Author Archive

Howard Schaffer Remembers John Kenneth Galbraith

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February 16, 2017: This essay on the redoubtable John Kenneth Galbraith starts a series of occasional pieces remembering American diplomats with whom I worked over the years on U.S. relations with South Asia. I’ll be looking mostly at the times I served at our embassies in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, some fifteen years in all. My focus will be on the character, aspirations, and activities of these diplomats rather than on the policies they advocated. I plan to write only about those who have passed away.

Galbraith, the Harvard University professor whom President John F. Kennedy appointed ambassador to India in 1961, was an iconic – and iconoclastic – figure in both Read more

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U.S. Sale of F-16 Jets to Pakistan Riles India

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February 20, 2016:  U.S. provision of sophisticated Lockheed-Martin F-16 fighter jets to the Pakistan Air Force has been a particular sore point for the Indian government for decades, since the Reagan administration made them available to Islamabad following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Indians have always contended that whatever the Pakistanis may offer as their rationale for acquiring the planes — whether it is to ward off a possible Soviet attack, their claim in the 1980s, or to use as precision firing platforms to combat terrorists, their present argument – Islamabad’s real purpose is to bolster its air power in a potential confrontation with India.  For their part, the Pakistanis have long viewed the F-16 as a potent symbol of where they stand with the United States. Like the Indians, they afford it an outsized military and political significance. Read more

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Siachen Back in the News – but Don’t Look for Peace Yet

From Kashmir Study Group, via Wikimedia Commons

February 17, 2016: A deadly avalanche that killed ten Indian soldiers earlier this month on the disputed 20,000 foot high Siachen glacier in Kashmir received extensive coverage in the Indian and Pakistani media. The avalanche prompted some commentators in both countries to call for an early settlement of what seemed to them and to many others (including ourselves) a senseless dispute.

Their voices were largely drowned out in India by an outpouring of patriotic fervor that cast the dead soldiers as “Bravehearts” who had died for their country. The Indian Defense Minister publicly dismissed pleas that both sides pull back from the 47-mile long glacier where they have confronted one another since 1984. Possibilities for a settlement seem remote.

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Bangladesh Border Agreement: A Milestone in Modi’s Good Neighbor Policy

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May 13, 2015: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s success in winning unanimous parliamentary approval for a constitutional amendment designed to eliminate the vexing anomalies along India’s land boundary with Bangladesh is the latest example of his determination to improve New Delhi’s relations with its smaller South Asian neighbors. The amendment still needs to be ratified by the required one half of the Indian states, and that process may not be complete by the time Modi makes his first visit to Bangladesh as prime minister next month. But the broad support it received in both houses of Parliament and the praise Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, her bitter rival Khaleda Zia, and the Bangladeshi public have given to Modi for his role in pushing it through will significantly help to make that visit another of the successful, high-visibility events that have been the hallmark of his foreign travels.

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Bangladesh: Political Confrontation

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March 19, 2015: Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (at R) holds the high cards in her Awami League government’s violent confrontation with an opposition coalition led by her longtime bitter rival Begum Khaleda Zia (at L), the leader of the Bangladesh National Party. But though Zia’s strategy of disrupting economic activity to force early fresh elections under a caretaker government has clearly failed, she is unwilling to give it up. Nor is an increasingly confident Hasina interested in coming to a compromise settlement, as some Dhaka-based diplomats have urged. She may in fact see the confrontation as an Read more

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No Campaign Bundlers in Sight

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February 18, 2014. The brickbats cast at the Obama administration for appointing unqualified candidates to important ambassadorial jobs notably did not include any directed at envoys to the South Asian countries. Unlike the representatives Obama has nominated this year to the fleshpots of Western Europe and other comfortable parts of the world, all six American ambassadors assigned to South Asia are career Foreign Service officers, five with previous experience in their host countries or elsewhere in the region. Campaign bundlers and other would-be politically-appointed ambassadors haven’t been breaking down the doors to reach this challenging and often dangerous part of the world. With some noteworthy exceptions, mostly but not exclusively in India, those among them who have been chosen have not brought assets to their embassies that Foreign Service officers could not have provided. The South Asia experience makes a good case for the assignment of FSOs as ambassadors. Read more

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Bangladesh’s Flawed Election

Parliament, by Souravdas, http://www.flickr.com/photos/souravdas/2130502968/sizes/m/in/photolist

January 8, 2014: Bangladesh’s January 5 parliamentary election dealt a serious blow to the country’s fragile democratic institutions. With major opposition parties boycotting the voting and violently pressing their demand that the polling be held as before under a caretaker administration, the ruling Awami League and its allies won a huge majority of the seats, over half of them without a contest. The United States and other concerned foreign governments and international organizations have criticized the way the elections were conducted and the violence that marred them.  They have vowed to keep pushing for an agreement that will set the stage for more credible fresh elections.

Prospects for such a settlement in the near future are not promising.  The reelected government and the opposition, led by bitter rivals renowned for their stubbornness, disdain for one another, and unwillingness to admit error, are likely to hang tough.  They and their supporters will be more influenced by the impact the political situation and the violence that accompanies it have on the country’s key ready-made garment industry than by the admonitions of friendly and concerned foreign governments.

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Pakistan: Nawaz Sharif in Washington

White House official photo by Pete Souza

October 26, 2013: Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif came to Washington on October 20-23 determined to create a new beginning, personally and politically, with the U.S. leadership. The U.S. government wanted to bring Pakistan into closer alignment with U.S. goals and strategies as the time for U.S. combat troops to leave Afghanistan approached. The two sides left some important matters unresolved or papered over, most significantly differences over future U.S. drone attacks on Pakistani territory. But they did develop a personal and political framework which may help them make further progress while managing remaining differences more effectively. It would be an exaggeration to claim that the summit solved the serious problems in U.S. – Pakistan relations, but its strong focus on the economic relationship did start to place attention on some aspects of the relationship where Pakistan is not treated simply as an extension of the Afghan problem.

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Manhattan Breakfast: Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif Meet

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October 2, 2013: Few were surprised when Prime Ministers Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif made little headway in reversing the recent deterioration of India-Pakistan relations when they met in New York on September 29.  Nawaz’s election in May on a platform that included improving ties with India, especially in the economic sphere, generated rosy hopes. These were dimmed by an outbreak of serious violence in Kashmir and by the preoccupation of both governments with other pressing problems.  The weakening of Manmohan Singh’s Congress government by an economic slump and a series of high-level political scandals has also taken its toll.

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Nawaz Sharif’s New Government: Beyond Pakistan

On the economy, as we have seen, Nawaz Sharif is a man in a hurry. The 15-day deadline he gave his cabinet colleagues to develop action plans for their ministries underscores the priority he places on early, visible improvement in Pakistan’s economy and administration – and on creating a contrast with Asif Zardari’s record. In foreign affairs, he will seek to maintain Pakistan’s position in Afghanistan, manage and if possible repair ties with Washington, and contribute to his economic goals, including if possible moving forward with trade opening with India. The accent will be on continuity, albeit with a more strident tone in his objection to U.S. drone attacks, and on avoiding confrontation with the Pakistan army. For the United States, the challenge will be not to treat Pakistan as an extension of its Afghan problem.

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