NEW DELHI — Every regional crisis seems like an opportunity for U.S. policy to advance its interests. This has come out starkly since 9/11, as Washington has gone about extending its influence and building long-term strategic arrangements with nations across Asia, from the Caspian region to the South China Sea. It has put in place a network of forward bases that can serve as vantage platforms to launch attacks on any nation or group threatening U.S. interests.

In South Asia, the United States has employed its antiterror campaign not only to position its military on the territories of Afghanistan and Pakistan for what appears to be the long haul, but also to propose or enter into strategic tie-ups of varying types with India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh. In the name of fighting terrorism, the U.S. has set up long-term military bases in other places, such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s latest subcontinental tour was a reminder that Washington is now seeking to fashion a lasting role in South Asia, particularly in Kashmir. Having twice averted an open war between India and Pakistan since last December’s terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, the U.S. has begun extracting a price from both in the form of an overt American role in managing the Indo-Pakistan conflict and relationship. Such a role, despite its altruistic and peacemaking character designed to appeal to the self-interest of both sides, is primarily intended to promote U.S. interests.

The bilateral strategic arrangements the U.S. is working out with several South Asian countries and the larger role it is seeking in the region, especially between India and Pakistan, have to be seen in the context of its strategic efforts in other Asian regions.

A new U.S. intelligence network for Asia and the Pacific, with its nerve center located in the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu, is being built with the cooperation of a number of countries, including the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

For India, the emerging U.S. strategic role in nations that have been within its traditional sphere of influence, such as Nepal and Sri Lanka, can only be at the cost of its own influence and signal its inability to pursue its old policy of keeping foreign powers out of strategically important Sri Lanka and Nepal. To make matters more difficult, India is also being persuaded by the U.S. to accept an Anglo-American role in Kashmir.

This was underscored by Powell’s statements on Kashmir while on Indian soil. Although his tone was soft and friendly and his words reflected a desire to respect Indian sensitivities, Powell’s core message was intended to sensitize and adjust Indian thinking and opinion to the U.S.-desired reality — that “Kashmir is on the international agenda” and that the U.S. “will extend a helping hand to all sides . . . to bring peace to the region.”

The upcoming state election in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir enables Washington to craft a role for Anglo-American diplomacy on Kashmir by setting the standards for a “free and fair” and “inclusive” poll — “concrete steps by India to foster Kashmiri confidence in the election process,” “permitting independent observers” and “freeing political prisoners,” to quote Powell.

Underscoring U.S. diplomacy’s commitment to play an enduring role in Kashmir, Powell said he saw the election as “a first step in a broader process that begins to address Kashmiri grievances and leads India and Pakistan back to dialogue.”

India has already agreed to let New Delhi-based diplomats monitor the poll. The irony is that Powell and his State Department, while publicly articulating their demands on a Kashmir election, have said nothing critical about Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf’s sham April 30 referendum on his self-declared presidency and continued usurpation of powers.

Despite an attempt later to clarify his statements that triggered a political uproar in New Delhi, Powell suggested that the core issue between India and Pakistan was not cross-border terrorism (which he acknowledged had to end) but Kashmir. As he put it in his clarification, the two countries mobilized their militaries and came almost to war not because of the terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament and on the families of Indian Army members but because “the ultimate cause of that potential conflict was Kashmir.”

Unfortunately, this analysis is too simplistic. Despite Pakistan’s obsession with Kashmir, and its long history of sending in infiltrators, saboteurs and terrorists into the Indian-held part, Kashmir serves as the symbol, not the cause, of its conflict with India. If Kashmir were magically resolved tomorrow, or if India were to hand over Kashmir on a platter, it would not remove the rivalry between status quo India and irredentist Pakistan. Washington needs to understand that the India-Pakistan conflict is rooted in history, religion and the politics of revenge, epitomizing clashing world views and a divide along civilizational fault lines.

No U.S. president more actively sought to broker peace on the subcontinent than Bill Clinton whose fixation on Kashmir was apparent from his U.N. speeches and his belief that it is “probably the most dangerous place in the world.” The Clinton administration prodded and blessed the 1999 Lahore Declaration between India and Pakistan. But within months the declaration lay in tatters as Pakistanis surreptitiously occupied a vast stretch of mountain heights in Kargil, in the Buddhist Ladakh region of Indian Kashmir.

Clinton’s pivotal role in ending the Kargil war, however, directly contributed to the ouster of Pakistan’s democratically elected government and the return of the military to the political saddle. The military regime, as retribution, hit back by sharply escalating the level of terrorist violence in Indian Kashmir.

Today, as President George W. Bush’s team seeks to promote Indo-Pakistan dialogue, with Undersecretary of State Richard Armitage set to tour the subcontinent again this month, a Kashmir solution looks as remote as ever. Despite all the promises by Musharraf, Pakistan is unwilling to give up its only leverage over New Delhi — its ability to bleed India by sending arms and extremists across the frontier.

However, unlike past U.S. mediatory efforts, the latest American role is occurring when the international discourse has changed in India’s favor. India has fought Pakistani-sponsored terrorism since the 1980s, but only now is the international community openly asking Islamabad to dismantle its terrorist infrastructure and halt cross-border infiltration.

So far, India’s threat of war and U.S. diplomacy have worked well together, with each reinforcing the other’s message to Pakistan. India needs to continue to work closely with Washington on Pakistan. But a new military crisis could easily flare if the election in Indian Kashmir is marred by major terrorist attacks or if terrorist-training camps in Pakistani-held Kashmir continue to send armed extremists across the frontier.

If U.S. diplomacy wishes to make a lasting contribution, it should focus on ways to effectively manage, rather than resolve, the Kashmir dispute. It is the search for a solution to an intricate, irresolvable dispute that has compounded the problem and engendered more bloodshed in Indian Kashmir.

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