January 2003
Amb. Howard Bo Schaffer

U.S. Government Approaches to the Kashmir Problem

I thought I might begin by sketching out for you Washington's approach to the Kashmir problem. This will provide a useful background for the activities of the Kashmir Study Group and the way they have been viewed by the U.S. Government.

America's perception of its interest in the Kashmir problem have varied markedly since the issue first took on international dimensions a few months after the partition of British India in 1947. At first, Washington saw the Kashmir problem as a dispute between two countries friendly to the United States in an area of limited American interest. For Washington, South Asia in those early days of Indian and Pakistani independence was perceived largely as a British show. We looked to the British for informed advice on the subcontinent. We considered our interests there far less important than those we pursued in Europe and the Far East, with which we had a much closer and more longstanding relationship. Compared to these areas, South Asia was in our view an inconsequential sideshow.

In 1948, when India brought the Kashmir issue before the United Nations, we saw in what was then a fledgling organization the best hope for a resolution of the dispute. We believed that it was to deal with such problems that the U.N. had been established just a few years earlier.

Accordingly, the Truman administration joined the British government as a prime mover in the Security Council's passage of resolutions establishing a U.N. Commission for India and Pakistan. The resolutions called on the commission to work out specific arrangements that would set the stage for a plebiscite in which the Kashmiri people would decide which nation to join (independence was not a choice). UNCIP then brokered a cease-fire and passed non-binding resolutions that laid out a formula for bringing about a settlement. Despite strong backing from Washington, the commission failed to reach agreements with the Indian and Pakistan governments on how to deal with several contentious issues. The United States recognized the UNCIP resolutions as a basis for a Kashmir settlement until the 1960s, when it began to distance itself from them. Since then, it has at least implicitly regarded them as overtaken by events (and hence irrelevant) and has dodged the question of their continuing validity.

Although the Eisenhower administration that held power from 1953 to 1961 briefly entertained the idea of a Kashmir settlement that did not involve a plebiscite, and urged the two claimants to resolve the dispute bilaterally, it soon reverted to Truman's support of the formula spelled out in the UNCIP resolutions. Its inclination to do so was heightened when it established Cold War security relations with Pakistan.

The 1962 Sino-Soviet border war set the stage for a new, bilateral Washington initiative to bring about a Kashmir solution, this time outside the U.N. framework. India-Pakistan talks held under strong U.S. pressure proved inconclusive. With bilateral talks stymied, Washington came up with some specific ideas of its own. One of these would have awarded part of the Indian-held Kashmir Valley to Pakistan. When the talks failed, as he had expected they would, Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, the American ambassador to India, remarked that the only thing the two sides could agree on was to denounce Washington's proposals. (This has not been the fate of the KSG proposals.)

These failed 1962-63 negotiations proved the high-water mark in U.S. involvement in efforts to resolve the Kashmir dispute. Until the 1998 Indian and Pakistan nuclear tests and Pakistan's armed attack on the Kargil area of Indian-controlled Kashmir the following year again led U.S. policymakers to focus on the issue, Washington preferred to remain largely on the sidelines. It neither pushed for a settlement at international forums nor undertook any significant unilateral initiatives. The 1965 India-Pakistan war over Kashmir significantly contributed to this hands-off attitude. It crystallized the feelings of many U.S. policymakers that the best approach to Washington's political and security relations with India and Pakistan was a plague on both their houses, and on Kashmir as well.

In this context, Washington hailed the agreement India and Pakistan had reached in Simla in 1972 following the end of their third war. In this accord they pledged to solve the Kashmir and other problems bilaterally. They also undertook to respect the Line of Control dividing their forces in the state and to refrain from the threat of the use of force in violation of it. The agreement gave the United States an unassailable, thoroughly respectable rationale for remaining on the sidelines. Unable to change the situation in Kashmir, it was quite prepared to let the contestants work out the problem by themselves. If, as seemed likely at the time and for years afterward, they chose to put the issue in cold storage and allowed the status quo to become a de facto settlement, that would be fine with Washington. Successive American administrations maintained this aloof position for the better part of two decades. Kashmir disappeared from the world's agenda and the Kashmiri people seemed to have become reconciled to their lot as Indian citizens.

