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January 2010

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The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir
Reviewed by Michael W. Cotter
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Howard B. Schaffer, The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press; 2009    Hardcover edition ISBN 978-0-8157-0290-0, 272 pp., $34.95

Howard Schaffer’s outstanding book is must reading not only for those interested in the long-standing dispute between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir region, but also for anyone interested in understanding the current conflicts in Central Asia.  Although the book concentrates on the roles played by the United States over decades in seeking a solution for Kashmir, at the same time it provides a detailed outline of that conflict from its genesis to its current impact on geopolitics in Asia.  With extensive experience as a Foreign Service officer in South Asia, culminating in his tour as ambassador to Bangladesh in the 1980s, Schaffer is among the few who have both the on-the-ground experience and broader Washington perspective to cover this topic thoroughly.

The Kashmir problem began with the 1947 partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan, a process that cost perhaps a million lives and dislocated millions more.  The Hindu maharaja of largely-Muslim Kashmir dithered when faced with the decision of which country to join, and within months an uprising by Kashmiri Muslim veterans of the old British Indian army was underway, soon joined by tribal fighters from Pakistan.  India responded to the maharaja’s appeal for help by insisting it would come to his aid only if Kashmir were part of India.  As conflict continued, both sides called upon the infant United Nations to resolved the dispute, beginning the long, sad tale of foreign involvement.  By 1949 Kashmir was in essence divided, the western and northern part occupied by Pakistan, the rest under Indian control.

Over the years India and Pakistan have fought at least three wars over Kashmir and have engaged in numerous skirmishes along the de facto border.  Kashmir was a principle cause of the civil war in 1971 that resulted in East Pakistan gaining independence as Bangladesh.

During the Cold War years, Kashmir became one more venue for great power competition.  The U.S. enlisted Pakistan’s participation in the ring of alliances designed to contain the Soviet Union.  The latter, of course, then provided India with military assistance and tried with limited success to bring it within the Soviet orbit. But when Pakistan called on its alliance partners for support on Kashmir, U.S. equivocation became the first of a series of what Pakistanis took to be its abandonment by an ally.  That experience, repeated over the ensuing decades, is an important element in Pakistan’s reluctance to fully commit to the current U.S. effort to bring stability to Afghanistan.

Now in its sixth decade, the Kashmir conflict has once again emerged as a significant, albeit little noticed in public discussion, obstacle to achieving regional stability.  In the final chapters of The Limits of Influence Schaffer underscores this point with a detailed description of the Bush administration’s frustrations in balancing its relationships with India and Pakistan as it launched the effort to expel the Taliban regime from Kabul in 2001.  For it to support that effort Pakistan insisted on distinguishing the “War on Terror,” aimed at the Taliban and al Qaeda, from what it considers to be the freedom fighters seeking autonomy for Kashmir.  India, on the other hand, insisted on including what it considers terrorist actions on its territory in that “war.”   

Schaffer’s detailed account of events is buttressed by extensive footnotes, drawing heavily on the record of official documents for the early decades of the dispute, and relying on interviews with current and former officials for more recent periods for which the official record has yet to be released. 

The Limits of Influence paints a vivid picture of the difficulty even the most powerful country has in controlling events in other countries whose essential national interests are at stake.  There is unlikely to be a better textbook example of such a situation than that offered to readers by Howard Schaffer.bluestar


Michael W. Cotter is Publisher of American Diplomacy. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan, 1995-98. A career Foreign Service Officer, he had prior assignments to Chile, Zaire, Turkey, Ecuador, Bolivia, and South Vietnam in a career spanning more than 30 years. He currently lives near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lectures and writes on international issues.

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