Cautious moves

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

The message from the U.S. was that Musharraf should rein in the terrorists and India and Pakistan should sit down for talks, but it was conveyed in such a way that U.S. mediation was not apparent.

THERE was an element of interest in the Clinton administration in the direct talks between the Government of India and the Hizbul Mujahideen, and with that came the hope that the peace initiative would prepare the ground for the major parties involved in the Kashmir imbroglio to come to grips with the decades-old problem that has defied solution.

Washington's response to the Hizbul's ceasefire declaration and the opening of the negotiations and their abrupt breakdown subsequently were along expected lines. In the first instance, it welcomed the A.B. Vajpayee government's attempt to break the impa sse by responding to the ceasefire offer and condemned the massacres in Kashmir on the eve of the talks. Later, in expressing disappointment over the fact that the parleys made no progress or the hopes that the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Indian government would resume the dialogue, the administration stayed focussed on the immediate. At the same time, it did not pass up the opportunity to remind New Delhi as to where the solution for the Kashmir problem could be found. Richard Boucher, State Department s pokesman, said: "We do believe there cannot be a solution to the Kashmir issue without direct discussions between India and Pakistan. In order for such discussions to take place, however, a climate of trust must be created through sincere efforts to end the violence and, of course, taking the wishes of the Kashmiri people into account."

On the face of it, the reaction to the breakdown of talks sounds like a standard statement issued every once in a while. But the difference is that in the past several months Washington has been stressing the violence aspect of the Kashmir issue rather s trenuously - the message being that necessary steps have to be taken to bring down the level of violence as an imperative for any breakthrough in the bilateral talks between India and Pakistan. Having said this, it has to be qualified by the statement th at in spite of all that has been trotted out against violence, Washington has not accused Pakistan in any direct fashion of either being involved in the spate of attacks or of fomenting trouble in Kashmir.

In the context of the immediate, the administration has also admonished the Hizbul Mujahideen for bringing in a clause or insisting on a "new condition" after declaring a ceasefire and offering to sit for dialogue. Specifically, the Hizbul Mujahideen's A ugust 8 deadline for the inclusion of Pakistan in tripartite talks is considered to be an afterthought. The State Department observed: "It is not helpful for the Hizbul Mujahideen to insist on a new condition after the ceasefire and offer of dialogue was announced and accepted by India."

The U.S. was also eager to dispel any notion that it had played a behind-the-scenes role in the Hizbul's original offer in order to pre-empt protests from political quarters in India about American "mediation". Had such a notion gained ground Pakistan wo uld then have used the occasion to call for a "larger" U.S. role in resolving the Kashmir dispute. At the same time, senior officials made no bones about the fact that Pakistan could be leaned on to use its "influence". After all, Washington is not under any illusion as to who is the "real" power behind the militant and terrorist outfits.

In the aftermath of the Bill Clinton visit to South Asia in March, the administration has not said much for the record on the strategy it is pursuing with Pakistan. But sufficient indications were available, starting with Clinton's discussions with the m ilitary ruler during his brief stopover in Islamabad, that Pakistan had been told in plain language that steps should be taken to end the violence in the Kashmir Valley.

In short, the message has been that General Pervez Musharraf must rein in the "boys" if he is to expect anything meaningful from the U.S. At the same time, the Clinton administration, now caught in an election year, has not decided how it is going to dea l with Gen. Musharraf if he does not match its expectations. In all the noise that has been generated on the new Indo-U.S. relations, Washington's long-standing friendship with Pakistan, especially as it relates to the Cold War days and the Soviet occupa tion of Afghanistan, come as a reminder.

CLINTON may have South Asia high on his mind, but the region will not compete to find a place on his list of accomplishments in the foreign policy agenda when he completes his tenure in January 2001. It did not matter to the President when he visited Ind ia early this year that he was a "lame duck" leader, and it certainly does not matter now as U.S. officials get ready for Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee's visit to that country.

If anything, Clinton is on his last legs of the Presidency, but that is not going to stop him from trying to get India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. But for now the White House is maintaining that there is not even a scheduled meeting between Cl inton and Musharraf in New York when various heads of state gather at the United Nations for the Millennium Summit in September.

South Asia, in the perception of Clinton, has the dubious distinction of being "one of the most dangerous regions of the world". The President came to this conclusion based on an Intelligence estimate that the likelihood of a war between India and Pakist an getting to the nuclear mode had increased "significantly". This estimate was made in the backdrop of the Kargil war and the continuing tensions over Kashmir.

The intelligence assessment, which was reported prominently in The New York Times last fortnight, was prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other wings of the intelligence community. It had come just as the President was getting re ady to visit India, and hence it has been argued that the political agenda mirrored the concerns laid out in the document. On the one hand the Intelligence estimate demanded high-level attention to defusing tensions, and yet it had no prescription as to what the administration ought to do.

To Indian leaders, Clinton's assessment of South Asia may sound alarmist; a view expressed by President K.R. Narayanan during Clinton's visit. But this did not stop the U.S. President from using the opportunity to fine-tune the efforts to reduce politica l tensions in the subcontinent. In his own way Clinton has called for restraint and stressed the need for India and Pakistan to get on with the dialogue process. He has been in direct contact with Vajpayee, and his National Security Advisor Samuel Sandy Berger is said to be in regular contact with Musharraf.

In fact one perception has been that from a political point of view, Clinton's visit to South Asia has already started to pay dividends. Both New Delhi and Washington constantly refer to the marked change in the tone and substance of the bilateral relati onship, and Pakistan has been put on notice, at least on the terrorism front, over and beyond the handing over of Saudi fugitive Osama bin Laden. Some people in the U.S. may even go to the extent of saying that violence in the Valley is not at the same l evel and intensity as it was, say, four months ago.

Clinton knows, and he has said this on more than one occasion, that the U.S. is ready to help the peace process but only if India and Pakistan make a request. Islamabad has repeatedly urged Washington to get involved, only to be reminded of Indian sensit ivities. But there is nothing more that Clinton would want in the next four months than a serious resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan. The administration would not exactly go to town claiming credit for that, but there will be the quiet cla im that its nudgings paid off.

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