Will Kashmir Be an Obama Foreign Policy Focus?

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Rouf Bhat / AFP / Getty

Indian police beat a Shiite Muslim during a Muharram procession in Srinagar, Kashmir.

Indian officials may be celebrating what they believe to be their thwarting of Richard Holbrooke, the new U.S. Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but they may want to hold off on the champagne. Despite the fact that India's behind-the-scenes lobbying may have helped ensure that the country was left out of Holbrooke's official mandate, the Obama Administration is unlikely to ease up efforts to pressure India to come to terms with Pakistan over their long, bitter dispute over Kashmir.

New Delhi views its success in avoiding becoming part of Holbrooke's diplomatic portfolio as proof of India's growing clout in Washington. Appearing on Al Jazeera, India's foreign minister, Pranab Mukherjee, evaded questions about the lobbying effort, saying only that relations between New Delhi and Washington had "increased substantially." But an official in his ministry told TIME that New Delhi is "feeling vindicated, because finally the U.S. has given us the respect we deserve."

The official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said the campaign to keep Holbrooke out was "not personal...we just objected to being lumped into a category with two of the world's most dangerous countries." Besides, he added, "there was no way we were going to allow Holbrooke, or anybody else, become a broker on Kashmir."

The Indians were alarmed when, during the Presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly said that ending Indo-Pakistani differences over Kashmir was one of the keys to calming tensions in South Asia and winning the war on terror. New Delhi views Kashmir as a bilateral issue, and has long resisted what it regards as third-party interference. In recent years, India has sought to isolate the Kashmir issue even further, by seeking to keep it out of other negotiations (over trade and travel, for instance) with Pakistan. "The Indians are allergic to any indication of outside mediation," says Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert at the Brookings Institution who served as an Obama campaign foreign policy adviser.

Pakistan, on the other hand, is keen to get Holbrooke involved in the Kashmir dispute, which it has traditionally held is central to its differences with India . President Asif Zardari, in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post, wrote that he hoped the Special Envoy would "work with India and Pakistan...to bring a just and reasonable resolution to [the Kashmir issue]."

Islamabad has long argued that the disputed territory inflames Pakistani sentiment and feeds terrorist groups. More recently, Pakistan has played the terrorism card in other disputes with India. Zardari's Op-Ed noted that the two countries are currently arguing about water from rivers that flow through both countries; Pakistan says it is denied a rightful share of the water by Indian dams. Failure to resolve the water dispute, Zardari warned, "could fuel the fires of discontent that lead to extremism and terrorism." (See pictures of Pakistan's vulnerable northwest passage.)

For the moment, the Obama Administration is being careful to publicly distance the Special Envoy from the region's most intractable problem. State Department spokesman Robert Wood told reporters on Tuesday that "it's not in [Holbrooke's] mandate...to deal with the subject of Kashmir." And the White House has also been careful to deny that India's lobbying played any role in the formation of Holbrooke's diplomatic charge; not only has it insisted that it held no meetings with foreign governments or their representatives with respect to the assignment, but it has also claimed that Obama never actually intended the South-Asian portfolio to include India in the first place.

None of that is to say, however, that the Administration is going to buy India's line that the U.S. should butt out of Kashmir. The President himself plainly believes there's a role for the U.S. to play. In an interview with TIME's Joe Klein in October, Obama said that "working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way" would be a critical task. The key, he said, was to "make the argument to the Indians, 'You guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this?'" Obama added that he would have to "make the argument to the Pakistanis, 'Look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep on being bogged down with this, particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border?'"

So it's probably safe to say that after the euphoria of their lobbying victory has died down, Indian officials will probably feel Holbrooke's breath on their neck. Some Indian analysts are already predicting this. C. Raja Mohan writes in the Indian Express that "reworking the India-Pakistan relationship will be an inevitable and important component" of Holbrooke's plans. "Whether India likes it or not, Washington will devote substantive diplomatic energies towards the subcontinent, and New Delhi will be drawn into this dynamic."