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Obama and the Special Envoy to Kashmir

Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • November 24, 2008

    The dust might have settled on the US Elections with Barack Obama ensuring a place in history as the first African American President to occupy the White House. The moot question now is whether the dust will begin to fly in South Asia as the new Administration begins to formulate new policies with regard to the region. It is also inevitable that existing policies would also be modified to bring them in synch with the substantially different worldview of the Democratic Party which has reclaimed the White House after eight years.

    Apprehensions have been expressed in various quarters in India as to whether this would result in regression in relations with the United States after the upward momentum witnessed over the course of the Bush Presidency and which was expected to continue if John McCain had been voted into power. Both these perceptions represent extremes based on rhetoric flowing out of the two campaigns, which, it is often forgotten, is primarily for domestic consumption and tailored to the needs of respective vote banks. Even though the intended audience is domestic, such rhetoric reverberates globally almost instantaneously over the Internet, and in the process is invariably distorted, magnified or suitably misinterpreted to suit the needs of media outlet disseminating the information. Fortunately, over the years, policymakers in India have wised up to this fact, and knee jerk reactions to media reports have become the exception rather than the norm.

    A case in point are the reports in the Indian media starting November 5 that made it seem as if Obama’s first thought after winning the elections was to appoint former president Bill Clinton as special envoy on Kashmir. As it turned out, Obama’s comments were made in the course of an interview with Time Magazine, which was not even carried in the print issue but posted on the Time magazine blog on October 22, 2008. The interview is unclear as to whether, while having lunch with the former President, he actually offered Clinton the position, or whether he discussed the issue generally.

    The record of Special Envoys appointed by various states and multilateral organisations to deal with a particular issue is less than stellar. The mechanism of the Special Envoy has largely been used by the United Nations either to focus attention on an issue of urgency as in the case of Darfur and Kosovo, or on longer-term issues such as AIDS and climate change. Through this mechanism, the United Nations is able to draw on the services of elder statesmen, or members of the UN bureaucracy, as the case may be, to represent it and to act as a focal point. More recently, Tony Blair was appointed as Special Envoy to the Middle East by the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers. While special envoys fill a vacuum in the case of multilateral organisations, their record as appointees of states is even less than stellar. The United States has Special Envoys on issues ranging from Sudan and Somalia to Anti-Semitism and Eurasian Energy. With the possible exception of the Special Envoy on Northern Ireland, none of the others could be said to have made a substantial contribution to resolving the issues at hand. Even India had appointed Dr. Karan Singh as Special Envoy to Nepal during the height of the problems there but he could play only a limited role.

    Pakistan was indeed a focal point of the campaign, with Obama taking the position that the situation in Afghanistan could be stabilised only if the safe havens provided by Pakistan in the tribal areas were made redundant. He was prepared to do this unilaterally if the Pakistanis did not provide sufficient co-operation. The Kashmir issue, as has been pointed elsewhere, has nothing to do with Afghanistan, except to provide an excuse for Pakistan for its non-cooperation with the United States and Afghanistan on clearing the Taliban from its territory. Presumably, Obama has responded to Pakistani whingeing with his proposal for appointing a special envoy on Kashmir in an effort to appear impartial.

    By considering the Pakistani argument that Kashmir and Afghanistan are linked, Obama is providing a loophole for Pakistanis to continue wringing their hands when it comes to acting decisively on clamping down on the terrorist and jihadi elements in their territory. The Pakistani proclivity to link unrelated issues has been seen before, for instance, on its insistence that the Kashmir issue be settled first before discussing trade on any other issue with India. This logjam was only broken when India stood firm on its position that Kashmir could only discussed along with a whole host of other issues within a composite dialogue framework.

    It is self-evident that the term “honest broker” has become an oxymoron in the current strategic environment, with a multiplicity of actors jockeying for influence and position. Furthermore, linking Kashmir with Afghanistan has the potential to undo all the good done by the Bush Administration in advancing India-US Relations. However, given that the United States is a significant actor in the region, and all three countries have common goals of eradicating the scourge of terrorism and stabilising the region, what could be encouraged is Track II engagement at the tripartite level to provide inputs at the official bilateral level.

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