The Limits of U.S. Diplomacy in Kashmir

The Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan has once again received international attention following November’s terrorist attacks on Mumbai. Given the longstanding nature of the dispute, the series of wars fought over the territory, and the possession of nuclear weapons by both parties, the inaction by the U.S. government over the last few years is often a cause for lament in foreign policy circles. Reports that the next administration plans on appointing a special envoy for the region have raised hopes that this policy would be remedied. Unfortunately, renewed U.S. engagement on Kashmir – especially if it were led by a high-profile envoy – is likely to prove counterproductive, a setback for U.S. foreign policy, for the India-Pakistan peace process and, ironically, for Kashmir itself.

Over the last four years, an India-Pakistan peace process has made steady steps towards a mutually acceptable settlement. The so-called ‘composite dialogue’ between the two states, reinforced by back-channel talks between representatives of both countries’ leaders, made significant, albeit slow-moving, progress before it was derailed by domestic political turbulence in Pakistan and recurring terrorist attacks in India, Mumbai being but the latest – and most high profile – example.

Despite these setbacks, most Indian and Pakistani policymakers still believe that their two countries have reached a mutually hurting stalemate, which cannot end without a lasting bilateral settlement. Indian strategists have made sustained calls for a 'grand bargain’ with Pakistan, and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has followed Pervez Musharraf in making conciliatory statements regarding India. The two countries have moved towards lowering trade barriers (including in Kashmir) and greater regional cooperation. Yet for four reasons, active American engagement on Kashmir by the incoming administration risks reversing such positive developments.

First, both Islamabad and New Delhi view Washington as favoring the other side. Pakistan increasingly views the United States as preferential to India, an impression reinforced by Washington having brokered a civilian nuclear agreement with New Delhi. Indian policy elites, meanwhile, are worried that the United States will pressure India to make concessions in order to ensure continued Pakistani support in fighting the Taliban.

Second, the biggest remaining hurdle to a lasting Kashmir agreement is the inability of the two governments to sell it domestically, something American intervention can do little to alter. India’s raucous domestic politics will not tolerate any overt U.S. pressure on a Kashmir resolution, even if it matches India’s objectives. In Pakistan, an agreement on Kashmir will have to be accepted by the army leadership, on whom Washington has historically failed to exert much influence.

Third, unlike the disputes in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, both sides have not requested American mediation. Any attempt will face a similar fate to the efforts of a proactive Kennedy administration in 1963, which succeeded only in stoking both countries’ resentment of the United States.

Finally, American engagement would embolden Kashmiri separatists to raise their demands, thus complicating the ongoing bilateral negotiations. Political groups favoring independence for Indian-administered Kashmir were quick to welcome Obama's stated intention of American engagement in the run-up to his election. American involvement will also unintentionally justify the use of terrorism by organizations like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group ostensibly behind the Mumbai assault, for political objectives.

A public decision by the next president and his national security team to engage the two regional rivals on a Kashmir settlement therefore looks certain to be a disaster. At the very least, such a move will embarrass the new administration and set back relations with New Delhi. At worst, it could prove counterproductive to what remains of the India-Pakistan peace process, and destabilizing for the region as a whole.

Instead, the two sides should be left to themselves to minimize the damage to the peace process caused by the Mumbai attacks. A real effort by Pakistan at permanently dismantling the terrorist infrastructure and bringing to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai massacre should be the first step. India, in turn, should consider a phrased withdrawal of troops from counterinsurgency duties in the Kashmir valley commensurate with a decrease in violence. Peaceful state-level elections in Kashmir in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attacks provide a good enough reason for such a move by New Delhi. Taken together, these steps offer the best hope for reviving the peace process in the region.

Undoubtedly, inaction might not appeal to the incoming Obama administration bent on renewing American engagement with the rest of the world. While well-intended, the idea that a focused American effort on settling the Kashmir dispute will dramatically stabilize the region to the benefit of American strategic goals is far-fetched and simplistic. Instead, the American role in this process should remain what it has been over the past four years: supportive, but from a distance.