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'Hard to separate terrorism and Pakistan's nukes'

By Prasanna D Zore
March 15, 2010 22:07 IST
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Ambasaador Howard Schaffer and Ambassador Teresita Schaffer are old hands when it comes to South Asia.

Having spent a large period of their three-decade career in their various capacities in the region, the husband-wife duo perfectly understands the nuances of the Indian subcontinent embroiled in the Kashmir tangle, even as the two warring nations of India and Pakistan acquired nuclear status.

Teresita served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia between 1989-92 and then between 1992-95 served as the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka. Teresita works as the director, South Asia Programme, Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Howard Schaffer served as the US Ambassador to Bangladesh (1984-87), served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia twice, and worked as a political consellor at American embassies in both India (1977-79) and Pakistan (1974-77).

The couple was in Mumbai recently to speak at a seminar and took time off their busy schedule to speak to on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:

What explains the title of your latest book 'The Limits of Influence: America's Role in Kashmir'?

HS: I did so for several reasons. First, there's never been such a book I thought it is worthwhile explaining what United States position had been in all the years since 1948 when the issue first became internationally important.

The US policy on Kashmir has been touched upon more generally in books on US relations with India and with Pakistan. It's also been touched on in conflict resolutions literature. But I thought, and particularly since I have always had a great interest in Kashmir since visiting there in the 1960s, that the time had come for such a book to be written.

Moreover, there seemed to be increased US interest in Kashmir as expressed by Barack Obama when he was running for the Presidency.

Why do you think he did so?

HS: I think the reason was he felt that it was a dangerous issue, in the sense that it could lead to a war between India and Pakistan and he also felt that an American role might be possible at this time; even though in the past years whenever the United States have tried to play an active rile it did not lead to a Kashmir settlement.

In your address yesterday you mentioned about the sense of mistrust that India has for the US. What explains India nursing this mistrust for America, when the latter is playing an active role in settling the Kashmir dispute?

HS: This (mistrust) is based on a couple of things. One is the past history in which India has seen the US taking positions, which India perceived as being pro-Pakistan. This was particularly true when United States had a close security relationship with Pakistan. More generally, however, India has opposed any outside intervention in Kashmir for a very good reason.

Because India is a stronger power it also has control over that part of Kashmir (the valley), which is important. And for an outside power like the United States or the United Nations to become involved would not serve India's interests. Pakistan, on the other hand, because it's weaker, wants to gain the Valley looks to outside powers and specially the United States, as what you might call, equalise.

You mentioned in your address about three contentious issues between India and US: financial makeover, non-proliferation treaty and climate change, of which you said the financial makeover is the easiest to deal with. But despite this, India and US have signed a civil nuclear treaty. What has led to US's change in attitude towards India over the years?

TS: What has led to America's change in attitude towards India has nothing to do with those three issues. It was basically three things. The end of the Cold War so that the US no longer organised is foreign policy around the principle that Russia was the big adversary and India no longer had a reason to look to Russia as their primary international support. So that was the first reason for this changed attitude.

The second thing was India's economic growth so that India looked to its future much more in economic terms and the big economic power was the United States, which could then be helpful to India because India had charted a new course in the world.

And the third thing is the increasing size and prominence of the Indian-American community, which gave us the kind of personal connection that the US also had with the European countries from which, for example, my ancestors came.

The three contentious issues -- there are actually two contentious issues – the third I think is an asset, they represent the parts of Obama Administration's global agenda. I think the time is ripe for India and the United States to work together on a greater extent on global issues. Because India needs to be involved or they won't be solved.

But of the global issues that the Obama Administration is dealing with, one is quite harmonious between India and the US and the others are difficult. That, I think, really is a reflection of the fact that there are difficult problems in the world.

How long do you think will the US take to wind up its operations in Afghanistan and how will the equations in the Indian subcontinent shape once US decides to move out of Afghanistan?

