Obama’s long speech on Afghanistan on December 1 did not refer even once to India or Kashmir. Yet India has a large and growing presence in Afghanistan, and impoverished young Pakistanis, such as those who led the terrorist attack against Mumbai last November, continue to be indoctrinated by watching videos of Indian atrocities against Muslims in Kashmir. (Not much exaggeration is needed here: in late November an Indian hu-man rights group offered evidence of mass graves of nearly three thousand Muslims allegedly executed over the last decade by Indian security forces near the border with Pakistan.) Another terrorist assault on India is very likely; it will further stoke tensions between India and Pakistan, enfeebling America’s already faltering campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
There are many reasons for Obama’s silence. Strident Indian protests destroyed the chances of Richard Holbrooke adding Kashmir to his responsibilities as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. When he assumed the presidency, Obama inherited the Bush administration’s policy of building up India as a strategic American ally and counterweight to China in Asia. Encouraged by an affluent and increasingly assertive Indian-American lobby, the Bush administration offered a civil nuclear agreement to India. India, unlike Iran, has long refused to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; the nuclear deal was yet another of the Bush administration’s defiant assertions of American exceptionalism, opening up India, after a long period of sanctions, to American defense companies (Lockheed Martin alone hopes to cut deals worth $15 billion over the next five years).
India does not seem to have the same exalted place in the Obama administration’s worldview. As the US and China become even more economically interdependent, notions of “containing” the Middle Kingdom through pro-America allies now look less like realpolitik than a symptom of anachronistic cold-war thinking in Condoleezza Rice’s State Department. Despite hosting Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his first state dinner on November 24, Obama has shown few signs of sharing Bush’s special affection for India, which prompted the normally restrained Singh to blurt out during his farewell visit to the White House in September 2008, “The people of India deeply love you, President Bush!”
But Western policymakers still don’t fully understand that the Bush administration’s decision to legitimize India’s nuclear status, and to help project the country as a rising superpower, inflamed an old paranoia in Pakistan (and indeed in China, which, breaking from its policy of befriending previously hostile neighbors like Vietnam and Mongolia, has recently assumed its harshest stance toward India in decades). After all, India and Pakistan have fought three major wars over Kashmir. In 1971, India facilitated the secession of Pakistan’s easternmost province (now Bangladesh), provoking its humiliated army and intelligence officials to pursue a policy of creating “strategic depth” against India by seeking Pashtun clients inside Afghanistan.
In the 1990s, many of the same Pakistani officials who helped supply the Mujahideen during the CIA-led anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan turned to fueling the popular insurgency in India-ruled Kashmir, which since 1989 has claimed more than 80,000 lives. Throughout the decade, Pakistan’s highly secretive intelligence agency, the ISI, trained and financed militant Islamist groups for jihad in Kashmir, even as it settled on the Taliban as its proxy in Afghanistan after that country had been abruptly abandoned by the United States following the Soviet withdrawal.
Against this background—and despite Bush’s support for then Pakistani leader and former general Pervez Musharraf—Pakistan was deeply suspicious of the Bush administration’s policies toward the region. Far from pressing New Delhi to end human rights violations committed by its approximately 700,000 security forces in the Kashmir valley, the United States seemed to be appointing India its chief ally in South Asia. Meanwhile, India appeared to be gaining “strategic depth” in Pakistan’s own backyard. As Pakistan sees it, India is using its new base in Afghanistan—where it has poured over a billion dollars in aid since 2001 and has four consulates in addition to its embassy in Kabul; the United States, in comparison, has no consulates—to support secessionists across the border in the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan. President Hamid Karzai (who attended graduate school in the Indian hill town of Shimla) also seems at least partly emboldened by Indian support in his openly aggressive line toward Pakistan.
In October 2008, a month before he was elected, Barack Obama correctly identified Kashmir as the rusty nail in South Asia’s body politic. Discussing the situation in Afghanistan, he told Joe Klein of Time magazine that “working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way” was among the “critical tasks for the next administration.” Obama spoke of devoting
serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially 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? To make the argument to the Pakistanis, look at India and what they are doing, why do you want to keep being bogged down with this particularly at a time where the biggest threat now is coming from the Afghan border? I think there is a moment where potentially we could get their attention. It won’t be easy, but it’s important.
Yet this promise appears to have been forgotten. The most common American complaint one now hears about Pakistan’s security establishment—expressed yet again by Hillary Clinton at a congressional hearing on December 3—is that it is “obsessed” with India. Her exasperated tone makes this obsession seem purely irrational, an unnecessary diversion from the urgent task of combating anti-American extremists in the region.
But Pakistan is growing ever more fearful of an economically stronger India and its new intimacy with the United States. Convinced that America will turn away from Islamabad just as it did after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Pakistan’s military leaders will be increasingly reluctant to fall in line with Obama’s announced objectives. They may well launch a few token crackdowns on militants, but they are unlikely to abandon the possibility of allowing some of them to remain in reserve in order to unleash them, at a later date, upon India-ruled Kashmir. As always, the road to stability in Pakistan and Afghanistan runs through the valley of Kashmir, and Obama’s failure to even mention a likely solution to the subcontinent’s primary conflict will doom his new strategy just as surely as his other decision to continue assassinating suspected militants with drone missiles.
— December 16, 2009
(A version of this article was published on the NYR blog, blogs.nybooks.com)