November 7, 2010

Kashmir Update: Obama’s Time Bomb

Kashmir may be on the back burner, but it’s only a matter of time before President Barack Obama breaks his silence on the disputed Kashmir territory. Today many Muslim-Kashmiris observed the second part of a three day civilian strike ordered by Syed Ali Geelani, leading hard-liner in the All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC). Though India softened its curfew restrictions, armed security in riot gear patrolled the streets of Srinagar and established numerous barbwire checkpoints, creating the APHC’s desired image of a conflict zone.

Stone-wielding protesters amassed in multiple locations, sparking a clash with security forces that killed two people after their truck overturned. These aren’t the most useful of protests for the APHC, but they fulfilled their purpose nevertheless: raising a clamor in the Kashmir Valley that Obama can’t ignore.

"Day passed off peacefully,” read today's police report, hoping to downplay the strike. “There were no reports of any untoward incident from any place. Situation remained normal and under control through out Kashmir Valley.”

Not everyone observed Geelani’s call. According to Indian estimates about 20% of street vendors stayed open, some even clashing with protesters. But those weary of striking reveal another layer of the APHC’s political and propaganda evolution. Unwilling to sacrifice their livelihoods for the volatile pursuit of self-determination, a common belief among the disenchanted holds Kashmiris directly responsible for their own fate, not outside forces. The APHC shares this feeling and wisely enunciated it, clarity of message being pivotal in fourth-generation warfare.

“We don’t want the US’s direct involvement in Kashmir but want it to help the tripartite dialogue,” said APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq. “Peace in South Asia is possible only if the Kashmir issues is resolved. Considering the trust deficit between Indian and Pakistan, the US alone can mediate.”

Perhaps the APHC doesn’t trust US mediation after watching the repeated stalemates between Israel and Palestine. Farooq seems to believe the UN would serve its purpose better, but for that reason needs America to push India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. Farooq and Geelani are ready to pounce if Obama rebuffs them.

“On your visit to India, the people of Jammu and Kashmir expect you to impress upon your host to address the Kashmir issue immediately,” Geelani wrote in a two-page letter delivered to Obama. “We hope the visit will be a milestone for people of Kashmir in achieving their long standing demand for exercise of inalienable right to self determination.”

The reasonableness of APHC leaders has further solidified a reaction from Obama. Already cornered into breaching the taboo, Farooq and Geelani have combined a display of power and sensibility into an unavoidable obstacle. While refusing to budge on their demand for self-determination, Farooq and Geelani have sweetened their feelings of India by praising its civil society. Farooq recently accepted invitations to speak with Indian audiences in New Delhi starting November 18th.

Meanwhile Geelani reasoned with Obama, "Resolution of the (Kashmir) problem with American assistance will go a long way in eradicating the trust deficit between the US and the Muslim world.”

The same logic applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has robbed Obama of his room to maneuver in Kashmir. Already an unflattering comparison to intervene in one disputed conflict and not another, failing to move either dispute generates the image of crippled diplomacy.

Nothing less could be expected from the first days of Obama’s Indian tour. Spending the first day paying homage to India’s rise and victims of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Obama also shored up defense agreements and his own economic needs. Devoting the second day to the re-balance of power in Washington and Pakistan’s behavior, Obama told his audience at St. Xavier's College, "I think the Pakistani government understands now the potential threat that exists within their own borders. Progress is not as quick as we'd like.”

"Our feeling has been to be honest and forthright with Pakistan,” he said of North Waziristan, “to say we are your friend, that this is a problem and we will help you but the problem has to be addressed."

With Obama set for more photo-ops and another possible meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who he dined with on Sunday, that leaves one final day to address Kashmir. The last day provides the best stage too. Obama was never going to open his widely-hyped tour with Kashmir and immediately taint the atmosphere, not with an Indian audience equally willing to avoid the question. Praising Pakistan before criticizing it, while softening up India for its own reality shock, also suggests that he’s working his way up to Kashmir.

Though continually fearful of alienating India, the White House needs Islamabad’s cooperation just as much.

In his book Obama’s War, Bob Woodward claims that Obama once remarked, “We need to move aggressively on India-Pakistan issues in order to try to reduce the tensions.” He won’t admit so publicly, but the White House has failed to improve relations by deploying an inactive stance on Kashmir and playing India off Pakistan in Afghanistan. Handcuffed as Obama may feel, the realization that new thinking and action is necessary must be lurking somewhere.

"There is no doubt that the visit of Obama is focused on economic development but it cannot be achieved without political stability," Farooq reminded Obama, "and resolution of Kashmir issue is imperative for achieving that goal."

While saving Kashmir for last before dashing off could steal its momentum, allotting his last day to the dispute makes sense from a political standpoint. Obama has already been invited to dinner with Kashmir's chief minister Omar Abdullah, creating an automatic opportunity to speak. They may even find common ground given Abdullah’s frustration with New Delhi. And with mysterious figures dressed in Indian military uniforms circulating through villages, conjuring ghosts of the Chittisinghpora massacre, the disputed Kashmir territory remains a powder-keg that Obama cannot ignore.

If he does the next explosion will be that much bigger.


  1. Obama by passing Pakistan was not ony a blow to the Paks but also to the people of Kashmir.
    Obama will not offend India at this time.
    If he brings up Kashmir that is the same as offending India in their minds.
    Obama's broom is getting bigger.
    He is sweeping too much under the rug.

  2. Certainly reveals what Obama's real interests are. Obviously he was never going to make a big statement, but his behavior spoke volumes. Not going to turn Kashmir's struggle by itself, just a necessary step forward.

    I realize Obama hasn't been to Pakistan yet but I don't think passing up Islamabad now is as big a deal. He couldn't handle dancing with both states at once. Better to bite off only what he can chew. I suspect a visit in summer 2011.