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US Walks Tightrope Between South Asia Rivals

The new U.S. special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, is on his maiden trip to South Asia. Talks in the region are expected to focus on Afghanistan and counterterrorism. However, Kashmir - the regional issue that Pakistan holds most important - and that has been an irritant to its relations with India - is not on the agenda.

As a special envoy to South Asia, Richard Holbrooke seeks Pakistan's help in stemming cross-border attacks by the Taliban into Afghanistan and shutting terrorist safe havens in Pakistan's border regions.

But Kashmir, which is Pakistan's overriding preoccupation, is not a subject for discussion, as State Department spokesman Robert Wood recently noted.

"It's not in his mandate, as you mention, to deal with the subject of Kashmir," Wood said. "His mandate is to go out and try to help bring stability to Afghanistan, working closely with Pakistan to try to deal with the situation in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area] region."

Pakistan considers the divided region of Kashmir disputed territory. India says the issue was settled long ago and there is nothing to discuss.

Christine Fair, a South Asian affairs analyst at the RAND Corporation, says removing Kashmir from Holbrooke's mandate may have soothed Indian sensibilities, but makes it difficult for Pakistani leaders to openly help the United States.

"If you believe that getting better cooperation from Pakistan requires more attention to its regional equities, and you take out the thing that it cares about most, how is this effective? And, moreover, if the value of this is really strategic communications to create the illusion that we care, taking out the thing that it [Pakistan] cares most about, I would argue, is almost a bigger insult that not having the envoy at all," Fair says.

Kashmir has been the centerpiece of antagonism between India and Pakistan ever since the subcontinent became independent from British rule in 1947. Its split at the time of independence sparked three full scale wars and several other close calls. India has repeatedly accused Pakistan of backing Kashmiri separatists in the Indian portion of the territory. Most recently New Delhi blamed Kashmiri militants, aided by Pakistani intelligence, for the terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people. Pakistan denies involvement.

At the same time that the United States seeks closer antiterrorism cooperation with Pakistan, it is also trying to cement closer ties to India. A recently concluded civilian nuclear deal with India caused much dismay in Islamabad.

Former CIA officer Mike Scheuer says Pakistan is also upset over growing Indian influence with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan.

"Kind of the unspoken card in here that drives the Pakistanis crazy is our allowing Mr. Karzai to set up a very large Indian presence in Afghanistan, which is something [for] the Pakistanis, it really drives them around the wall because they've always counted on the western border being quiet so that they could face their main enemy in India," Scheuer says.

A $1-billion project was just completed linking Afghanistan's main highway to a main highway in Iran. The strategic road opens a new trade route from landlocked Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean that bypasses the traditional route through Pakistan. The Karzai government also allowed the opening of Indian consulates in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-e-Sharif.

A suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul last July, killing 41 people and injuring nearly 140 more. President Karzai blamed the attack on militants seeking to sabotage the growing Indo-Afghan relationship. India charged Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate with aiding the attackers, and U.S. officials have said there is evidence to back up that claim. Pakistan has strongly denied the charge.