The Road to Kabul Runs Through New Delhi

Sometime in the last year, secret back-channel talks between India and Pakistan over Kashmir restarted, say U.S. and Indian sources. The countries last held such talks under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and were reportedly on the verge of a breakthrough when Musharraf was ousted in August 2008. Then the Mumbai terror attacks that November badly frayed relations. For negotiations to resume now—open talks are also being discussed—would represent a huge development for the region.

And not just there. The payoff would stretch all the way to Washington. Peace between India and Pakistan could unlock another conflict with even higher stakes for the United States: Afghanistan. Indeed, a growing chorus of experts has begun arguing that the road to Kabul runs through Kashmir—that the U.S. will never stabilize the former without peace in the latter. Suddenly, bringing India and Pakistan together seems to be very much in America's interest. Which makes the Obama administration's determination to avoid the issue increasingly hard to fathom.

To understand why Kashmir is central to Afghanistan, start with the fact that the U.S. can't defeat the Afghan insurgency without Pakistan's help. Pakistan midwifed the Taliban and continues to provide it with shelter (and, allegedly, support). And that won't change until Pakistan resolves its rivalry with India. Pakistan's entire Afghan strategy is based on the idea that it needs a pliant regime to its West to give it "strategic depth": room to retreat in case of an Indian invasion. Fear of India also keeps Pakistan from putting enough troops on its 2,250-kilometer-long Afghan border, which the Taliban cross at will. As Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton's envoy, says, "The Pakistani military is so obsessed with India that it hinders their ability to deal with other real threats." The only thing that might ease that obsession is peace with New Delhi.

Given this, you'd expect the Obama team to be pushing the peace process forward. Instead, it has studiously avoided the issue. On one level that makes sense: Washington has its hands full, and India, thanks to its bad experience with past mediation and America's Cold War tilt toward Pakistan, erupts with rage whenever the U.S. hints it might get involved; in 2008, when Obama said he might include India in the mandate of his AfPak team, New Delhi raised such hell that the matter was dropped. Thus Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. AfPak envoy, refuses to consider U.S. involvement today.

Yet even he concedes that Kashmir makes Afghanistan "more difficult to resolve," and Washington simply can't afford to avoid it if it hopes to leave the region any time soon.

Now it may not have to. The possible resumption of India-Pakistan talks suggests there may be a growing constituency for peace. India, preoccupied with its economic boom, is especially eager to make the issue go away. A hard push from Washington could make the difference—especially if handled in a way that assuages India's fears. Obama has been much cooler toward New Delhi than Bush was. Were he to symbolically elevate the U.S.-India relationship now to the level of the U.S.-China dialogue, it could give Washington greater leeway on Kashmir. So would pressing Pakistan to be more cooperative on the Mumbai terrorists and helping New Delhi secure prizes it desperately covets, such as entry into the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty or a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. As Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University puts it, "If that were to happen, India would roll over on any issue." Washington would still need to get Islamabad on board. But Pakistan has long favored U.S. mediation, and if its rival finally embraced talks, it might find it too awkward to refuse.

This message seems finally to be sinking in in Washington: as one high-level U.S. official told me, "People keep saying we have to deal with Kashmir. The buzz is in the air and it's not like we're not hearing it." Let's hope they listen.

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