House Democratic Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) are not exactly ideological soul mates. But on Sept. 28, the two set aside their customary differences to urge the appointment of a U.S. envoy to help broker a solution to the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
The announcement at a Capitol Hill news conference marked a major victory for a group of Pakistani American physicians, professionals and businessmen who have sought to counter the increasingly successful lobbying efforts of their Indian-born counterparts with a grass-roots advocacy campaign of their own.
But Americans for Peace and Justice in South Asia did not have long to savor its victory. Only a few weeks later, a Pakistani general overthrew the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan's U.S. partisans found themselves on the defensive.
"Obviously we are sad that any country at the dawn of the 21st century" would overthrow a democratically elected government, said Nasim Ashraf, a Pakistan-born physician who lives in Spencerville, Md., and founded the advocacy group with help from lobbyist Lanny Davis, formerly of the Clinton White House.
Ashraf expressed confidence that "there will be an early return to civilian rule." In discussions with lawmakers, he said, his group has been working to put the military takeover "in its proper context," noting the new leader, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, enjoys widespread popular support and has pledged major structural reforms aimed at rooting out corruption.
Whatever the merits of that argument, it is not one that Ashraf and Davis--whose law firm, Patton Boggs, is earning $10,000 a month for his efforts on behalf of the group--had hoped to be making at this stage.
The purpose of forming the group, after all, was to make the case for better relations between the United States and Pakistan--in part by touting Islamabad's democratic credentials. Although Pakistan was a close ally of the United States during the Cold War, the country increasingly is regarded in Washington as a crossroads of drug trafficking and Islamic militancy.
Another factor that has eroded Pakistan's standing among U.S. policymakers, especially on Capitol Hill, has been the emergence of a well-organized and well-financed lobbying effort by Indian American professionals and entrepreneurs. Last summer, the so-called India lobby claimed partial credit when the Clinton administration publicly blamed Pakistan for provoking a major military confrontation with India in the Kargil region of Kashmir.
"With this recent Kargil issue, we felt that Pakistani Americans were being stereotyped as fundamentalists and warmongers and it was traumatic, to us and our children, who were born and raised here," said Ashraf, 49, who moved to the United States in 1974 to complete his training as a kidney specialist. "We felt that in the media, the Pakistani viewpoint was not being heard."
Earlier this year, Ashraf and other politically active Pakistani Americans hired Patton Boggs--which already represented the government of Pakistan--to form the lobby group.
Like the Pakistani government, Ashraf's group seeks to "internationalize" the Kashmir conflict by involving a third-party mediator such as the United States. India contends the conflict should be settled only through direct negotiations with Pakistan.
The group's inaugural event on Capitol Hill last month was a big success, with Bonior and Burton presiding over the release of a letter signed by 15 senators and 46 House members urging Clinton to intervene more directly in the conflict over Kashmir, "the most dangerous nuclear flashpoint in the world today."
Around the same time, Pakistan scored another win in Washington when lawmakers agreed to an administration request for authority to waive sanctions imposed on both India and Pakistan for their nuclear programs. The measure was seen as especially beneficial to Pakistan because it could clear the way for the resumption of U.S. military sales to Pakistan.
Following the coup, however, Davis and the Pakistani American lobby have been fighting a rear-guard action in Congress, where pro-India lawmakers have seized on the military takeover as evidence that Pakistan should remain under sanctions.
"Clearly the military coup was not helpful in American public opinion, much less in the administration, and our friends in the Congress are concerned and we recognize the legitimacy of those concerns," Davis said in an interview yesterday. Noting that Musharraf has already sought to reduce tensions with India, Davis said the goal now is to persuade lawmakers that the military coup represents "a great opportunity" to resolve the Kashmir issue.