Guest post by Raja Karthikeya
The briefing books are ready. The red carpet has been laid out. Indian leaders have made up their mind on the talking points with Obama. However, for what promises to be a historic occasion, U.S. President Obama’s visit has been hailed with surprisingly down-to-earth expectations. But understanding India’s concerns on one element that concerns the U.S. equally – terrorism – may still change the outcome of this visit and this factor goes far beyond David Headley.
Veteran South Asia analyst Ashley Tellis recently wrote that it is ironic that the key issues that pre-occupy policymakers in the U.S. and India alike – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China have become irritants in bilateral relations. Indeed, there are yet things that Obama can do to converge U.S. and Indian strategy, particularly on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Obama can start by addressing the red lines that India has vis-à-vis specific non-state actors in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Red lines, in diplomatic parlance, are points that are non-negotiable. But they can also represent the bare minimum demands that a negotiating side expects to have fulfilled, in order to call the discussion a success.
On Afghanistan, India has its reservations on the pace and potential outcome of the Karzai government’s negotiations with the Taliban. Irrespective of how much distance the U.S. puts between itself and the negotiations, Indians continue to believe that the talks could not happen without an implicit U.S. nod. While India closely watches the talks, it has one red line that it expects the U.S. to respect: no negotiation with the Haqqani network. This group, which has most notably been behind the 2008 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul, represents everything that worries India about the future of the region. And India’s sentiments towards the Haqqani network are not very different from what the U.S. feels about Hezbollah for the Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon or Al Qaeda for the attacks on embassies in East Africa.
When it comes to non-state actors based in Pakistan, the red lines are clear as well. The U.S. should push Pakistan to act against one group’s leadership more than anything else: Lashkar-e-Taiba. It is no surprise that in the latest Pew opinion poll, Indians cited Lashkar-e-Taiba as the greatest threat to their country. And it is hardly reassuring when despite Pakistan’s claims of crackdown on the group, as cited in Bob Woodward’s Obama Wars, the U.S. National Security Advisor finds Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi directing the group’s operations from inside a Pakistani prison.
Obama is likely to ask what would inspire trust in India that Pakistan’s establishment is serious about acting against terrorism. Some very tangible measures by Islamabad would help: 1. Disallow police permission to any public gatherings or rallies by the Jamat-ud-Dawa, an organization proscribed by the UN, particularly in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi. 2. List Jamat-ud-Dawa as a banned organization under the Anti-Terrorism Acts. The absence of this measure led to Hafiz Saeed being released by the courts after arrest more than once 3. Put Hafiz Saeed away for good. His speeches themselves have led to murder and mayhem. And the fingerprints of the organization he leads, Jamat-ud-Dawa, and of LeT’s alumni have been found on several major international terrorist plots from the Mumbai attacks to the 7/7 London bombings to the 2006 transatlantic airliner “liquid bomb” plot. Again, putting a man in prison is not enough if prison turns into a mere retreat from where one can tele-commute. Take the case of Omar Sheikh, the man released in the 1999 Indian airliner hijacking who was later imprisoned in Pakistan for the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl. Just after the Mumbai attacks, safe in the confines of his prison, Omar Sheikh called Pakistani President Zardari pretending to be the Indian foreign minister and raised tempers enough for Pakistan to scramble its jets and for the two nations to almost go to war. To avoid the repetition of such events, the red line on Hafiz Saeed would be that his imprisonment should imply he would not be heard from anymore.
There are those on Obama’s team who believe that the key to peace between India and Pakistan lies in resolution of differences over Kashmir. But if the Zardari government seeks to pick up the thread of the back-channel process that was aborted in 2007, a good start would be to disallow meetings of the “United Jihad Council” – the consortium of violent terrorist groups that strike in Jammu & Kashmir. This consortium holds its annual meetings in Muzaffarabad in full media spotlight where its members, carrying arms, call for violent attacks in India.
If President Obama can assure India of using his influence and sees that these red lines are addressed and that these tangible concerns are met, then this visit would not just be a success – it would be the beginning of a whole new era of trust in India-US relations.
(Raja Karthikeya is a foreign policy researcher.)