Tuesday, January 6, 2009


President-elect Barack Obama has made his first big foreign-policy mistake - pledging U.S. intervention in the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

While the Kashmir issue “is obviously a tar pit diplomatically,” he announced, one of the “critical tasks” for his administration will be “to get a special envoy in there to figure out a plausible approach.”

Mr. Obama not only will confront bitter opposition to U.S. intervention from India, which occupies the prized Kashmir Valley, but also will face resistance from Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari.

The rationale for intervention is that fear of India requires Pakistan to strengthen its western front in Afghanistan by supporting the Taliban. But the reason for Pakistani support of the Taliban and jihadi forces in Kashmir is that its military and intelligence agencies are riddled with Islamists.

By questioning Indian control of the Kashmir Valley, the United States would strengthen jihadi forces in both Islamabad and Srinagar, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. More importantly, it would undermine improving U.S.-India relations. What Washington should do instead is support Mr. Zardari’s strategy for peace with India.

In the months before the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November, Mr. Zardari launched promising negotiations on trade and economic cooperation with New Delhi. Now he wants Washington to push for a resumption of the dialogue. Hard-liners and jihadi leaders in Islamabad who are opposed to Mr. Zardari have been outraged by his repeated statements that Kashmir should be set aside, just as India and China temporarily shelved their border dispute so as to pursue economic ties.

The appointment of a high-level regional envoy in South Asia to promote cooperation among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan in combating al Qaeda and its allies would be desirable in the aftermath of Mumbai. But Kashmir indeed would be a tar pit for such an envoy. A U.S. Kashmir initiative, however veiled, would poison relations between New Delhi and Washington.

As previous presidents who have toyed with intervention, Mr. Obama will learn, if he persists, that Kashmir is not a territorial issue. India argues that its retention of a Muslim-majority Kashmir is necessary to preserve India’s character as a secular state in which 160 million Muslims coexist uneasily with a Hindu majority.

Conversely, until Mr. Zardari became president, Pakistan gave Kashmir top priority to vindicate its creation as an Islamic state and its rejection of secularism.

To be sure, the United States should encourage both India and Pakistan to give greater autonomy to the Kashmiris under their jurisdiction and should promote intra-Kashmir trade as part of the broader economic union that Mr. Zardari wants. But the Line of Control that divides Indian- and Pakistani-held portions of Kashmir should be treated as a de facto international boundary.

Mr. Zardari often has been dismissed as a playboy incapable of coping with mounting economic and political problems. Only nine months after his People’s Party won Pakistan’s first free elections in a decade, his enemies have been whispering that a return to military rule will become inevitable.

But he deserves strong support for his courage in challenging the anti-Indian orthodoxy espoused by previous Pakistani leaders and by much of the current Pakistani bureaucratic and military establishment.

Mr. Zardari told the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 4 that India and Pakistan should open trade as the first step toward broader economic cooperation. India has “never been a threat to Pakistan,” he said, and the Muslim insurgents fighting Indian rule in Kashmir are “terrorists.”

Mr. Zardari said in an interview with the Financial Times on Nov. 24, two days before Mumbai, that “I can assure you that Pakistan will not use nuclear weapons first against India.”

This casual declaration was an astonishing reversal of Pakistan’s long-standing policy of calculated ambiguity on the first use of nuclear weapons and appears to have been made without consulting the military.

The economic opening to India that Mr. Zardari advocates has become increasingly important for Pakistan’s economic survival. But hard-liners in Islamabad warn that such a move would lead to Pakistan’s domination by an economically more advanced India with a growth rate surpassing 9 percent.

But this economic isolationism has required imports from faraway places that would be much cheaper from next-door India and has denied many Pakistani industries lucrative export markets in India. Mr. Zardari envisages a massive expansion of Pakistani cement and textile production to meet burgeoning Indian needs.

In the first two years after the 1947 partition of British India, 32 percent of Pakistan’s imports came from India and 56 percent of its exports went there. Two-way trade has dropped steadily to below $700 million last year, but expert estimates suggest a rapid increase to at least $14 billion annually if trade is liberalized.

To move toward an economic union, Mr. Zardari wants India to make the first move by removing non-tariff procedural barriers that block Pakistani exports of textile products and raw cotton. But his most formidable obstacle is the opposition of Pakistani generals to a relaxation of tensions that would remove the rationale for the big defense budgets that undermine Pakistan’s economic stability.

Selig S. Harrison covered India and Pakistan as a journalist beginning in 1951 and is the author of “India: The Most Dangerous Decades” and four other books on South Asia. He is the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

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