Can Kashmir rescue Obama?

Carter became a one-term president and Obama’s chances are not looking any brighter at the moment. –Photo by AFP
According to the Times of India, President Obama wants India to resolve the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan to strengthen Delhi’s case for Security Council membership.

The news item on Wednesday projected the Himalayan standoff as an obstacle to India’s quest for big-power status. On the face of it, to Kashmiris it might look like a juicy carrot to dangle in front of New Delhi but is it going to work?

The report bases its insights on Obama’s thinking in Bob Woodward’s latest book Obama’s War in which top US policymakers are shown probing ways to defuse the Kashmir situation as part of an exit strategy for the US from the Af-Pak theatre.

“Why can’t we have straightforward talks with India on why a stable Pakistan is crucial?” Obama is reported as musing at one meeting. “India is moving toward a higher place in its global posture. A stable Pakistan would help.” Implicit in the fulminations is the idea that settling Kashmir would mollify Pakistan, where, US officials say, hard-liners are using the unresolved issue as an excuse “to breed an army of terrorists” aimed at bleeding India.

One option was shelved after Gen Musharraf’s exit from power in Pakistan. The new proposals in the pipeline may not be based on what the Kashmiri Intifada desires (after its slogans for azadi have resolved the confusing signals with regard to an Islamic or secular future) but on expediencies that suit world powers and are unrelated to the turmoil in the Valley.

The US effort here resembles a South Asian version of the Camp David accord, which left the Palestinians high and dry, but brought a key Arab opponent of Israel into a stage-managed embrace of the Jewish state.

It seems to matter less that the fate of occupied Palestine has remained hopelessly unresolved since Egyptian President Sadat’s unintelligent visit to Jerusalem in 1977 to embrace the right-wing Israeli premier Begin. So who will play Sadat in Pakistan and Begin in India?

Persisting with the Intifada imagery, who is going to play Kashmir’s Arafat in the Begin-Sadat scenario? For whoever it is will be coerced into endorsing a potentially unpopular accord and pummelled into submitting to the ubiquitous “international community’s will” till he loses credibility with his own people.

Since the Kashmiri resistance before the current uprising was believed to be largely bankrolled by Pakistan and in some cases infiltrated by Indian agencies, there was little hope of finding a secular liberal leadership like the one provided in the case of Palestine by George Habbash and Nayef Hathmeh.

In Kashmir there was never room for someone like the spectacular Laila Khaled who represented a radical, but secular resistance. It has instead got a bunch of loosely allied resistance movements that range from wishy-washy secular to the obscurantist Asiya Andarabi who peers out of her veil through peepholes and makes for a mediaeval variant of the legendary Palestinian daredevil.

When the author of the Camp David accords, President Carter, visited India in 1978, the Cold War was at its height and his mission was to secure Delhi firmly in the western camp. Kashmir was on one of its periodic back burners. In fact it was so firmly off everyone’s agenda that Gen Zia presented the then short-lived prime minister of India with Islamabad’s highest civilian award.

With a pliant Indian government in which an ardently pro-American Atal Behari Vajpayee was foreign minister there was hope in Washington of a diplomatic coup. The effort came to grief with the premature exit of the pro-Washington coalition in Delhi.

Something worse happened for American policy in the region. At Carter’s behest Prime Minister Desai, even in his short-lived innings, went out of his way to host the besieged Shah of Iran in Delhi. The visit by the self-declared Arya-Meher turned out to be his last formal reception anywhere. He was soon dethroned only to become an international pariah. It is curious that Iran and Palestine were Carter’s main foreign policy initiatives and both ended in disaster.

The American hostage crisis in Tehran, for example, was deepened by a fateful accident in Iran’s Dasht-i-Lut desert between two secret American aircraft ordered there to ostensibly rescue the hostages. The disaster spurred Ronald Reagan’s challenge to Carter’s second-term bid. It hardly seems like a coincidence that Obama’s high-stakes involvement in a Middle East peace bid accompanies a seriously bad equation with Iran. Carter became a one-term president and Obama’s chances are not looking any brighter at the moment.

Possibly the strangest irony that links the Carter visit to South Asia with Obama’s proposed arrival in Delhi in November is the fact that both democrats complete a circle in Afghanistan. It was during Carter’s presidency that Soviet troops drove into Kabul, prompting US national security adviser Brzezinski to see it as Moscow’s Vietnam. Washington was even then haggling over the price tag for Pakistan’s army to undertake Washington’s war in Afghanistan. Carter had initially offered $400m dollars. Zia described it as peanuts. That dialogue today is eerily similar.

That the war that Carter began is being sought to be wound up by Obama in an inexplicable hurry, in both instances with the crucial involvement of Pakistan, will not be lost on the voters as when the incumbent president puts his cap in the ring for a second term.

In a strange way, this could be the single most important factor to influence the course for Kashmir. It is sadly not the determined stone-pelters who would win the round in spite of the sacrifices that have gone into their militant campaign.

If Palestinians ever get justice it would not be without the international support they evoke against Israel’s injustices, including most of all from non-Arab countries like Iran, Venezuela and now perhaps Turkey. What is the Kashmiri equivalent, other than a potential Sadat being readied to sell them down the river?

The tactics of stone-pelters evokes sympathy and sometimes international condemnation of their tormentors, but if Israel is any example to go by, no occupying force is deterred by mere condemnation. Kashmiris might want to learn from those that have overthrown powerful adversaries in Iran, Vietnam, Cuba and Afghanistan.

Alliance against a range of injustices outside Kashmir’s immediate ambit would win it badly needed international solidarity, not mere lip service from double-dealing Muslim countries. The question is not whether Obama can bring succour to Kashmir. The point to ponder is: will Kashmir be used to bail out Obama in Afghanistan and in his own country?

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.