Not easy, this friendship


There are apprehensions that New Delhi may be manipulated on the Kashmir issue and forced to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the American war

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi, Hardnews

On a sunny, but exceedingly cold Washington afternoon, Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. This minor statistic does not reveal the important fact that he is the first African-American president with a Muslim middle name and a surname that sounds similar to that of America's enemy number one: Osama.

His birth, religion and colour may be an issue with countries, communities and people whose perceptions are contingent on these factors, but for multi-ethnic, differently-hued and religiously diverse India, President Barack Obama's inauguration is fraught with fears and huge expectations.

Recent opinion polls show that Obama is generally viewed favourably in India. It is, however, clear that the pollsters did not speak with the country's strategic and foreign policy establishment that is disturbed by some of his remarks about Kashmir during the run up to the November 4 elections. In an interview to Time magazine, Obama had said that Kashmir is a place he wanted to "devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach".  Selig S Harrison, director of the Asia programme at the Center for International Policy, in his article in The Washington Times, had pointed out that a Kashmir initiative by America, -- however "veiled" -- can undermine improving Indo-US ties. In the reckoning of Harrison, Obama had made the first big foreign policy mistake.

The Mumbai terror attack and its wall to wall coverage in the US and other parts of the world apparently changed Obama's perceptions about India and its protracted problems with terror. After the Mumbai carnage and the cold Indian response to Obama's proposal, the new administration chose to appoint an envoy only for Afghanistan and Pakistan. India was de-coupled, for the time being. It chose to put on hold suggestions put together by a group led by General David Petraeus that had experts like the Pakistani author, Ahmed Rashid. This group had suggested the importance of Kashmir if  Afghanistan had to be stabilised.

Rashid, an authority on Taliban and Pakistan's troubled frontier, has not been intellectually challenged by the Indian strategic establishment. While the transitional regime in the US chose to sympathise with India, the government of Britain gave no such relief. It basically built its argument based on the writings of authors like Paul Cruickshank in The Guardian who said that the Mumbai attack "was carried out by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Kashmiri group".  Cruickshank comes to the conclusion that the "key here is Kashmir, a conflict relatively neglected by Washington".

The issue has been perceptively highlighted by strategic affairs expert, Ramtanu Maitra, in a recent article: "The fact remains that the LeT was created by the Pakistani ISI in the 1980s, it is not a Kashmiri group, it is active not only in India, but in Chechnya, Sudan and Britain." He adds that there is hardly a Kashmiri in the LeT. Most of them are Pakistanis from Punjab and the tribal areas, with a smattering of British Muslims.

British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, too, harped on the Kashmir link

to terror, much to New Delhi's discomfort. So upset was the government with Miliband that they fielded their official spokesman to trash his declamation even while he was trying to understand the ‘joys' of living in a poor woman's thatched hut in a UP village.

Obama, to his credit, has ignored the British point of view and demanded that the Pakistan government should act on the evidence provided by the Indian government. He has told Pakistan that future development aid would be linked to its efforts to fight terror. In the short term, though, Obama's concern remains centred around Afghanistan. During his earlier trip to Kabul, he had promised to bring greater energy to stabilise the (Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region which is the epicenter of global terror. His belief was that if Pakistan could be assured that there was no threat from India then it could push more of their troops against the Taliban and Al Qaida.

The Mumbai attack and the consequent posturing on both sides of the border has given an opportunity to Pakistan's military leadership to move its troops from the Afghan border and position them against India. This is clearly an attempt to blackmail the US into accepting some of its demands. And that, unhappily for India, means US intervention in sorting out the Kashmir issue. India is extremely wary of such a move and is trying to ascertain how US policy would unfold in the coming days. There are apprehensions that New Delhi may be manipulated on the Kashmir issue and forced to send troops to Afghanistan to fight the American war.

Indications of this line of thinking are available at different levels. There are some subtle formulations that are floating in the strategic and academic community. Robert Kaplan, the extremely erudite travel historian and columnist of The Atlantic Monthly, has begun to articulate a point of view that sees India, Pakistan and Afghanistan interlocked with the middle-east. He also selectively invokes history to

prove that the Mughal empire stretched from Kabul to north and central India and it was only in the Deccan that the Mughals found resistance from Hindu kings. His submission is that globalisation is re-shaping religious identities and reinterpreting histories and there was a need to find a regional solution to the problem and not isolated answers. This view finds consonance in Obama's inaugural speech plus the endorsement speech of the US National Intelligence Agency head. Both of them spoke of finding a regional approach.

The Indian government has been hoping that Obama's new fangled ideas will be tempered by the realisation that the US has signed a monumental civilian nuclear deal and his administration would do nothing to destabilise this relationship. However, New Delhi believes that Obama's administration could pitch very strongly for Indian military presence in Afghanistan. This would be offered as an insurance against future terror attacks as well as a ‘hands off' policy on Kashmir. Some of the proposed benefits of having about 1,00,000 Indian troops in Afghanistan are the following:

The pressure on India's western front will reduce drastically.
India would enjoy the backing of Russia and China who would like this region to be tamed.
India can dry up the faucet that brings cash for Pakistan.
It can help in stabilising Pakistan internally.
It can lessen western reliance on an unstable Pakistan.

There are more reasons that are being offered to India to help make up its mind; but New Delhi knows that it is in no position to bail out a cash-strapped USA. To caliberate its policy towards Pakistan, which is in financial doldrums, India would have to be cognizant of the impact economic meltdown is having on US foreign policy. Israel probably knew this when it carpet bombed Gaza. India, too, needs to understand what will serve its national interest rather than respond unambiguously to a financially racked US or United Kingdom. It should see global slowdown as an opportunity to refresh its foreign policy as well as world-view, unencumbered by its colonial past or seductive promises of being a strategic partner of a country panting under a gargantuan debt.