The last few weeks didn’t go so smooth for Richard Holbrooke.
Nearly a week after a Taliban attack in Kabul left six Indians dead, among others, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan unexpectedly cautioned, "I don’t accept the fact that this was an attack on an Indian facility like the embassy. There were foreigners, non-Indian foreigners hurt."
New Delhi issued a quick rebuke, calling his statements “inaccurate” and “unhelpful.” Confusing too, considering the Taliban reportedly shot up and then bombed guest houses frequented by Indian workers. Holbrooke tried to clarify his statements by excusing himself under the fog of war.
But he wasn’t finished being “misquoted.” Lying low isn’t in Holbrooke’s nature, illuminated by his disappearance during President Obama’s lengthy review on Afghanistan. He had spent an inordinate amount of his time in Washington explaining that he wasn’t being sidelined for jarring with President Karzai.
The same day as provoking India’s ire, Holbrooke sparked another dispute by seemingly equating all Pashtuns as Taliban.
Claiming to be taken out of context as he explained US policy on Taliban reconciliation, his office later issued the exact quote: “There are plenty of indirect contacts between Pashtun on both sides - almost every Pashtun family in the south has family or friends who are involved with the Taliban - it’s in the fabric of society.”
Whether these controversies will be forgotten is unlikely. Both India and Afghanistan went beyond calling Holbrooke’s knowledge and sensitivity into question by citing his pattern of behavior. Now Karzai and Holbrooke clearly don’t get along, but shouldn’t India go easy on its yes man? India’s reaction to this one misstep reveals how much it has grown accustomed to getting its way with America.
Holbrooke’s flare-ups didn’t block out what is and should be treated as a greater controversy. No, Kashmir has been blacked out in plain sight.
It's believed that Holbrooke was initially slated as Obama’s envoy to Kashmir, a job that appears more suitable to his position as a negotiator. Holbrooke ended up a diplomat in Afghanistan, not the ideal role with his rough demeanor. Kashmir was the place where he needed to knock a few heads, not Pakistan where America is widely reviled, but India instantly vetoed the appointment and the White House went silent.
All it will tell you now is that it won’t tell you, anything - and you’re wrong. Responding to a question at Harvard that “the road to Kabul runs through Kashmir,” Holbrooke responded with “the opposite conclusion.”
“I don’t even mention the K word.”
Avoiding the topic and the word itself since being appointed, Holbrooke had elaborated two days earlier, “In order to understand America's policy and America's policy dilemma, one has to understand that both India and Pakistan have legitimate security interests in the region. And I'm not talking about that certain area between them which I'm not going to mention by name...because I am not going to get involved in that.”
"And people who have advocated that are making a proposal which I believe runs counter to stability in Afghanistan,” he continued. “Afghanistan must be dealt with on its merits.”
This is a man who frequently goes out of his way to tell you he won’t talk about Kashmir. A man who instructs you to understand regional security interests then ignores them, or lies, or contradicts himself to protect America’s relationship with India. Fresh on New Delhi’s radar, Holbrooke attempted to make up by impressing upon his audience that the U.S. government has no thoughts of mediating Kashmir.
But it’s one thing to say America should stay out of potential negotiations, that India doesn’t want to be hectored by America (as Holbrooke says), or even that Kashmir is India’s domestic concern.
It’s an entirely different argument to believe the conflict isn’t connected to Afghanistan, to claim that linking Afghanistan to Kashmir “would make both issues more difficult,” and to subtly discredit those who do.
The reason U.S. engagement in Kashmir would lead to complications is because America needs India in Afghanistan, to buffer China, and to keep pace with Russia’s growing influence in New Delhi - not because the two conflicts aren’t connected. America’s refusal to accept Kashmir as an international dispute has nothing to do with regional peace.
Self interest is real, except Holbrooke is playing rhetorical games, acting as if those who connect Kashmir and Afghanistan believe peace in one automatically stabilizes the other.
Such is not the assumption. These theorists are well aware, as is Holbrooke, that America created an independent conflict in Afghanistan that requires its own solution. But one conflict certainly affects the other; the strategy for South Asia encompasses both. Pakistan will tell you that Kashmir has everything to do with Afghanistan.
“Pakistan has always wanted to have cordial relations with all neighboring countries including Afghanistan, India and Iran, but talks between India and Pakistan without the resolution of Kashmir issue would be fruitless," Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani told reporters in June 2009. "Solution of the Kashmir issue is the cornerstone of Pakistan's foreign policy.”
Since US officials periodically demand more from Pakistan and lament its obsession with India, for Holbrooke to ignore the cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy appears intentional, and yet inexplicable nonetheless.
Kashmiris too eagerly anticipated America re-entry into the conflict’s resolution process. During Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s first trip to India in July 2009, Kashmir’s top political leader urged Obama to push India and Pakistan into negotiations and do whatever it can to help resolve the dispute.
“Kashmir is not a religious issue, it is not an issue of terrorism or extremism, it is a political dispute and the United States has a role to push both India and Pakistan to settle this political dispute,” Mirwaiz Umar Farooq said in a statement.
Peace in South Asia could not be achieved “without a resolution of the core issue of Kashmir,” according to the chairman of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Farooq must be disappointed after not hearing the K word since the days before Obama’s election.
It’s also reasonable to assume that Afghanistan would support US mediation in Kashmir, and China also wants the conflict resolved through international mediation. The UN could be mobilized as soon as the will exists, though whether the Security Council would cooperate is another story given India’s alliance with Russia.
Regardless, only India outright rejects Kashmir as an international issue. The majority of the international community believes otherwise, including Obama himself at one point. And when Holbrooke argues that the battlefields share no basis, he contradicts another statement that, “Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India share a common strategic space.”
Meaning they share conflicts, insurgents, and causes.
Kashmir is intricately connected to stability in West and South Asia. Afghan intelligence linked LeT, Kashmir’s primary military separatist group, to the Indian bombing in Kabul. US officials constantly warn of a war between India and Pakistan provoked by separatist groups in league with al-Qaeda.
The White House is merely having it both ways, using Kashmir to spread fear without ever saying the word in the name of peace.
But wipe the board momentarily. So what if US negotiations in Kashmir are unproductive? The White House is trying to force a faulty peace process on Israel and Palestine, but now it’s running away from Kashmir, a conflict America has diplomatically engaged in some form since John F. Kennedy. This makes no sense.
"The resolution of the Palestine issue finds resonance in the just and peaceful struggle of Kashmiri people for self-determination," Gilani said during meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in February. "People of Palestine and Kashmir are fighting for their just right of self-determination."
President Asif Zardari had penned nearly the same phrase in a New York Times op-ed in December 2009.
“Just as the Israeli-Palestinian dispute cannot be resolved without accommodating the Palestinian people, there cannot be permanent regional peace in South Asia without addressing Kashmir.”
Kashmir has become a casualty of self-interest, the very cynicism President Obama has targeted since his campaign. Though his options are limited, he must realize that Holbrooke is speaking for him when he disconnects the conflict from regional stability. This is the age of globalization, and the White House goes to pains to explain the inter-connectivity of unstable states and territories to justify its wars.
Obama must find a way to insert America and the international community back into Kashmir. Fearing the word is fearing peace itself.