The outbreak of the Kashmir insurgency at the end of 1989 quickly returned Kashmir to Washington's radar screen. It feared that this time an India-Pakistan war could develop nuclear dimensions. It was also concerned with human rights violations by Indian forces. And it was troubled by the terrorist tactics favored by some of the insurgent, especially those with Islamic credentials.

Despite these concerns, Washington declined to seek a mediating role. It stuck to the line that "the best way to resolve the Kashmir dispute is through direct discussions between the governments of India and Pakistan as envisaged in the Simla agreement." After the insurgency worsened, it added to this formulation the point that in their bilateral discussions the two governments should take into account the wishes of the Kashmiri people. Washington did not offer advice about how this should be done, however.

The 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests greatly magnified Washington's concerns about Kashmir. It now saw Kashmir as a potential "flashpoint" that could ignite a nuclear war. It gave high priority to the resumption of the stalled India-Pakistan dialogue, including on Kashmir. But it continued to insist that it would not take a more direct role on Kashmir unless both sides agreed.

Although the Pakistanis welcomed this internationalization of the dispute, a longtime Pakistani goal, the tests strengthened the primacy Washington gave to preserving stability in South Asia and lessened the importance it attached to the equities of the Kashmir issue. For Washington and other members of the international community, the use of violence to change the status quo was now not an acceptable option. Since it was essentially the status quo power, this approach favored India. President Clinton made the position clear when he pressured the Pakistanis to withdraw their troops from the Kargil area of Indian Kashmir that they had seized in a military operation.

The Bush administration has tended to see the Kashmir issue primarily as a terrorist problem. This perspective is an outgrowth of September 11, and of the attack on the Indian parliament a few months later. So far, the administration has focused its efforts on persuading the Pakistan government to terminate its support for cross-border terrorist activities. Its high-level interventions at critical moments in India-Pakistan tension have been designed primarily as fire-fighting operations. They have not dealt to any extent with the basic problems in India-Pakistan relations, Kashmir foremost among them.

This attitude has changed. Washington has gradually relaxed its aloof approach. It now seems to be prepared to go beyond the sterile, failed formula that calls for bilateral talks, with the U.S. willing to play a role only if requested to do so by both parties. Although it continues to insist that it does not want to be a mediator, let alone an arbitrator, it has edged forward to the point where even senior administration figures, such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, are talking about more American participation. The term of choice has become "facilitator.”

Events since September 11 have made such a role more feasible. General Musharraf’s willingness to join the U.S.-Ied war against terrorism has turned around a U.S.-Pakistan relationship that had earlier seemed in a state of continuing decline. At the same time, U.S.- Indian relations have vastly improved following the end of the Cold War and New Delhi's economic reform measures. The improvement of these bilateral ties have quickened in the last year, which now include a degree of cooperation in security matters that was unthinkable earlier. Arguably, the United States now enjoys the best relations simultaneously with India and Pakistan than it ever has. Both countries are willing to accept a larger U.S. role in helping them resolve, or at least more effectively manage, their disputes with one another, including Kashmir.

This represents an historical change for New Delhi. One of the basic tenets of its foreign policy had long been to discourage any third-party involvement in South Asian affairs, unless this promoted its own interests. As the most powerful country in the region, and the status-quo power in Kashmir, it preferred to deal with the neighborhood bilaterally. But now it is coming to recognize that the focus on stability and anti-terrorism that now characterizes the approach of the United States to the Kashmir issue suggests that a U.S. role could be beneficial, not dangerous, to India's aspirations in the state.

U.S. policymakers and American specialists in the region differ about how Washington could best go about playing this new and enhanced role, though all now seem convinced that without such outside participation neither a settlement nor more effective management of the problem will be possible. Some specialists prefer to offer at least the broad outlines of a solution as a useful initial step. They recognize that the settlement they favor will not be easily adopted. They argue that spelling out some basic principles will move discussions along more swiftly. In this view, such an outline can also serve to mobilize South Asian public opinion in a positive way. As you will surmise, the Kashmir Study Group's proposals fall into this category.