TS: That is, I think, a very important question. Afghanistan came first, Iraq came second. Many people, including me, believe that Iraq distracted US attention from the very important, difficult and unfinished business in Afghanistan. Afghanistan, some people believed, will be easy but they were proven quite wrong.

When will that wind up? I don't know. President Obama referred to July 2011 as the point at which we would start to take a different course and what hope to begin able to thin out the US presence. But almost as soon as he had spoken those words were refined, and re-interpreted, and re-calibrated to make it clear that you were bnot going to see a rush for the exits (in Afghanistan) in July 2011 and what the US does will be driven by the situation on the ground.

And I think that also answers your other question about what would be the equations in the sub continent. It really depends on what kind of situation there is in Afghanistan. Do you have reasonable stability? I mean Afghanistan isn't going to turn into India, okay! But do you have reasonable stability help the (Afghan) government succeed in consolidating its ability to govern and to be a decent neighbour.

Pakistan has some particular issues, which could turn out to be stabilising or destabilising factors in Afghanistan and that's going to make a difference. Afghanistan has been a place where there were proxy wars in the past. Can those be wound down? And I think those are all very key questions.

Do you think India will allow a situation in its neighborhood wherein US leaves Afghanistan as a client state of Pakistan, despite Pakistan wanting it? Pakistan would want to avoid being in a pincer-like grip between India to its east and a pro-India Afghanistan to its West.

HS: I am not sure at all what India would do at that point. You surely would want to maintain influence as much as possible in Afghanistan, and as you correctly said, this is what Pakistan wants to avoid. There is one important element to consider, however, it may very well be that the Pakistanis succeed in helping bring to power in Kabul a regime that they perceive is favourable to them. But, it is by no means guaranteed that such a regime will maintain any kind of loyalty or subservience to, or even friendship, to Pakistan.

I think the history suggests that the Afghans are very independent minded people and are not really prepared to become clients of anybody. And Pakistan may find well to its dismay that the authorities it thought would be friendly once they came to power in Afghansitan became the same kind of Afghan nationalists suspicious of Pakistan.

You believe that India and Pakistan could settle the Kashmir issue only if the two countries were led by strong leaderships. But nothing happened at the Agra summit. Is an amicable solution to the Kashmir issue possible that will include the aspirations of the Kashmiri people?

HS: I think that's certainly possible. But I emphasise that you need two strong governments and I think that President Musharraf felt that he was only strong enough somewhat later in his term in office by which time there was not a strong enough government in India which could make the kind of concessions which would be required for whatever kind of settlement is eventually reached.

But certainly it is very possible in future. It's very difficult now to see that there is going to be a strong and stable government in Pakistan surely in the near term. But I would hope that eventually a settlement could be worked out. For a settlement to be worked out it's also important that relations, more generally, be far better than they are today. I can't imagine that even if there were strong governments in both Delhi and Islamabad at this point where there are such bad feelings and suspicions between the two countries that much progress could be made towards a resolution on the Kashmir issue.

Many foreign policy hawks in India believe America's interests in the Indian subcontinent are Pakistan's nuclear assets, and that containing terrorism directed towards India is secondary. What do you think?

TS: I think the worst contingency I can imagine will be a nuclear exchange between India and Paskistan. Let me emphasise, but I think this is unlikely, I don't think the leaderships in either countries is crazy and, I think they are increasingly, as they spend more time as nuclear powers, aware of what dangers would be. But if you want me to pick up the worst possible, that is the worst possible.

But it's really hard to disentangle the terrorism risk and the risks to Pakistan's nuclear assets. Pakistan's nuclear assets are under the control of the army. As long as the army is under leadership that is, if you will, traditionally nationalistic, then I think they will keep good control of their nuclear assets. If the character of that leadership changes or if the government's ability to exercise reasonable control in most of the country is eroded then you could have a different situation. And that's why the internal insurgency in Pakistan is such a big worry for people in Washington.

So to come around to the original question I think both of those are major concerns for Washington.

