President George W. Bush has signed legislation allowing the U.S. to sell civilian nuclear technology to India. In July, the relationship between the U.S. and India was bolstered when President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the framework for this landmark deal. The new year offers an opportunity for a new era in U.S. relations with India and a new agenda in the “strategic dialogue” that has been underway between Washington and Delhi for nearly nine years. While the agreement has its downside—it could prompt other countries to seek similar exceptions to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—it helps remove a 25-year-old obstacle to furthering U.S.-Indian relations: disagreement over India’s decision to become a nuclear-weapons state. For decades this one issue has dominated U.S. and Indian diplomacy and prevented the world’s oldest and largest democracies from dealing adequately with a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.
Ironically, it was the Indian nuclear tests in 1998 that began the process of change. Following India’s tests, President Clinton initiated an intensive dialogue—led by then-deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott—to restrain its nuclear program. Talbott’s discussions with then-foreign minister Jaswant Singh began with a limited focus on proliferation, but expanded to crisis management during the 1999 Kargil war and then into a broad opening of the relationship that culminated in Clinton’s watershed visit to India in 2000.
Now that President Bush has built on this foundation, he should use the new strategic partnership to move beyond crisis management between India and Pakistan to try to help the two countries resolve the underlying issue that has brought them repeatedly to conflict: Kashmir. America has avoided dealing with the Kashmir issue for decades, both because of its complexities and because India opposed outside involvement, preferring to deal bilaterally with Pakistan. This approach has not worked; the problem has gotten worse and has repeatedly taken the subcontinent to the brink of disaster.
Now is the time for quiet American diplomacy to exploit our stronger ties with India and our improved relations with Pakistan since 9/11 to try to resolve the Kashmir quarrel. It is in the self interest of all three nations to do so. The timing is particularly fortuitous since India and Pakistan have begun their own bilateral dialogue to improve relations since they were last at the brink of war in 2003. That dialogue has already produced some modest confidence-building measures in Kashmir but has not really engaged the underlying issues.
Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf says he is ready to engage India on Kashmir and has put some interesting ideas on the table. He should be tested now by both the U.S. and India. Helping him resolve Kashmir would also help him end Pakistan’s long relationship with jihadist terror groups which have dangerous relationships with al-Qaeda. If Kashmir moved toward peace, Pakistan could more easily put those groups out of business and isolate al-Qaeda. A deal should not threaten India’s territorial integrity; rather it should focus on improving the Kashmiri’s lives.
Now that the nuclear deal is done, President Bush should make Kashmir a major part of his dialogue with India and Pakistan. Nudging them both toward a deal on Kashmir will not be easy, but the time may be ripe to try. Preventive diplomacy in South Asia in the next two years would be an enduring legacy for George W. Bush.