A different approach some favor is to deal with the problem step-by-step, avoiding at the earlier stages an effort to outline out what a final settlement would look like. Some of the adherents of this position agree that any eventual solution will include two key elements: (I) the acceptance of the Line of Control, or something geographically close to it, as the international frontier between India and Pakistan and (2) a greatly improved governance of Indian, and perhaps Pakistan-held Kashmir, to include a sizeable dose of autonomy. They do not think it makes sense to advertise this until negotiations have gone some distance. Many of them think well of the KSG proposals; they just believe it would be best not to promote them at this point.

Supporters of this approach talk about the importance of building blocks that can pave the way to an eventual de facto or de jure settlement. Such building blocks begin with restarting the India-Pakistan peace process now in tatters. Efforts to get the process started again have in fact been at the heart of U.S. South Asia diplomacy for years. Other building blocks that would follow could include such matters as nuclear risk reduction, strengthening the Line of Control, reducing military deployment, and encouraging talks between New Delhi and Srinagar. Most members of the Kashmir Study Group would have no problem with unpublicized efforts by the U.S. government to move the contending parties forward along these lines. But we are persuaded that unless a final goal is outlined and at least tentatively accepted as the starting point for discussions between India, Pakistan, and the Kashmiris, the contending parties are unlikely to make substantial progress.

The United States government has not made any decision at a responsible level about how to proceed. Secretary of State Powell has spoken about the importance of the Kashmir issue, and of India-Pakistan relations more generally. His visits to India and Pakistan have probably given him a far better understanding of South Asian issues than any of his predecessors. Indeed, one of the remarkable, and hopeful, aspects of the view from Washington is the deep knowledge of South Asia that top U.S. leaders, including President Bush, have acquired after 9/11. To be frank, however, it seems unlikely that until some of the immediate problems the administration now faces become less pressing - or until the India-Pakistan problem reaches a truly critical point - not much will be done other than the crisis management that Powell and some of his colleagues have engaged in over the past year and a half. It seems clear that efforts to improve India-Pakistan relations will require some heavy lifting With the heavy lifters distracted by Iraq, North Korea, and other problems, their availability for such a role will be at best limited. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers remain greatly concerned by the Kashmir problem. They fully recognize its importance and welcome the ideas and activities of non-governmental organizations interested in Kashmir. They believe that some of these can be helpful in moving things forward toward a settlement.

Ever since it was established in 1996, the Kashmir Study Group has shared its thinking with senior officials of the White House and State Department. Its findings and proposals have attracted considerable sympathetic attention at a series of high level formal and informal meetings between KSG members and senior U.S. officials. Some South Asian critics have alleged, in the best tradition of subcontinental conspiracy theorizing, that this interest proves that the KSG is the catspaw or tool of the American government. We have been careful to set the record straight.

U.S. policymakers' interest in the KSG proposals stems, I think, from several considerations. As I've noted, U.S. interest in the Kashmir issue heightened greatly following the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests and the 1999 Kargil fighting. The KSG's proposals spelled out in Kashmir: A Way Forward, were published soon afterwards. This gave them a relevance in Washington they might not have enjoyed earlier. In other words, official Washington became interested in feasible ideas and was on the lookout for them much more than it had been before.

Policymakers have been favorably impressed by the fresh, imaginative quality of the proposals and by the way they were developed in association with well-known retired Indian and Pakistani diplomats and senior military officers who had the ear of their governments. The unusual access Farooq Kathwari has enjoyed to the highest levels of the Indian and Pakistan governments and to the Kashmiri political leadership has also helped. U.S. policymakers have also reacted positively, as we hope you will, to the solid scholarship involved, especially on the ethnic, cultural, and historical aspects of the problem and the integration of these into the proposals. The sympathetic interest shown by Indian, Pakistani, and Kashmiri leaders in the proposals has also been an asset. So, may I say, has the caliber of the KSG membership, which involved many former diplomats and others well and favorably known in Washington. Most important, policymakers see the proposals as ideas that could help the U.S. government meet its foreign policy objectives in the South Asian region.

I don't doubt that the KSG proposals and other ideas the Group develops will continue to attract considerable interest in Washington, almost certainly more than those offered by any other non-governmental organization. KSG is now recognized as a serious non-governmental player in the effort to move forward on Kashmir. We look forward to continuing in that role.

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