If Obama's intent was to use his visits to highlight the effort he would make as president to reorient U.S. foreign policies to defeat terrorism and re-establish the country's standing in the troubled region, he would have included one more stop in his itinerary – Islamabad.
New America Media – If his primary mission was to win the media sweepstakes in the presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama's first visit to global hotspots as the presumptive presidential nominee of the Democratic Party has exceeded expectations. But in terms of practical utility to the formulation of his foreign policy or to the shaping of his worldview, it may not amount to much. A few hours in Kabul, Baghdad and Berlin cannot top the briefings he gets from a whopping 300 experts who are part of his foreign policy team.
If Obama's intent was to use his visits to highlight the effort he would make as president to reorient U.S. foreign policies to defeat terrorism and re-establish the country's standing in the troubled region, he would have included one more stop in his itinerary – Islamabad. After all, when the Democratic nominee reiterates ad nauseum on the campaign trail that the central front against terrorism is not in Iraq but in Afghanistan, he's tacitly pointing to Pakistan, which is not only a safe haven for Osama bin Laden and the rest of the leadership of al-Qaida and the Taliban, but also a fertile recruiting and training ground for future terror cadres.
The fundamental shift in foreign policy that Obama proposes is to get the U.S. troops out of Iraq within a time frame of 16 months — irrespective of the ground situation — and pick up the gauntlet in Afghanistan. While the candidate himself has not spelled out the specifics of his policy, its likely orientation can be derived from the perspective of the Obama campaign's principle South Asia adviser, Bruce Riedel.
A former CIA official, Riedel served in the National Security Council as special assistant to the president in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, specializing in the Middle East and South Asia. In an exclusive interview, Riedel, who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, outlined how resolving the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan may be inextricably linked to possible American efforts to wean away Islamabad from its relationship with terrorist networks.
While categorically asserting that he speaks for himself and not for candidate Obama, Riedel, however, maintains that for the next American president, there is no issue or country more critical to get right than Pakistan. This means “developing a policy that will move Pakistan away from being a hothouse of terror.” He contends that the United States has to go beyond "threats and sanctions, beyond commando raids and half-hearted intelligence cooperation, beyond aid and aircraft sales," and find out what motivates Pakistan.
Saying that “fear of India is the driving force” behind Pakistan's pursuit of relationships with Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic terrorism, Riedel wrote in a scholarly journal recently, “The conflict with India affects all aspects of Pakistan's worldview and its self-image.” Not only has the Pakistani Army never reconciled with Kashmir's accession to India, but security concerns with its more powerful neighbor have been central to Pakistan's actions, including its decision to wage, at the behest of America, a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, its support for the Taliban in post-Soviet Afghanistan and even its decision to throw its lot with the Americans after 9/11.
Riedel is among those South Asia observers who believe that Pakistan's involvement with terrorist outfits has to do with its obsession with Kashmir and its need to use them against India to offset the conventional military imbalance that favors New Delhi. "Coming to grips with Pakistan's obsession with India and Kashmir is critical to killing the monster," and the "time may be ripe in 2009 to move," he writes, clearly alluding to the likely policy of the new administration that will take over next year.
And therein lies the rub as far as India is concerned.
While denying that Kashmir holds the key to ending international Islamic terrorism and admitting that it is more likely that the Arab-Israeli conflict lies at the core of Islamic subnational movements, Riedel seems convinced that resolving the Kashmir impasse will end Pakistan's support for terrorist organizations.
Riedel's advice to the next U.S. president is unambiguous: engage India to resolve the Kashmir question. He feels that given the level of maturity that has come about in bilateral relations in the last decade, the United States is well-placed to pressure India on this issue. This is something that New Delhi has, at times politely and at times not so politely, resisted since the signing of India-Pakistan Peace Treaty in 1971, which affirmed that the Kashmir dispute would be resolved "bilaterally."
Interestingly, Riedel's solution for resolving the conflict – formalizing the Line of Control as the official border between the two countries – is neither original nor revolutionary. But the caveat is to make the border permeable enough for the people of Kashmir to foster their ethnic and economic links on both sides – along the lines of the arrangement between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It is a formula that the Americans have proposed informally for several years and one that pleases realists on both sides of the India-Pakistan divide who are eager to bury the past and move on to develop mutually beneficial relations.
Even assuming that resistance to such a formula by India's left and right can be overcome, a greater challenge will be to bring in line not only the Pakistani Army but also religious fundamentalists who regard Kashmir as a jihadic cause. That would mean the next president will not only have to use the American military aid leverage with the Pakistani Army, but also launch a Marshall Plan to strengthen that country's economy and democratic polity so moderate centrist forces can prevail.
It is a risky proposition, considering that democratization could work against American interests if it throws up the “wrong” people — as happened in the Palestinian territories. Only an American president with resolute political will and the ability to inspire confidence in an alien people can pull off the Herculean task of resolving one of the most intractable conflicts of the post-World War II era.
If "President" Obama demonstrates such will and inspires such confidence, he will have delivered on the slogan: A (foreign policy) Change We Can Believe In.
Sunil Adam is the editor of The Indian American, a general interest magazine published from New York, and a contributor to New America Media.