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U.S. Removes Kashmir From Envoy's Mandate; India Exults

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 30, 2009

NEW DELHI, Jan. 29 -- Inside a chandeliered ballroom Thursday, Indian diplomats and business leaders and American officials held forth about a new "Cooperation Triangle" for the United States, China and India. But little mention was made at the Asia Foundation's conference on Indo-U.S. relations of the Indian government's recent diplomatic slam-dunk.

India managed to prune the portfolio of the Obama administration's top envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard C. Holbrooke -- basically eliminating the contested region of Kashmir from his job description. The deletion is seen as a significant diplomatic concession to India that reflects increasingly warm ties between the country and the United States, according to South Asia analysts.

Indian diplomats, worried about Holbrooke's tough-as-nails reputation, didn't want him meddling in Kashmir, according to several Indian officials and Indian news media reports. Holbrooke is nicknamed "the Bulldozer" for arm-twisting warring leaders to the negotiating table as he hammered out the 1995 Dayton peace accords that ended the war in Bosnia, a peace that has stuck.

"I think it is time for us -- having fobbed off Holbrooke -- to sit quietly and ask where are we and how do we manage the situation," said C. Raja Mohan, an Indian strategic analyst who served on India's national security advisory board in 2006.

Mohan's comments captured the public glee many Indians feel over their country's latest diplomatic success. It follows the government's victory in securing a deal with the United States that gives India access to civilian nuclear technology, even though it is a not a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

India and Pakistan have made slow but steady progress on Kashmir over the past four years, but relations quickly chilled after the November attacks in Mumbai; India accused Pakistan of aiding in the three-day assault.

Few places represent the region's complexities more than Kashmir, a territory that has been disputed since the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. The nuclear-armed nations have fought two wars over Kashmir, and the United States stepped in to head off a third one in 2001. Both countries claim Kashmir and both control parts of it, with the United Nations monitoring a cease-fire line between them.

"No matter what government is in place, India is not going to relinquish control of Jammu and Kashmir," Brajesh Mishra, India's former national security adviser, said in reference to the territory's Indian-administered sector. "That is written in stone and cannot be changed."

During the U.S. presidential campaign, Obama said the Kashmir issue was central to any stability in the region.

But India is suspicious of third-party intervention in the dispute. Kashmir is an internal issue and shouldn't be a part of any outsider's mandate, many Indian officials here say.

The country's Outlook magazine ran a cover story this week showing Obama dancing with his wife at an inaugural ball with the headline: "Should India fear him? What India must do to ensure Kashmir won't get caught in the crosshairs."

Last week, Mohan warned Holbrooke against "any high-profile intervention" in Kashmir. The topic is so politically sensitive here that it is referred to as the "K-word."

At a news briefing Tuesday, State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said Kashmir was not part of Holbrooke's mandate.

"His mandate is to go out and try to help bring stability to Afghanistan, working closely with Pakistan," Wood said. "India has some very clear views as to what it wants to do vis-a-vis dealing with the Kashmir issue, as well as the Pakistanis."

When asked whether Holbrooke would play a role if there were heightened tensions again over the Mumbai attacks, Wood said, "I don't want to speculate in terms of what he may or may not do, but his brief is focused solely on, as I said, Afghanistan-Pakistan."

Holbrooke was originally tasked as the special envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan "and related matters," code for India and Kashmir, according to a U.S. official in Washington who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person is not authorized to speak publicly. But on the morning Holbrooke's posting was announced, "related matters" had been deleted from the description.

Wood said at a briefing Thursday that Holbrooke would stop at the Munich Conference on Security Policy on Tuesday before heading to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the border region is a haven for Taliban fighters and where Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have yet to comment on the Kashmir decision. But other South Asia experts say that taking Kashmir out of Holbrooke's hands may upset Pakistan and that there may be back-channel negotiations anyway.

"Intellectually, it is impossible to disentangle these problems from each other," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The smartest thing is to work on this behind the scenes."

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