Obama Won’t Seek High-profile Role In Kashmir: Lisa Curtis

Obama Won’t Seek High-profile Role In Kashmir: Lisa Curtis

8 October 2010
DNA
Venkatesan Vembu

Mumbai: Strained relations between the US and Pakistan, which are notionally allies in the war on terror in Afghanistan, came close tobreaking point last week when Pakistan shut down a crossing on the Af-Pak border used by Nato troops. Yet, the US cannot walk away from its troubled relationship, short of a “game-changer” event such as a successful terrorist strike in the US that emanates from Pakistani soil, explains Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation who served in former president George W Bush’s administration. In an interview to DNA’s, Curtis reasons that the Kashmir issue - which Pakistan projects as a “core issue” - is a red-herring, and the Obama administration has overcome its initial “naiveté” on it. In the light of last week’s events, how would you characterise the state of relations between the US and Pakistan? This is a period of high tension. For the first time, Pakistan has closed down a border crossing on Nato’s supply route. It looks like they did it primarily because of an incident where a Nato helicopter hit a Pakistani army post, but there’s also frustration in Pakistan over the escalated drone strikes in the region. Even though Pakistani forces allow these strikes to occur, the Pakistani public is getting to feel it’s an infringement on their sovereignty and that the US is taking Pakistani cooperation in the war on terrorism for granted. Is Pakistan a reliable partner in the war on terror? It’s widely recognised in the US that Pakistan is not a reliable partner. The US does receive some cooperation from Pakistan in terms of information to disrupt terrorist plots and fighting militants in the tribal areas. But, there’s also a lack of cooperation against terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban that are still fighting US forces in Afghanistan. This leaves US officials frustrated in developing an effective Pakistan policy. They want to continue the tactical cooperation they’re getting, but they don’t know how to secure strategic cooperation for the US to win the war in Afghanistan. Will the drone strikes be scaled back to placate Pakistani sensitivities? I don’t think so. The US has increased the drone campaign in part because they received intelligence about potential terror plots. It looks like the strikes were able to eliminate some of the people involved in that plot. The US will make decisions based on what is necessary to protect its citizens from future terror strikes - not based on any complaints that Pakistan may have on the issue. Doesn’t the US have leverage over Pakistan to challenge its double-dealing on terrorism? The US doesn’t have adequate leverage over Pakistan: the billions of dollars in aid it provided Pakistan has secured very little leverage. We are trying to figure out how to develop an effective policy towards Pakistan. What tends to trump the conversations is that people believe things could get much worse in Pakistan: if the US pushes too hard, we could have a situation where you have a rogue Pakistan in control of nuclear weapons, a nightmare scenario. One of the reasons we can’t develop our leverage over Pakistan is because there is such a high risk of instability. Can’t the Nato troops and the US end their reliance on Pakistan for supply routes to Afghanistan? We should be doing everything we can to find alternatives to the Pakistani supply routes. But I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace what Pakistan provides. Even reducing our dependence would send a signal to Pakistan. I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the status quo until - god forbid! - there’s a successful terrorist attack in the US. We should do everything to prevent such a possibility. This requires Pakistan to do more, and if we have to use some more stick - rather than continue to pour in aid - we should be doing it. It’s almost like the US is stuck in a bad marriage it can’t walk out of… That’s a good analogy: it is a bad marriage the US can’t walk out of. The US needs the cooperation it gets from Pakistan, and to that extent it does need Pakistan. And Pakistan too needs the US: it relies on US assistance. There is mutual dependency, but certainly the relationship isn’t to the satisfaction of either side. It’s difficult to say what the breaking point will be. But I’d speculate that a successful terrorist strike in the US that emanates from Pakistan’s tribal areas would probably represent a game-changer. To secure greater leverage over Pakistan, will the US offer it concessions on Kashmir? I don’t think so. The Kashmir issue is more a symptom of the larger problem between India and Pakistan; it’s not as if dealing with Kashmir will make these terrorist groups melt away. The aims of India-focussed groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba are broader than Kashmir: they’re trying to wreak havoc throughout India and dent the country’s image as an emerging power. They use the situation in Kashmir to justify what they’re doing, but they’re not interested in Kashmir. The idea that if the US intervenes in Kashmir, it would help focus Pakistan’s attention on dealing with militant groups is a misunderstanding. The focus should be on convincing Pakistan to crack down on these groups for the sake of its own stability. The non-state actors that Pakistan supported to destabilise India are now destabilising Pakistan. The sooner Pakistan accepts that reality, the better. Does the Obama administration realise that Kashmir is a red herring? There’s increased understanding on this point. Initially there was some naiveté: a connection was mistakenly made that if the US could resolve Kashmir, the problems of South Asia would go away. That’s typical of new administrations: they come in with an idealistic view that the US can wave its magic wand and resolve problems. Kashmir represents Pakistani paranoia about an emerging India. At the heart of the issue is convincing Pakistan that building up its economy is the best way for it to protect its regional interests, not trying to wreak havoc on its neighbours. I think there’s a growing understanding within the Obama administration on this point, so we won’t see the president trying to seek a high profile role on Kashmir. He’s learnt the lesson from when as a presidential candidate he promoted the idea of a Kashmir envoy. He may raise the issue in private meetings and seek to get more information to enhance his own understanding of the region. The best way to pursue this may be encouraging New Delhi to deal with Kashmiri grievances, which we’ve seen over this summer. But the other part of it is convincing Pakistan not to take advantage of this situation like it did throughout the 1990s when it supported insurgent groups in the region.


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