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The Washington Quarterly 24.2 (2001) 201-209

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Reconsidering the U.S. Role

Howard B. Schaffer

India's and Pakistan's rival demonstrations of their nuclear capabilities in May 1998 heightened the stakes over Kashmir, the most heated point of diplomatic friction between the two countries. The detonations jolted the Clinton administration into taking a hard look at long-standing U.S. policy toward the region, which some observers call "the most dangerous place in the world." The result has been a palpable shift in U.S. interest toward an economically vibrant India and away from an increasingly troublesome Pakistan. This shifting focus is driven in no small measure by recognition of the facts on the ground, and awareness that major changes will be needed in Indian and Pakistani policies to cool the dispute. The United States has a limited capacity to bridge the impasse; nonetheless, President George W. Bush may be the right person at the right time in the right place to help move things toward resolution.

Although both India and Pakistan have been capable of building nuclear weapons for quite some time, until recently they chose not to construct them. The threat of catastrophic conflict was thus largely theoretical. U.S. concerns have now moved to a different plane. The agenda hurriedly cobbled together by the Clinton administration to deal with South Asia following the tests gave equal stature to two objectives: resuming the stalled Indo-Pakistani dialogue on Kashmir as well as other bilateral problems, and restoring the international nonproliferation regime that the tests had shattered. At meetings of the permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council and the leaders of the eight major industrial nations, the administration called for urgent action by India and Pakistan to resolve their differences. This call was endorsed by the other major powers. [End Page 201]

Bad News for Pakistan

Pakistan at first welcomed the renewed U.S. interest. As the less powerful claimant, it has been unable to budge the status quo in Kashmir and has thus viewed the intervention of the international community as key to achieving its objectives. Contrary to Islamabad's hopes, however, its acquisition of nuclear weapons and the world spotlight turning to Kashmir has in fact turned U.S. policy to India's advantage. The events of May 1998 strengthened Washington's resolve to preserve stability in South Asia; though no one will say so directly, the equities of the Kashmir issue have taken a distinct backseat in the U.S. perspective. Some feel that the new and dangerous environment the nuclear tests created in the region make the use of force to change the status quo even more objectionable now. Because Washington policymakers and others familiar with the dispute had long recognized that New Delhi would not give up the part of Kashmir it held unless compelled by force, this realization was tantamount to an endorsement by the United States of a status quo that favors India.

This shift in U.S. attitudes was evident a year later, when Pakistani Army troops and Pakistan-supported Kashmiri insurgents crossed the line of control (LOC) dividing the border state in the remote but strategic Kargil area. The Pakistanis may have calculated that this incursion would prompt the United States to intervene to stop the fighting and cool down a "nuclear flashpoint." To their chagrin, Washington's reaction was sharply critical. In public statements and diplomatic exchanges, the United States called for an urgent end to the Kargil conflict by restoring the LOC. Such an approach has endowed the line with a significance it did not previously enjoy. This approach was music to Indian ears; Indian commentators noted that for the first time the United States was supporting India on the Kashmir issue. Speculation has even emerged of a new pro-India tilt in Washington's overarching South Asia policy.

The administration's emphasis on the LOC (and by inference the territorial status quo in Kashmir) was reinforced at the highest level when Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif met President Bill Clinton at the White House on...


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