Indian officials must have exhaled in relief when Pakistani military officials, in Washington to repair the damage of cross-boarder NATO raids, left seemingly empty-handed. Though Islamabad has intensively lobbied Kashmir's dispute from September’s UN General Assembly onward, US officials stuck to their script and refused to bite. Kashmir remains a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan, to be addressed by them alone.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley clearly explained this policy and responded when pushed, “The Pakistanis have raised the issue of Kashmir with us before. This is not new. Our understanding of the Pakistani view of this issue is well known. But at the same time, the United States policy is clear: We believe that this is ultimately an issue that has to be resolved between India and Pakistan.”
But New Delhi is well aware that another obstacle dwarfs last months’ US-Pakistani “Strategic Dialogue.” President Barack Obama’s visit to India, tentatively scheduled for November 6th and surrounded by Kashmiri protests, has the state on edge. With trade and military agreements reportedly set to dominate his speeches, the White House has already buffered Obama and India from the Kashmir valley.
Yet evidence suggests that America’s shield is cracking.
No high-level US official was willing to touch Kashmir as it burned. During his speech to the UN General Assembly, Obama completely ignored Kashmir’s plight while highlighting a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Richard Holbrooke, America’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Pakistan, also fears the word and Crowley kept mute throughout a bloody summer. Though Washington remains active behind closed doors, its public silence made Crowley’s final comment stand out that much stronger.
Questioned on human rights violations in Kashmir, Crowley replied, “We obviously have great concern about the situation in Kashmir. We talk both to our Pakistani friends and our Indian friends on this issue on a regular basis. We would like to see the situation in Kashmir resolved. There is obviously too much tension and violence in Kashmir, which is why we continue to encourage both countries to resolve it through dialogue.”
Now, it’s difficult to tell by the White House’s public actions that great concern exists for Kashmir’s gridlock. Silence speaks for it, which often serves as an admission of guilt during controversy. The most obvious part of US policy is the fear of offending India’s rising power, especially over a territorial dispute. But until now the White House had little to fear of staying silent. India’s lobbying machine in Washington now rivals Israel’s, while Muslim-Kashmiris never developed the Palestinians’ political and media capabilities.
Summer protests in Srinagar altered the status quo and punctured that comfort zone.
The subtle cracks in US policy are directly attributed not to the White House’s goodwill, but to the evolution of Muslim-Kashmir’s movement for self-determination. While separatist militants continue to operate in the territories and on the Line of Control, they no longer dominate the struggle. Kashmiri authorities hijacked them back and successfully transformed this summer into the Palestinians’ First Intifada, relying on civil disobedience and low-intensity violence to do what terrorism can’t - provoke international sympathy by flipping India into the aggressor.
The All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) has demonstrated an intricate knowledge of the Palestinians’ strategy by following their blueprint.
Once sufficient protests and casualties accrued, the APHC advanced to the next phase in any fourth-generation struggle by ensuring their actions didn’t take place in darkness. Using the limited means available (local media is often blocked and APHC put under house arrest), Kashmiri leaders are attempting to catch the world’s attention by capturing Obama’s. APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq issued a fresh strike calendar in early October culminating in an advance on the UN’s Srinagar office, and APHC hard-liner Syed Geelani, who doesn’t always see eye to eye with Farooq, threw his weight behind him in typical fourth-generation fashion.
“It is our compulsion and the need of the time to give strike calls so that our cause comes to the notice of the world,” said Geelani from his Hyderpora residence, who’s also planning protests for Obama’s four-day visit.
Even the Kashmir Children Assembly has mobilized for an assault. 4,000 letters recently delivered to Obama pleaded, “We, the children of Jammu & Kashmir request His Excellency Mr Barack Obama, the US president, to recall his pledge which he had made with his nation and the world community to lead for bringing change in US policies regarding the peaceful resolution of the Kashmir issue.”
Only a temporary peace has descended on Jammu and Kashmir, the lull between two storms. Though New Delhi remains disorganized on how to move forward, India’s behavior has improved by using non-lethal rounds, paying settlements to victims’ families, and appointing a team of interlocutors to mediate between the government and Kashmiri authorities. Criticized by both sides for their inexperience, the team has made a point of hearing out protesters, separatist leaders, and even militants, aiming for a complete picture of Muslim-Kashmiris’ demands.
This is sound judgment despite Geelani's refusal to meet with them, saying of the interlocutors, “The Government of India is trying to make Obama believe that it is making a serious effort for the resolution of Kashmir Issue.”
However many causes have quelled the cycle of violence, mainly the APHC refocusing its energy on Obama’s arrival. Some protesters have grown weary of the economic disruption to their livelihood. Others returned to school or to harvest their rice crops after the summer campaign. They may all take up protesting soon enough. While India has successfully limited casualties without minimal affect to its curfews, road side frisking, checking of vehicles, on-the-spot interrogation, and identity cards remain common practice.
