Cario to Kashmir

I was waiting for the Barack Obama Cairo speech. So were millions across the globe. It was a speech ‘sought to define’ relations between the United States and Muslims all over the world. He has been making his intention clear throughout all these months that he wanted to end the cycle of suspicion and mistrust between the United States and the Muslims.

It was a great delight to listen to the speech. It was a narrative on Islamic history. It was a discourse on relations among Muslims, Christians and Jews. He talked about three great faiths that have shaped the world through centuries. In the words of Robert Fisk, “ He was a preacher, historian, economist, moralist, schoolteacher, critic, warrior, emperor. Sometimes you even forgot Barack Obama was the president of the United States of America.” He set the tone of respect from the opening lines – starting with “As-Salaamu- Aleikum trigging applause from the crowd in the hall of centuries old Cairo University. He addressed Muslim sensibilities and reminded the Muslims of their great and magnificent past, and of their immense contribution to the history of mankind – a chapter that most of the Muslim leaders have forgotten.

Every word of his 6053-word speech was measured and pregnant with message for the Muslim World. Many have described his speech as ‘clever’ and have started reading a lot into his not including ‘the lethal word terror’ in his long speech. One columnist compared it to Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and yet another saw in his speech Churchill wisdom.

Scores of columns have been written during the past three days about his speech. The political analysts, subject specialist and political leaders have been looking for the impact and implications of his speech. The political analysts have counted “buts” in his speech, they have counted the number of “applauses” that he triggered from the selected audience – the Middle East experts have been analyzing every word of his speech. He talked almost about all important issues concerning the Muslim World: Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, women’s rights in some Muslim countries, and problems confronting the Muslim world. He very subtly talked about status of democracy in some Muslim countries. But Kashmir was significantly missing from his speech.

To those who have been tracking Barack Obama from his days when he started campaigning for the highest office, missing Kashmir in his speech ostensibly seems to be a departure. A former Pakistan Ambassador to United States and United Kingdom Maleeh Lodhi sees this as a “significant omission”. Former Pakistan Journalist and Chairman of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Mushahid Hussein called it the same. There has not been much jubilation in New Delhi over “Kashmir” missing from the Cairo speech that often remained part of the text of Barack Obama as an important conflict that deserved resolution during his campaign. If one takes M. J. Akbar’s Sunday Column in the Times of India (June 7, 2009) as the pulse of New Delhi, the worry about Obama’s concern over Kashmir shows seething corridors of power in Indian capital. Akbar writes, “A turbulent whisper is surging through Washington. Barack Obama wants peace in the life of his first term. He has discovered the magic potion that will kill the roots of two poisonous plants, Palestine and Kashmir. He has told Israel that he wants a definite route towards an independent Palestine state by July. July is also the month during which Hillary Clinton is scheduled to visit the Indian subcontinent. In her baggage will be a war manual for Af-Pak and a peace prescription for Ind-PaK.”

Kashmir was recognized as a key word in Obama’s policy on South-Asia during his election campaign. In their joint article titled “From Great Gamble to Grand Bargain- Ending Chaos in Afghanistan and Pakistan, published in Foreign Affairs November –December 2008 Barnett R. Rubbin and Ahmed Rashid had seen the path to peace in South-Asia through Kashmir. The K-word in fact had become synonymous for Peace in Afghanistan-India-Pakistan for the Obama policy in the region. The 2nd November 2008 statement made by the then US presidential front-runner Barack Obama that the United States should try to resolve the Kashmir dispute, while backing American efforts to promote a better understanding between India and Pakistan was welcomed by Kashmir leaders.

In his interview with MSNBC, Barack Obama had said that the US should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants. In another interview on Sept 25, Mr Obama had said that if elected president, he would “continue support of ongoing Indian Pakistani efforts to resolve Kashmir problem…to address the political roots of the arms race between India and Pakistan.” The remarks of Obama had stirred hopes that he would be playing a pro-active role for the resolution of Kashmir and ending strains in the relation of two key South Asian players India and Pakistan. The statement had generated optimism and hope about ending of political uncertainty in Kashmir. In its editorial, a newspaper commented, “The long unresolved issue of Kashmir between Islamabad and New Delhi, got a stirring on the global map once again after US presidential front-runner Barack Obama drew world attention at the end of his campaign to reach the White House when, during an interview, he emphatically stressed the need for the United States to try afresh to resolve the valley dispute for a lasting global peace and to secure America from a potential threat from Muslim militancy.

 Obama’s observation that the Kashmir conflict leads to promote militancy among Muslim of South Asia, which usually works against the US, clearly implies that he wants peace in our region to ensure that by having so, the US would also feel secure. He seems quite determined to carry out his plan.

There can be no denying that New Delhi successfully lobbied to get Kashmir deleted from the brief of Richard Holbrook envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a different story than when the US envoy to the region did talk about Kashmir during his visit to New Delhi. The question arises, can omission of Kashmir from Barrack Obama’s speech in Cairo also be seen as success of Indian lobbying and failure of Pakistan Foreign office?

It would be too naïve to look at the omission of Kashmir from his speech as a paradigm shift in US policy towards this issue that continues to be a nuclear flashpoint in the region. It continues to be cause of arms race between the hostile neighbors. If the story published in the Washington Post just days back is to be believed, the two countries are engaged in producing nuclear head carriers, it should be a cause of concern in Washington.

Seen in the right perspective, the Cairo speech was targeted at Middle East audience. As very aptly observed by an American South Asia expert, “Well, the speech itself was directed at the Arab Muslim I would say for the most part. That’s why he spoke so much about Israel and Palestine. A majority of the problems from a security point of view, whether it is the Middle East or al Qaeda, is more with the Arab and not the South Asian. The main point is that his audience was Arab. Speaking to them about South Asia and the plight of South Asian Muslims will not resonate. They don’t pay attention. Their attention is focused on Israel and issues within the region. So for him to speak about India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the Taliban, etc.. His audience will lose interest. He mentioned Afghanistan, but only with regards to the reasoning of why the US Military is there, which is 9/11. The perpetrators were Arabs, which is a significant point to be made. The majority of militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan are not South Asians. They are either from the Caucus States or they are Arab. It’s a fact that is well known.
Doesn’t mean that what is going on in South Asia, or the plight of the South Asian Muslim isn’t important, but it’s not his audience.”

I don’t read much in his omission of Kashmir. The United States in its history has never looked at the issues confronting South Asia as issues concerning the Muslim World but a separate entity and a different subject. Historically, the United States never looked at Pakistan or for that matter Bangladesh as part of the Muslim World but as important players in South Asia.

I don’t agree with what M.J. Akbar has written in his Sunday piece about the Kashmir dispute, but I have no reason to disagree with him that US will be focusing on Kashmir in the coming months.