As President Barack Obama rules out an “outside” solution to Kashmir, there are strong indications that the United States is fast developing interest in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). Pertinent in this regard was the five-day visit of a three member delegation from the US embassy in Islamabad to Gilgit Baltistan. The embassy delegation comprising Lisa Buezonos (Political/Economic officer), Kimberley Phelan (Political Officer) and Khalid Javed (Security Advisor) visited Gilgit Baltistan between 30 May and 3 June 2012. Their high profile visit to the region came as a surprise in view of the recent sectarian strife in the region. Prior to the visit, the US embassy officials approached the local administration in Gilgit Baltistan for security cover.
Subsequently, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, paid a visit to the so-called Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) on 13 June 2012. Munter held meetings with AJK Prime Minister Chaudhury Abdul Majeed in Muzaffarabad and interacted with representatives from NGOs (those which benefited from US assisted projects). The press release from the US embassy noted that Munter’s visit was mainly to reiterate US support for the education sector and local development in the so-called AJK. The US ambassador committed that USAID (United States Agency for International Development) will provide more than Rs. 450 million for AJK through social welfare schemes. Recalling US assistance to AJK in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, the ambassador noted that “the United States has an enduring partnership with this region.”1 Reports say that the US has offered generous support and aid for efforts to raise living standards in AJK. Incidentally, a delegation from USAID visited the municipal library in Gilgit on 9 July 2012 and promised a sum of $30,000 for modernizing it. This amount was earmarked from the Ambassador’s Fund Programme.
The US has in the past funded the Satapra dam project, which is located a few kilometres from Skardu (the capital of Baltistan). It is a small dam with an approximate capacity of 17 Mw. Later, while Pakistan was facing a crunch in the ambitious and equally controversial Diamer Bhasha Dam, it approached the US for part of the funding. Although the US was initially reluctant to involve itself in the project, given Pakistan’s continuous insistence and the overall deterioration in US-Pakistan ties, it relented and agreed to fund the project from the Kerry Lugar Berman Package (promised to Pakistan in 2009). Since the project is huge, Pakistan hopes to garner funds from various international agencies. US participation, Pakistan believes, would give the project some amount of credibility and induce donor agencies and countries to participate in the consortium.
Here, it is useful to analyse the purpose and intent behind the US interest in a disputed region legally claimed by India. In August 2010, an article in the New York Times by Selig Harrison on the Chinese foray in Gilgit Baltistan created stirrings in the Western strategic circles. Harrison’s reputation added to the credibility and acceptance of the revelation made therein. Similarly, some others reports published from US based thinks tanks indicated the extent and nature of Chinese presence in Gilgit Baltistan and how this could alter the regional strategic equations in South Asia. Thus, the newly found US interest and engagement in PoK has strong geopolitical underpinnings. The geopolitical angle is based on a set of existing equations between the US, Pakistan and China within the overall ambit of US interests in the Asia Pacific region. Presently, Chinese presence in the PoK region is a reality and so is the purported global Sino-US rivalry. Pakistan, a close ally of both the US and China, lies at the centre of this rivalry and so does the strategically placed PoK. At the same time, relations between the US and Pakistan are at an all time low and fat aid packages have failed in reversing the tide in the US’s favour. Concurrently, relations between China and Pakistan have flourished with enhanced levels of political and economic engagement. The Chinese are investing heavily in PoK, even though their aid and investments are much less publicized than those of the Americans.
In the given context, a preliminary assessment of US objectives in this part of Kashmir can be done under three broad heads.
In the emergent scenario, the US feels that it is essential to bag any opportunity to curtail Chinese influence in the region and PoK in particular. US diplomats during their visits have expressed willingness to assist the local government in PoK in improving basic amenities in the otherwise underdeveloped region. Apart from smaller projects, the US also tends to invest in big projects as evident in its recent nod to provide funds for the controversial Diamer Bhasha dam project. Keeping in view the disputed nature of the location of the dam project, the US had earlier said no to Pakistan’s repeated requests. Eventually, however, the US rightly judged that if it refused to fund the project then the Chinese would come in most willingly.
Unlike the Chinese involvement in PoK, which is more economically oriented, the US seems to be heading to target the social sectors in a positive way. For instance, during its visit, the US embassy delegation held a meeting with a woman legislator to learn about the role of women in governance there. Another visit to a women’s police station to enquire about its role and functioning also featured on the delegation’s agenda.
PoK is underdeveloped and potentially perceived by the US as the ultimate destination to attain tangible results for its aid/assistance programme. The US has been facing flak from ordinary Pakistanis for a long time even as it has promised huge aid packages. The sense of dislike against the US has intensified with reported civilian causalities in drone attacks in the tribal regions. In this regard, the US has been contemplating ways and means to initiate concrete damage control measures.
Therefore, in order project itself as a long term partner, the US thinks it is apt to invest in both small and big projects likely to impact a large section of the Pakistani population. It is important to note that the Diamer Bhasha dam aims to cater to the energy requirements of Pakistan and not specifically PoK.
A large section of the Diaspora from PoK and Gilgit Baltistan in particular is based in the US. These people have founded think tanks and advocacy groups which have slowly and steadily created awareness about PoK in the western world. They have often raised pertinent issues, the most important being Pakistan’s subjugation and unilateral policies towards PoK. These groups have held demonstrations and testified before the UN Human Rights Commission and the US Congress. Given the receptivity for genuine concerns and worries of the displaced people in the western world, these groups have presented their case in several international platforms including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Notably, the US embassy delegation to Gilgit Baltistan held extensive meetings with leading nationalist figures like Manzoor Hussain Parwana (chief of the Gilgit Baltistan United Movement, GBUM). During the meeting, Parwana urged the international community to intervene in PoK. He claimed the Pakistani state agencies were interfering in the internal affairs of Gilgit Baltistan against the wishes of the local people. In addition, the embassy officials sought feedback on the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance package 2009, which has been rejected in its entirety by a large section of the local population.
Pakistan has taken exception to such attempts at engaging nationalists and evoking responses on contentious issues such as the governance order. In fact, subsequent to the trip by US embassy officials, Pakistani security forces stopped a vehicle carrying American diplomats who on their way back from Swat and apprehended their Pakistani companions. They have also raised concerns about such ‘unauthorised’ trips. After the US Congress hearing on Balochistan in February 2012, Pakistan is particularly sensitive to such US moves. Perhaps, the US is doing all this to indicate that the cost of Pakistani non-cooperation with the US in the war on terror in Afghanistan could be huge.
The US involvement in PoK is driven purely by its strategic interests. It seems to be devising a multi-pronged agenda to deal with the growing Chinese influence in the region, to compel Pakistani acquiescence in the ongoing stabilising efforts in Afghanistan and ensure long term presence in the entire region.
The overall American policy on Kashmir till the end of the cold war was detrimental to Indian interests. During that time, PoK did not figure in the US strategic calculus and Pakistan’s control over the region was regarded as legitimate and in the American interests. In a changing regional and global context, the US seems to have revised its policy towards PoK. However, apart from their common concerns about the growing Chinese presence in the region, India and the US may not have similar positions on the status of PoK. As in the past, the US has agreed to participate in the ongoing projects in PoK, to which India has objected time and again. The US involvement offers some degree of legitimacy to Pakistan’s illegal occupation of the region. But at the same time, the US foray into PoK will certainly countervail the Chinese strategic presence there. This may indirectly address some of India’s concerns about the growing China-Pakistan nexus in this sensitive region.