July 20, 2011: Veteran Kashmir-watchers like ourselves were amazed to find that today’s New York Times and Washington Post gave front-page coverage to the arrest of Ghulam Nabi Fai, the longtime director of the Washington-based Kashmir American Council. Fai and another Pakistani-American were charged with violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) by conspiring to act as an agent of a foreign principal – the Pakistan government – without registering with the attorney general. They were also charged with concealing the fact that Pakistan was funding and directing the KAC’s lobbying and public relations campaigns in the United States. The funding allegedly included campaign contributions to members of Congress known for their pro-Pakistan positions on the long-standing Kashmir dispute.
For those familiar with Fai’s operations, the case has an “I am shocked, shocked…” aspect that calls to mind Captain Reynaud’s memorable outcry deploring gambling in the film “Casablanca.” Since the KAC was established in 1990, the year when anti-Indian political upheaval in the disputed state returned the Kashmir issue to world attention, U.S. Kashmir-specialists have assumed that the council’s activities were sponsored and paid for by Islamabad. The allegation that these activities have included small and unpublicized campaign contributions to sympathetic American politicians comes as no particular surprise.
In seeking to promote the case for Kashmiri self-determination, Pakistan’s long-standing position – and anathema to the Indians – the KAC has focused its lobbying attention on administration officials, members of Congress, the media, and influential private Americans. Anyone seen to have a direct or indirect role in fashioning Kashmir policy is almost certain to have been approached by the energetic Dr. Fai, often with a visiting Kashmiri in tow, and given a pro-Pakistan interpretation of developments in the state.
The high point of the council’s annual calendar of events has for years been a much-publicized meeting and roundtable in a Congressional office building on Capitol Hill that draws a sizeable number of congressmen, Kashmiri political leaders (all of an anti-Indian flavor), American and South Asian academic specialists, Kashmiri-Americans, ethnic journalists, and Pakistan Embassy officials. Views that do not accord with the Pakistan position are not often voiced. Over the years, these sessions have become set-pieces, occasions to vent against India’s human rights violations in the part of the state it administers and to renew demand for the U.S. administration to take a more active role in bringing about a Kashmir settlement on terms favorable to Pakistan. In these sessions members of Congress play bit-parts. Some of them, such as Representative Dan Burton (R, Indiana), are familiar with the Kashmir issue, or at least Pakistan’s interpretation of it, and apparently feel strongly about it. But many others appear to have come to the sessions with scant awareness of the nature of the dispute. They customarily appear briefly, read prepared scripts, and hastily depart.
If the InterServices Intelligence Directorate (ISI) or some other organ of the Pakistan government has been footing the KAC’s bills, as seems so obvious, it is hard to conclude that they have been getting their money’s worth. For all its efforts, the council’s lobbying has had minimal success in persuading the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama administrations to change their basically hands-off diplomacy on the Kashmir dispute.
It is regrettable that the charges against Fai have been raised at a point when U.S.-Pakistan relations face a host of problems far more consequential than alleged wrongdoings by Pakistan’s lobbyists in Washington. The two sides should be focusing on trying to resolve or manage these major issues, not getting distracted by the Fai sideshow. It would be even more regrettable if the allegations have been trotted out as a way for the United States to hit back at Pakistan in general and the ISI in particular. The situation is too serious for this kind of game playing.
Howard B. Schaffer