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Opinions differ on Obama plan for South Asia envoy

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
January 20, 2009 08:45 IST
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Leading South Asia analysts are divided over the incoming Obama administration's likely decision to appoint a special envoy for South Asia. Critical opinion is split three ways: Some argue that such an envoy should concentrate only on Afghanistan and Pakistan; another section holds that India should be included and that a discussion on Kashmir is inevitable; and a third section of opinion contends that the whole idea is misguided.

Dennis Kux, a senior fellow at the Washington, DC think-tank Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars and author of the seminal Estranged Democracies: India and the United States, believes a special envoy would be a good idea.

"I believe there ought to be somebody in the White House who is looking at South Asia, who has more authority than the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, and who devotes all his time to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the India-Pakistan problem," he said.

While Pakistan and Afghanistan are priority, Kux says, India is important because "one has an effect on the other, so it all ties together. And one cannot deny that in looking at India-Pakistan problems, the Kashmir dispute is the main problem. It does not mean that you have to be there beating up on people or what have you, but just that you have a focal point in the US government; that there is unity of thought and unity of policy."

Kux believes that a special envoy solves the existing problem, "where the State Department is going one way, the Pentagon the other, etc."

Dr Stephen P Cohen, who heads the South Asia programme at the Brookings Institution, another Washington, DC think-tank, says there is a need for a special envoy, whose brief extends to the entire region. "Assistant secretaries of state have become mere country directors and the problems are so great. Anyway, the Obama style is to have special emissaries and that means the Assistant Secretary for South Asia will be managers for just Nepal and Sri Lanka and maybe Bangladesh."

The trick, says Cohen, is to pick the right envoy. "That is 98 percent of the issue. If it is someone who charges in there and bullies people, he might not get very far in any country in the region."

Former career diplomat Richard Holbrooke's name is the one most often cited as the likely envoy. "I don't know if that personality (Holbrooke) is going to match up with the problems of the region," Cohen says, adding that he would prefer someone like former US ambassador to India Thomas Pickering.

Interestingly, Holbrooke has of late been travelling regularly to Afghanistan and being briefed by noted Afghanistan expert Professor Marvin Weinbaum. The Obama team is believed to be "impressed by his views on Afghanistan" and on how to take a "regional approach that includes India."

Cohen is not similarly impressed. "Just because you are an expert in one area doesn't mean you'll be an expert in all areas," the South Asia expert says. Referring to India's voiced objections to the appointment of such an envoy, Cohen says "India should not be averse to a special envoy talking about Kashmir. It's still a problem for India and it involves China too. It's not simply Pakistan. And I think it should be legitimate for other countries to be concerned about this."

He warns, however, that it is counter-productive for the envoy, when named, to twist India's arm in a bid to solve the Kashmir problem. "But if the Indians can find a way out of this and if the outsiders can help, they should welcome it and I think they've been foolish in taking a hard-nosed position on this."

On the subject of Afghanistan, Cohen argues that any administration strategy has to take the wide angle view, and should include neighbours like India, Iran and even China. Acknowledging the paranoia in Pakistan regarding India's role in Afghanistan, Cohen said, "Every time I go to Pakistan, they lecture me about the 25 Indian consulates in Afghanistan. I understand from both Indian and American officials that in fact the Indian presence is not that great, that the Pakistanis are wildly exaggerating it. Maybe that's the Indian purpose — to makes the Pakistanis think they are doing something."

He says it is counterproductive for India and Pakistan to continue their cold war in Afghanistan, where the US has vital interests. The two countries should instead realise their common interest in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, he argues, "because it could otherwise keep spilling into their own countries."

Harlan Kenneth Ullman, senior associate with the Centre of Strategic and International Studies, is also in favour of the idea of a special envoy, whose brief is a regional approach that includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

Ullman, who has close links with Pakistani government officials, military leaders and intelligence officers, believes the insurgency in Afghanistan "is getting worse and the situation is deteriorating, and this extends obviously to Pakistan because what happens in Afghanistan fuels what is happening in Pakistan, and the insurgency is heading East --there is no doubt it's heading to India."

"The only way you are going to take it on is regional -- you are going to need to involve China, and Russia and Iran and the Gulf and Saudi Arabia and other States."

Ullman recommends as special envoy someone like former general and ex-National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who is very knowledgeable of the region. Taking a swipe at Holbrooke, whose stellar moment was his negotiations on the Bosnia-Serbia crisis, Ullman said, "If you get someone whose experience is entirely in Europe, I don't think that would be the appropriate person. You need somebody who is well known to the region because the issues are too complicated, too inter-related and frankly too difficult for someone to learn on the trot."

Ullman thus recommends Scowcroft, Pickering, or someone on those lines who "has stature and the understanding of the region. You have to give them a mission. One is to promote peace and stability and prosperity. That means there has to be some link back to financial aid from the United States, and it also needs to be closely linked with Central Command, because in this case there has to be a combination of military force as well as the more important issue of civilian aid and help and that has to be the goal."

Former CIA South Asia analyst Lisa Curtis, currently a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and Gary Samore, vice president and director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, were, however, opposed to the appointment of a special envoy.

Curtis warned that such an appointment would be "misguided", and that "raising the spectre of international intervention in the Kashmir dispute could fuel unrealistic expectations in Pakistan for a final settlement in its favour." Consequently, she said it would compound the problem in encouraging Pakistan "to increasing its support for Kashmiri militants to push an agenda it believed was within reach."

She said such a brief for the envoy could signal to New Delhi that Washington is "reverting to policies that view India only through the South Asia lens rather than as the rising power that it is." This, she said, could be counterproductive to the Obama administration's efforts to "build on major gains the Bush team made in improving what Vice President-elect Joe Biden himself called one of the most important bilateral relationships for the US in the 21st century."

Samore for his part believes the brief for a special envoy should be limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan and should not include India. He, and all other experts interviewed for this story, are unanimous however that the November 26 terror attacks in Mumbai has made South Asia an immediate priority for the incoming administration.

The Obama administration, Kux said, has its work cut out to lower the temperature between India and Pakistan "so that the Pakistanis continue to focus on the Western and not the Eastern border. One way to do that – though it "will take some doing" – is to try and revive the India-Pakistan composite dialogue as soon as possible. "With elections coming up in India, though, and with the (Prime Minister) Manmohan Singh government not wishing to appear namby-pamby, it becomes more difficult."

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC