May 29, 2020
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What He said Was In The Past

Trump’s volte face on Pakistan startles India. But impetuosity apart, harder realities may have forced the presidential tweet.

What He said Was In The Past
Photograph by Getty Images
What He said Was In The Past

US President Donald Trump’s policy pronouncements, often delivered via punchy tweets, are about as predictable as the series of storms battering America this season—one knows when one is coming and the possible areas, but not the damage and confusion it can wreak.

The growing India-US ties notwithstanding, a possible Donald Trump tweet putting India in a spot was never really beyond South Block’s reckoning. The question was, perhaps, its time of arrival.

It came last weekend (October 14-15)—a tweet that jolted many in the Indian est­ablishment: “Starting to develop a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders. I want to thank them for their cooperation on many fronts,” Trump wrote.

A flip-flop on a key issue is a Trump hallmark—he has done it many times, emba­rrassing his officials and policy planners and delighting his detractors. Despite that, this 180-degree turn by Trump, who till a few days back had identified Pakistan as the main source of instability in the AfPak region and publicly castigated it for its terror links, shook the confidence of Indians, who were visualising the country’s future closely tied to the US.

What exactly Pakistan had managed to do in this short time remains a matter of speculation. Its foreign minister, Khwaja Asif, had recently been to the US to hold talks with officials in the Trump administration and pledge Pakistan’s loyalty. The only visible move that might have been initiated by Pakistan came in the release of an American-Canadian couple and their three children from a harrowing five-year captivity by the Haqqani network—a terror group active in Af-Pak with alleged links with the ISI.

Seasoned observers, however, are not surprised. “The US move looks predictable. We have seen it in the past. After a lot of fire and brimstone, there always comes a time when the Americans try to reach out to the Pakistanis,” says geo-strategic thinker C. Uday Bhaskar.

There is a growing view in New Delhi that the development might force India to go back to the drawing board and re-strategise its policy to deal with a resurgent Pakistan, which might feel encouraged by the US President’s tweet. Clearly, the Pakistani government’s dec­ision not to keep 26/11 Mumbai terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed and some of his associates under house arrest any longer points to such confidence. This indicates that as long as Pakistan ens­ures the safety of American assets and interests, it would continue to pursue its earlier policies, especially nurturing its terror proxies, to be used against India.

One of the most disruptive presidents in recent US history, Trump has regularly ‘fired’ his aides and tried to dismantle policies of his predecessor, Barack Obama. His tweets in the past 10 months as US president have disconcerted some of the US’s close allies and created disquiet across the world.

Yet, the June meeting between PM Narendra Modi and the president in Washington had gone off without a hitch. The palpable warmth they radia­ted created the impression that the two countries that already enjoyed strong, bilateral ties were now climbing to a new high in the partnership.

Thus, the sense of elation that most Ind­­ian commentators felt when Trump announced his new Afghanistan pol­icy two months later, and which caused panicky consternation in Islamabad, was understandable.

Pakistan, Trump had thundered, shelte­red the same terrorist organisations that had been trying to kill Americans every day, though the US had been paying Isl­amabad “billions and billions of dollars”. All that will have to change immediately, asserted the US President, as he asked Pak­istan to demonstrate its commitment to “civilisation, order and peace”.

To Indian policy planners, Trump’s sta­tement on Pakistan’s terror links, esp­ecially his public castigation of Isl­a­mabad, was almost a total endorsement of what New Delhi had been talking about all these years on cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistani soil.

Former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal feels India should have been more cautious in its response. “We did go overboard in our response. We should have said it is a welcome first step to keep up the pressure. But we seemed a little too eager in highlighting Trump’s statement on Pakistan and its links with terror groups,” Sibal points out.

Moreover, when China joined in this eff­ort through an anti-terror statement at the BRICS summit it hosted in Xiamen in September, and Russia, Brazil and South Africa supported it, the attempt to isolate Pakistan and force it to give up using terror as a foreign policy tool looked to be working for the first time. The fact that the statement for the first time named Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed—the two Pakistani terror proxies active in Kashmir—as a major source of instability, was also deemed significant.

Most Indian commentators attributed China’s shift in stand to its realisation that growing India-US ties under Trump could build up a strong partnership, att­racting other US allies in Asia towards a move to curtail Beijing’s expanding influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Seeing this, Trump’s dramatic praise for the Pakistani leadership’s cooperation on Sunday has raised more than eyebrows in New Delhi and elsewhere, leaving many to wonder about India’s next moves to deal with the new reality.

Srinath Raghavan of Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research points out that one will have to stick to the basic issues that keep the US interested in Pakistan. “The geo-strategic advantage that Pakistan enjoys always gives it more than one card to play with the US and other international players.” He adds, “They always play this game better than India.”

According to Raghavan, the US’s int­erest in Pakistan is primarily twofold: it wants to have access to Pakistani territory so that it can extract its heavy military hardware from Afghanistan through Pakistan; and two, it wants Pakistan to ensure that terror groups that operate from its territory do not target American assets. “As long as Pakistan guarantees cooperation on these two areas, bilateral ties between Washington and Islamabad will remain on track,” he says.

Agreeing with the point of Pakis­tan’s geo-strategic advantage, Uday Bhaskar argues that the possibility of Pakistan moving closer to the growing China-Russia alliance and its likely impact on Afgh­anistan may have forced Trump to rethink his policy of isolating Pakistan. China has heavily invested in Pakistan through the $50 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor; it is thus in Beij­ing’s interest to see a stable Pakistan. Far from ticking its ‘all-weather ally’ off, the Chinese attempt to criticise Pakistani ter­­ror groups was actually an attempt to ens­ure, through a bit of pressure, that its heavy investment does not go up in smoke because of the instability born of spiralling terrorist activities there. In addition, avoiding an armed confrontation between India and Pakistan not only ensures peace, but also brightens the chance that India may also join the CPEC in the near future.

It’s a challenge for India to chart a course on the storm-tossed sea of Trump’s policy statements.

Given the ‘intemperate’ nature of the US President, it may not come as a surprise if in coming weeks he again lets out his steam on Pakistan and its  terror links. The Indian leadership, wiser now, should be more careful about its reactions. After all, these events enrich the bank of experience they can draw upon later.


Some Of Donald Trump’s Famous Flip-Flops

On currency manipulation by China

  • Flip: China is a currency manipulator.
  • Flop: Why should I call China currency manipulator when they are cooperating on North Korea?

On Islam and terrorism

  • Flip: Islam hates us.
  • Flop: This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilisations.

On the NATO

  • Flip: NATO is obsolete.
  • Flop: NATO is no longer obsolete.

On Jerusalem (Shared by both Israel and Palestine) being the Jewish capital

  • Flip: Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
  • Flop: We are not looking to provoke anyone when everyone is playing so nice.

On Pakistan’s link with terror groups

  • Flip: Pakistan is taking billions of dollars from us but sheltering the same terrorists who are killing Americans.
  • Flop: I am developing a much better relationship with Pakistan and its leaders.
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