Powell Punts in South Asia

Neither U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell nor any other observers expected the Secretary’s visit to South Asia to produce a breakthrough in the tense standoff between the region’s nuclear-armed rivals. Powell’s failure to obtain any assurances of further concessions by either side cannot therefore said to be a disappointment. Surprisingly, however, the Secretary of State did make news. In India he called for India to allow international observers when it holds elections in Jammu and Kashmir this fall, and reportedly declared that Kashmir is now “on the international agenda.” In Pakistan he expressed the hope that these elections in Indian Kashmir would open the way for peace. Taken together the statements indicated an evolving U.S. position that neither likes–one that essentially ignores Pakistani calls for a plebiscite to determine the wishes of Kashmiris, while questioning India’s right to determine unilaterally that Kashmiri aspirations had been met.

Each side has presented its own on Powell’s visit. Pakistan has announced that it understood Powell’s comments as an indication of support for Pakistan’s demand for a plebiscite in Kashmir. Indian responses have been more overtly hostile as Indian opposition parties have taken the government to task for allowing the Kashmir conflict to be “internationalized,” in violation of the stated position of every Indian government that the issue should be settled bilaterally. India categorically rejected the call for international observers, indicating only that journalists “who obtained visas” would be free to travel to Kashmir in an individual capacity. The government treated Powell’s statement that Kashmir was “on the international agenda” as a statement of the international community’s concern about terrorism.

Powell’s stated reason for his visit was to ensure that the situation did not deteriorate, at least before October, when elections are due both to the Pakistani parliament and to the state legislature of the Indian portion of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). During the visit, however, there were three views on whether militant infiltration from Pakistan into Indian Kashmir has reduced–Pakistan claimed it has stopped completely, India claims only a marginal reduction, and Powell claimed significant reduction. Nonetheless Powell probably did help to meet his objective by putting the focus on the quality of the J&K elections, since India has indicated that it would use the level of militant activity during the J&K elections as an indicator of Pakistan’s commitment to reducing tensions.

It is unclear, however, what will follow if all goes well in October. Powell has indicated that he hopes a dialogue will begin, but there is no clear indication from any side as to what such a dialogue would cover. Pakistan has consistently insisted that India needs to negotiate the status of Kashmir in exchange for the end of Pakistani support for militancy. India has consistently maintained that according to international norms after September 11th Pakistan needs to stop supporting the Kashmir insurgency permanently and unconditionally and, while it might be willing to discuss the Kashmir issue with Pakistan, clearly has no intention of negotiating Kashmir’s future. Powell’s comments are therefore best thought of as akin to a “punt” in American football: kicking the ball down the field to delay the moment of reckoning in the hopes the dynamic will change.