Obama unlikely to wade into Kashmir 'tar pit' on his trip

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 4, 2010 

SRINAGAR, India — Shortly before winning the presidency in 2008, Barack Obama said that as part of his drive to end the Afghanistan conflict, he'd take on one of South Asia's most intractable issues — competing claims to Kashmir by nuclear-armed rivals Pakistan and India — even if it meant wading into a "tar pit" with little chance of quick resolution.

Two years later, although Kashmir is simmering after months of destabilizing violence, the conflict is all but off the agenda as Obama arrives this weekend for his first presidential trip to India.

A humbling Election Day for the president and his Democratic Party over domestic economic discontent leaves little room for him to embark on another risky foreign peace initiative. India's rejection of outside mediation also makes it difficult for Obama to push the issue as he tries to woo leaders of the economic powerhouse.

But Kashmiri leaders are warning the president that it would be a strategic mistake to ignore the most dangerous spiral of violence to consume the picturesque valley in years.

"We are not asking the Americans to take a position against India or for Kashmir," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the spiritual leader who heads Kashmir's umbrella group of secessionist politicians. "We are just saying that there is a general realization that India and Pakistan need to be pushed in terms of a dialogue."

More than 700,000 Indian forces keep a tight grip on the predominantly Muslim population that launched a revolt in 1989 and rose up again this summer in a protracted series of stone-throwing protests that left more than 110 people dead. Though the worst of the violence has subsided, Indian forces regularly arrest protest leaders and impose curfews on activist strongholds in Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, and its surrounding villages.

While India views Kashmir as strictly a bilateral matter with Pakistan, many see a resolution to the conflict as crucial to a stable and peaceful outcome in nearby Afghanistan.

"They are linked so much now that India and Pakistan are fueling ethnic tension in Afghanistan," said Muzamil Jaleel, a veteran Kashmiri journalist for the Indian Express daily newspaper. "If they don't do something it is going to be a huge headache."

Kashmir has been the spark for two wars since the British partitioned India between a mainly Hindu India and an overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan in 1947. Since 1989, at least 50,000 people have died in the fighting.

The Kashmir Valley is dotted with saffron farms, walnut orchards and cashmere shops that stretch out below the Himalayan mountains. Srinagar unfolds around a network of lakes and canals filled with scenic houseboats and picturesque gardens created by the ancient Mughals in their summer capital.

Since 1989, Pakistan's premier spy agency has fomented resistance by recruiting and training militants who are dispatched to destabilize the region along its eastern border.

Pakistan says the threat of war with India over Kashmir is the reason it's deployed much of its army on the Indian border rather than taking control over its border with Afghanistan, where Taliban insurgents who are trying to topple the U.S.-backed government in Kabul have sanctuary.

Obama, once viewed as a transformative leader determined to remake America's global image, especially in the Muslim world, has had many reasons for focusing most of his energies at home, starting with economic turmoil.

Still, the leaders at the forefront of the summer's stone-throwing protests are calling on the U.S. president to seize the initiative before a pervasive frustration here devolves into another chapter of unchecked militancy.

"There is a strong risk that they will feel a sense of humiliation and eventually go back to armed struggle," said Yasin Malik, a Kashmiri leader and prominent advocate of nonviolent resistance to Indian rule.

India and Pakistan nearly went to war after Pakistani terrorists killed a dozen people in a December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Strong U.S. pressure led Pakistan's then-military dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, to rein in Pakistani-sponsored Kashmiri guerrilla groups. Since then, the Indo-Pakistan rivalry has largely shifted to Afghanistan.

In recent years, Pakistan-backed militants have attacked Indian targets in Kabul, including the Indian Embassy, while the Indian government has supported extensive diplomatic and humanitarian efforts to solidify its position in Afghanistan.

Promoting a durable power balance in the region, many analysts say, requires tackling concerns about Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Days before winning the presidency in 2008, Obama vowed to do just that.

"Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation, where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically," he said in an interview with Time magazine. "But for us to devote 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?"

Once in office, the president quickly gave up on the idea of appointing a special envoy to work on Kashmir after India refused to agree that special envoy Richard Holbrooke could include it in his mandate for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Kashmir's turmoil dates to the tumultuous birth of independent India and Pakistan in 1947, when the Hindu ruler of Kashmir agreed to join India in return for the deployment of Indian troops to stop an incursion of tribesmen dispatched by Pakistan to seize the region. This left about one-third of Kashmir in Pakistan and the rest in India.

Pakistan has never accepted India's claims to the territory, and Kashmiri separatists have long battled heavy-handed Indian forces for independence or significant autonomy.

Kashmir erupted in another spiral of violence last June, when a teenage demonstrator died after being hit by a tear gas canister.

One of the most recent Kashmiri victims of the turmoil was Rafiqa Ara, a 45-year-old mother of six who was killed in September while standing on her balcony as demonstrators took to the streets of her village outside Srinagar.

Police in Srinagar said a stray bullet that police fired during protests may have killed Ara, but her children accused Indian forces of targeting their mother.

"We have lost our mother. What will we do with our freedom?" said a weeping Ishrat Ara, Rafiqa Ara's dispirited 16-year-old daughter. "Obama is powerful. If he does nothing, that will be our misfortune."

S.M. Sahai, the head of Kashmir's police force, said his men had been directed to recalibrate their tactics against stone throwers in an attempt to reduce deaths and injuries during the demonstrations.

"This is all the politics of dead bodies," he said. "We certainly are concerned about one thing: that unnecessary deaths should be minimized."

While the deadly street protests have eased, competing waves of government-imposed curfews and opposition-led strikes are still disrupting daily life across Kashmir.

Stone-throwing demonstrations are now largely isolated. But fears linger that ideological extremists might try to capitalize on Obama's visit by staging a spectacular attack that could ignite wider violence in Kashmir.

In 2000, as then-President Bill Clinton was heading to India for a historic visit, militants dressed in Indian military uniforms killed 35 members of Kashmir's minority Sikh population.

The destabilizing attack was widely thought to be the work of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group that's used Indian control of Kashmir as a central rallying cry.

On Saturday, Obama will commemorate the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, which also were linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba militants, who American accomplice David Headley recently claimed were backed by Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency, a charge that Pakistan denies.

But the president's aides have sent signals that Obama will downplay the importance of Kashmir during his visit.

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