This suffocation has contributed to a false sense of calm in the Valley, despite the fact that Indian security forces smothered the APHC’s UN march last week. Up to twenty protesters were wounded, none killed. With Kashmiri leaders again under house arrest, the event passed through the international media in relative silence.
But where there’s smoke there’s fire.
That Obama chose to wait nearly two years before potentially addressing the conflict indicates that he wasn’t simply waiting for the right opportunity with Pakistan and India. Without external pressure he wouldn’t address Kashmir’s dispute. The totality of events between June and October, coupled with the sharp clash between New Delhi’s handling of Kashmir and its overall image of a thriving democracy, has ensured that Obama breaches the unmentionable conflict. Exactly what New Delhi was trying to avoid.
Crowley’s statement and the feeling that Obama can’t ignore Kashmir any longer proves that the APHC's “Quit Kashmir” movement is succeeding in its intermediate goal of international awareness. Armed with renewed attention, the APHC hopes to permanently corner New Delhi until it engages Pakistan and Kashmiri authorities on a final-status resolution. The overriding question, then, is what Obama will actually say, and here an array of opinions diverge on how far he'll go.
US and Indian sources say that Obama will concentrate on removing trade barriers, military agreements, India’s role in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s behavior. Washington naturally considers India its “anchor of stability in the region,” and one AP report of his trip failed to mention Kashmir, suggesting that it may be used like a garnish. Obama won’t eagerly risk India’s counterbalance in Asia.
Bruce Riedel, former CIA official and one of Obama’s chief advisers in South Asia, offered a similar take in a recent op-ed to The Times of India. Riedel claims, “The Afghan war and the future of Pakistan will dominate the behind-the-scenes discussions in New Delhi.” Although his words provide verification that Obama will speak of Kashmir, he sandwiched one paragraph on the dispute in the middle of his article, as if to blend in.
“Obama's visit will also take place against the backdrop of the revival of the Kashmir question," Riedel writes. "Pakistan will surely move to capitalize on the unrest. The intifada that exploded this summer in Kashmir cannot be ignored by the president during the visit but any comments on it will be potentially explosive.”
He then continues, “Obama and Singh need to cooperate to help Pakistan solve its jihadist nightmare. It cannot be resolved by outsiders nor can it be contained and isolated from the outside. Senior Indian officials in private say that Washington and New Delhi now share a common diagnosis of the problems but neither has developed a strategy that promises success. It is an increasingly urgent concern but one that does not have any magical answers.”
In essence, don’t be surprised if Obama tries to pin Kashmir’s unrest largely on Pakistan, the same way he skewed his UN speech towards Israel’s favor. But underestimating the home-grown nature of Kashmir's movement would commit the same error as New Delhi.
Obama has three choices. He can expend a small amount of energy on Kashmir, issuing a standard appeal to resolve the conflict followed by more economic headlines. His trip to honor Mumbai victims could take up more time. But he has to say something. If Obama did ignore Kashmir’s appeal he would surely hear about it, perhaps the main incentive to break his silence.
A likelier scenario could be a moderate speech that attempts to bridge the trust gap, spurred by the perception that he fears addressing Kashmir. Amnesty International recently urged Obama to speak against human rights abuses committed by Indian security forces. Unlikely as that is, AI’s pressure underscores the international spotlight that could nudge him to take a leap. Rather than blame any one side he may politely appeal for everyone to sit down and negotiate, either alone or with UN mediators.
But it’s hard to see how Obama can end Kashmir's deadlock without muscular diplomacy. This realization provides the outside temptation to dramatically jump-start the peace process. Some analysts think that Obama skipped Pakistan so that he could speak without the shadow of Islamabad behind him, as if to hint towards a weighty statement. It’s also possible that Kashmir remains his final trump card in Afghanistan, not as a direct effect but as the ultimate price for Pakistan’s invasion of North Waziristan. Another rumor has floated exchanging Kashmir’s resolution for India’s long-sought seat on the UN Security Council.
Obama could come down hard on both sides for their respective abuses before rewarding them.
Imagining Obama take that risk, more desperate to shore up America's economy and his own image than bring Afghanistan to a close, remains a challenge. The White House believes it has extra time to push back Afghanistan's clock if it can deliver economic progress. And US-Chinese relations remain unpredictable, making India all the more necessary. To that end predicting Obama’s course of action takes an unforeseeable turn.
What is certain are the cracks in India’s US-made shield. Fourth-generation warfare seeks to break the opponent’s political will, and Muslim-Kashmiris must continue hammering away at their pursuit of self-determination.