of terrorism may have helped India gain international support on Kashmir but the flip side is it has also led to US awareness that something needs to be done about the dispute.

Apparently the US began realising, about two years ago, following the massing of a million troops on the borders of India and Pakistan, that the totality of its current and future interests in the region would not be served if the Kashmir dispute and the relations between India and Pakistan were not addressed.

The American concern about the Kashmir dispute is not so much on account of the merits of the issue as it is due to the fact that the extremism swirling around it destabilises the region; the tensions springing from the dispute lower the threshold for nuclear a war. This impacts, in the long-term, on the US strategic and economic interests with India, the more important of the two relationships, and in the short-term, adversely affects the campaign against terrorism, both within and beyond Pakistan.

The US thus needs both India and Pakistan to achieve its objectives and it cannot do so without their relations normalising. The need to play a more than perfunctory or damage-control role in the resolution of the Kashmir dispute is thus becoming ever more self evident to the US.

And India too recognises that in the interest of her own big power ambitions, in which the US can contribute enormously, it has to accommodate American interests. Tensions not only frustrate India’s ambitions but also impede its role, as perceived by the US, as a balancer to a resurgent China and as a future regional stabiliser that can throw its weight from the Gulf to East Asia.

This seems to be the broader strategic background — apart from domestic political considerations — that may have prompted India to change tack and induced a higher level of US interest in the Kashmir dispute. India, Pakistan and the US therefore have come to have interlocking interests.

Of course, India is happy that Pakistan would be approaching the talks with a weakened hand which gives her an opportunity to put Pakistan on hold and reach out to the Kashmiri resistance leaders who also feel that in effect India holds most of the cards. The connection with Pakistan has of course helped them but it can only go so far. The returns may now be diminishing.

It goes to the credit of the Pakistan leadership that it has swallowed its pride in the larger interest of the country and hopefully in the interest of the Kashmiris. It deserves support.

I hope India does not overplay its hand; the US engagement can help prevent that. Pakistan may have a narrow window of opportunity, as the US presidential election is coming up, which conceivably can change more than a president.

In the final analysis India and Pakistan have to make the journey towards peace on their own. The US can help but it cannot impose peace.

The writer is a former Ambassador