Our Obama moment

Judging by its rather defensive reaction to British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's remarks on Jammu and Kashmir, New Delhi appears unprepared to cope with the new approach to India and Pakistan that has been promised by Barack Hussein Obama, who will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States today.

The context of Miliband's remarks is important. That he was denouncing America's "war on terror" just days before its author, George W. Bush, was about to demit office merely underlines London's eagerness to quickly adapt to the regime change in Washington.

What Miliband says about Kashmir and India-Pakistan relations matters a lot less than the argument that Obama has consistently articulated since the launch of his presidential campaign in early 2007.

To his credit, Obama recognised that the central front in the war on terror is not Iraq, as Bush decided at great cost to the United States, but Afghanistan. Obama was right to insist that the war on terror launched in Afghanistan in 2001 must also be brought to a close there.

Second, Obama argued, with some insight, that the problems in Afghanistan cannot be solved without addressing the sources of support for extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. With the war in Afghanistan expanding across the Durand Line into Pakistan, few in the world, let alone India, will object to this proposition.

It is the third element of Obama's argument that is viewed with some apprehension in New Delhi. Obama's assessment is that addressing Pakistan's security concerns on the east with India holds the key to Islamabad's genuine cooperation in the war on terror.That in turn has led to a linkage, in Obama's mind, between the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan on the one hand, and the US vulnerability in Afghanistan. The proposal to appoint a special envoy to the region has flowed out of this proposition.

All indications are that the tough talking Richard Holbrooke might be appointed to that job in the coming days. Although in deference to New Delhi's objections, Obama might not name Kashmir as part of the special envoy's mandate, reworking the India-Pakistan relationship will be an inevitable and important component of his initiative. For the US, which now faces a real prospect of defeat in Afghanistan, South Asia is at the very top of its foreign policy agenda.

The only direct national security threat to the US comes from the now resurgent extremist groups operating in the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Whether India likes it or not, Washington will devote substantive diplomatic energies towards the subcontinent, and New Delhi will be drawn into this dynamic. Instead of opposing something that is about to unfold, New Delhi must offer full cooperation to Obama in South Asia on terms that are mutually acceptable. A number of factors make the Obama initiative a rare strategic opportunity for India.

For one, there is no basic contradiction between the American imperative to stabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan and India's need to promote political moderation and economic modernisation of the north-western parts of the subcontinent. For decades the US has refused to discuss with India any issue relating to Pakistan. If Obama seeks India's cooperation in shaping the future of Pakistan and Afghanistan, New Delhi has every reason to explore the proposition.

Two, the UPA government has little reason to be defensive about Kashmir. It has conducted rather successful elections in the state, and its relations with the US and other major powers are stronger than ever before. It has no reason to be apprehensive about an international "tilt" towards Pakistan on Kashmir. In fact Obama's initiative is premised on the belief that the balance between India and Pakistan has irrevocably shifted in favour of New Delhi.

Three, although it has chosen not to publicise it, the UPA government has conducted a substantive bilateral dialogue on resolving the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan. This back channel negotiation, the first in decades, has been productive.

That dialogue is in abeyance because of political instability in Pakistan and Islamabad's inability to sustain its side of the bargain ó to maintain a violence-free atmosphere. If Pakistan can credibly demonstrate after the Mumbai attacks that it can eliminate the sources of cross-border terrorism against India, it stands to reason that the progress in the Kashmir negotiations can indeed be consolidated.

Four, despite India's emphasis on bilateralism in its dealings with Pakistan, it is quite clear that New Delhi could well do with some international support, especially from the US, to clinch the promise of the peace process that has stalled since the Mumbai terror attacks. Using the weight of others to realise one's own interests is very much part of intelligent statecraft.

India has no reason to deny that during the Kargil war with Pakistan in the summer of 1999, the military confrontation with Islamabad during 2001-02, and in the effort to pressure Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attacks, the US role has been a positive one.

India has everything to gain by embracing the essence of Obama's idea ó bringing stability to the region between the Indus and the Hindu Kush. That in turn would create a basis for the necessarily difficult discussion with the Obama administration on the appropriate tactics to achieve the shared strategic objectives with the US ó defeating the Taliban, addressing the aspirations of the Pashtuns across the Durand Line, eliminating the sources of extremism in Pakistan, strengthening civilian control over the military in Islamabad, providing secure and legitimate borders to Pakistan, and integrating our two neighbours to the west in a framework of regional cooperation.

It will be a pity if India does not grasp this historic opportunity because its leaders lack either the self-assurance or the strategic imagination to leverage Obama's South Asia initiative.

The writer is a professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of

International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore express@expressindia.com

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