Obama's apparent low-key approach to Kashmir disappoints some in disputed region

Police detain a man during a Shiite rally in Srinagar, summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir. Such gatherings are banned in the region. (Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

SRINAGAR, INDIAN-ADMINISTERED KASHMIR -- Every day, Irfan Ansari sorts through dozens of résumés from young Kashmiris seeking jobs at his call center, seen by many here as a haven from the turmoil caused by militant Islamist forces seeking to uproot the government of Indian-administered Kashmir.

"Many young Kashmiris today just want a good life," said Ansari, who has 300 employees. "I have more than 10,000 résumés on my desk. I wish I could hire them all."

A new generation of Kashmiris is weary of five decades of tensions over the future of this Himalayan region, which has been a flash point for India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers that claim Kashmir as their own.

But Kashmiris have been caught in the diplomatic dilemma facing the Obama administration as it tries to persuade Pakistan to take on a stronger role fighting Islamist extremists and simultaneously seeks to improve relations with India, Pakistan's arch foe.

Many Kashmiris celebrated when President Obama took office nearly a year ago, because he seemed to favor a more robust approach to bring stability to Kashmir, where human rights groups estimate that as many as 100,000 people have died in violence and dozens of Pakistan-backed militant groups have sprung up. At one point, the Obama administration contemplated appointing former president Bill Clinton as a special envoy to the region.

But now residents say they are disappointed, complaining that Obama has not engaged on Kashmir other that to say recently that the region's fate is in the hands of India and Pakistan alone.

"When Obama came, there was so much hope to reclaim those happy times in Kashmir. But when it comes to human rights, we feel really let down. It's been nothing more than election rhetoric," said Pervez Imroz, a Kashmiri lawyer and head of a coalition of civil society groups.

Low-key approach

But analysts say Obama is working behind the scenes, treading a careful diplomatic path.

The Obama administration is supporting the Indian government's talks, or what it calls "quiet diplomacy," with Kashmiri separatists groups to discuss options such as greater autonomy and demilitarization of the region. The talks are seen in India's capital and in Kashmir as a key development, with dialogue about the future of the region continuing even though attacks in Mumbai last year have derailed talks between India and Pakistan.

"Washington fears that any overt American interference in Kashmir could backfire and set back warming relations between India and the U.S.," said Howard B. Schaffer, a retired Foreign Service official who is an expert on South Asia and author of "The Limits of Influence: America's Role in Kashmir." Any mention of appointing a special envoy for Kashmir, he said, is "viewed as toxic waste in India."

The Obama administration's apparent low-key approach to Kashmir belies the region's importance to the U.S. campaign against terrorism. The population here -- 10 million, as of the 2001 census -- is predominantly Muslim, and Islamist militants have tried to recruit followers in the region. But in recent years, most Kashmiris have said they just want a return to peace.

Even more important for U.S. interests, though, is calming the ongoing tension between India and Pakistan over the region so that the Pakistani military can turn more of its attention to helping root out al-Qaeda members and other militants who have used isolated regions of Pakistan as a base for operations against U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Easing tensions would also allow Pakistan to move more forcefully against Lashkar-i-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group implicated in the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai, India's financial capital, which killed 165 people. India says the group is also smuggling fighters into Kashmir.

But some Kashmiris want more from Washington.

'U.S. has to engage'

"The Obama administration and India can't hide behind Mumbai. The U.S. has to engage with both India and Pakistan," said Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, chairman of the All Parties Hurriyet Conference, a separatist coalition. "If this opportunity is missed, all the ingredients are there for the cycle of violence to start again."

Human rights groups accuse India's government of killing civilians in its crackdown on militants.

"We want Washington to speak out against these tragedies," Imroz, the lawyer, said. "There has only been silence."

In recent years, violence between militants and the Indian army has largely decreased. A new generation of Kashmiris has said it is committed to a nonviolent freedom movement.

But Kashmiris still grow angry at perceived wrongs. Protesters filled the streets this month after India's top investigating agency ruled that two young village women thought to have been raped and killed in the summer had drowned in a mountain stream.

Many here view the findings as a cover-up to protect the Kashmiri officers working for Indian security forces. Others say the initial investigation was fabricated to frame security forces.

Such incidents highlight the fragility of Kashmir's peace and scare off potential investors in projects such as Ansari's call center that could provide a sense of normalcy for many.

He and others here worry that without a political solution soon, the region's youths will grow restless and turn once again to militancy.

"We need to divert young minds from this conflict," Ansari said, sitting in a cafe where rock music mixed with the hiss of a cappuccino machine. "But our problem in Kashmir is that conflict keeps Kashmir Valley from turning into a Silicon Valley. Our talent pool is great. People are scared to invest here. We want them to come to Kashmir with an open heart."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company