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How can the United States assist dialogue between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan?

Question submitted by Jessica Brandt, from Harvard Kennedy School, February 26, 2013

Answered by: Daniel S. Markey, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia

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The Afghan civil war of the 1990s was partly fueled by longstanding Indo-Pakistani rivalry, with different Afghan factions receiving support from different regional neighbors. The United States has a clear interest in avoiding a similar outcome as it disengages from the current war in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, promoting Indo-Pakistani dialogue on Afghanistan will not be easy. The conventional wisdom holds that heavy-handed U.S. diplomacy—exerting pressure or attempting direct mediation—will hit a wall in Islamabad and irritate New Delhi. The new U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could reject that argument, but he should first study the discouraging history of U.S. diplomatic efforts in Kashmir. U.S. mediators have repeatedly found that American intervention encourages both sides to play Washington against one another rather than to tackle their disputes head on.

Instead, Kerry could take another run at talks with a wider circle of Afghanistan's neighbors—from Central Asia and the Persian Gulf to China, India, and Russia—as Ambassador Richard Holbrooke attempted early in President Obama's first term. That agenda foundered in part because of Washington's dilemma on how to deal with Afghanistan's western neighbor, Iran. Or, Kerry could shift diplomatic action to a multilateral setting like the United Nations. But the UN has not been a favorite venue for Islamabad or Washington and might also be resisted by New Delhi, for fear of a setting a diplomatic precedent that could be applied to the Kashmir region.

A more promising alternative might be for the United States to invite India, Pakistan, and China into quiet four-way talks. Beijing could be convinced to participate given its increasing concerns about stability in Afghanistan after the United States' anticipated withdrawal in 2014. To succeed, Beijing would then need to allay Islamabad's concerns about talking about Afghanistan with India and Washington would have to counter New Delhi's reluctance to acknowledge China's enhanced role in South Asian affairs.