What are the odds that the terror factories operating out of Pakistan can lay their hands on a dirty bomb, given the dangerous liaison between some of the Pakistani generals and the jihadis?

TS: I think the chances of that right now are poor. Because I think the assets are well controlled now. The trouble is you may not have an awful lot of advance notice if the character of Army leadership changes. And that's why when people in the United States government talk about the security of Pakistan's nuclear assets they usually say things look okay to us because they don't want to spread panic. But if you ask them to talk about the longer term they recognize that there's a potential problem.

What are the factors responsible for this different American approach towards Pakistan and India on the civil nuclear agreement? Or is the A Q Khan effect?

TS: The US is trying to maintain its relations with India and Pakistan on independent tracks. There are different drivers that keep them going. In Pakistan the security relationship has usually been in the driver's seat Afghanistan is what is really in the driver's seat now.

With India it is a much broader range of things. We now have security relationship with India. There is the whole question of Indian Ocean maritime security where this close co-operation and where US and India's interests are very-well aligned. It is a question of how both the countries want Asia to develop in the future.

As far as the civil nuclear agreement the only reason the United States was willing to contemplate a civil nuclear agreement with India was that India's record in not transferring its nuclear know how and nuclear assets was very, very good. India had honoured its agreements with us, India had maintained export controls, India was willing to strengthen its export controls. If we had not had those factors we could not have obtained the Congress's agreement to the India-US nuclear deal.

Pakistan's track record is terrible. A Q Khan is the symbol of it but I believe he was part of a larger process and he was probably the brains of that larger process. So when you say ask if that was the sole factor that's an absolutely vital factor.

But India conducted nuclear tests twice…

TS: That's right. But from that point of view both India and Pakistan had by testing done something that the US had very much wanted to avoid and we all know that. But the US-India civil nuclear agreement was intended to reposition India as a state that the United States recognise was responsible.

And we really weren't ready to do that with Pakistan and we knew that even if the Administration had been ready, which it wasn't, the Congress was nowhere near ready.

There's a perception that the US wants to use India as a bulwark against growing Chinese influence in the region…

TS: Okay, let's talk about China. The idea of the US using India as a bulwark against China really misrepresents the whole set of power relationships in Asia. India doesn't want to play somebody else's game against China. However, India has security concerns about China as the Indian security hawks would be the first to tell you so. The United States has security concerns about China. Both India and US want to work with China. We both have increasingly important economic relationships with China. China is a rising power; India is also a rising power though India has not risen as far as fast. So there is a China connection to US-India relationship.

But I think that the correct way to describe that is that neither India nor the United States wants China to dominate Asia. We both want to work with China in a friendly context; we both want to see a network of strong powers in Asia that are able to work together. That's the correct way to look at the India-US-China triangle.

Does your book on Kashmir envisage a practical solution to solve the Kashmir tangle?

HS: I think there really are several elements, which make up a solution. The only common solution which I can see would be sufficiently acceptable to India and to Pakistan and to the Kashmiri people to be feasible. And there are several elements in this. One is, the present line of control would be converted into the International Boundary between the two countries. There may be some minor rectifications along the line but essentially the state would be divided along this lines it has been divided since 1948.

A second point could be that that line, that International Border would allow easy movement of people and goods in both directions. I would also see a considerable measure of autonomy or self-government if you will for Kashmiris on both sides of the line and finally I would expect that certain all-Kashmir institutions could be developed which could look at non-controversial issues such as tourism. Obviously, all of this would have to be accompanied by a considerable degree of demilitarisation on both sides.

What really drove off the Pakistani soldiers and intruders off Kargil heights? Was it the US diplomatic pressure or the Indian Army?

If there had been no US diplomatic pressure the Indian Army would have forced Pakistan out of the Kargil heights. The US diplomatic pressure only accelerated that process. And it obliged Nawaz Sharif only to acknowledge that they were Pakistani forces and he had to take responsibility for them.

Image: Ambasaador Howard Schaffer and Ambassador Teresita Schaffer

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Prasanna D Zore in Mumbai