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Diplomatic controversies have a life of their own; they resist being wished away conveniently. When a controversy over a dispute involving India and Pakistan involves an eager US hovering around to step-in as a ‘mediator’, a long shelf-life is guaranteed. Though over a week has passed since Donald Trump publicly asserted that Narendra Modi sought his mediation on Kashmir—a claim that India officially denied—the controversy over the U.S. president’s remarks still rages on.
Made during a joint press conference with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in Washington, the remarks led to angry protests in India, forcing Union foreign minister S. Jaishankar to categorically state that no such request was made by Modi when he met Trump at the G-20 Summit in Japan last month.
As part of the episode’s afterlife, analysts are persevering in their efforts to ferret out the truth behind it and the import of the US president’s remarks on Kashmir and the region beyond.
America’s desire to act as go-between in India-Pakistan disputes has been alive since 1962. Successive US governments have tried their hands at it. But after the 1972 Shimla Agreement and a follow up in the Lahore Declaration, where the two countries had agreed to resolve their outstanding issues bilaterally, through mutual discussions, the scope for outside interference had significantly diminished. Trump has managed to bring it to the forefront.
Pakistan, thwarted by India in the three wars they started in Kashmir, dearly wants an internationalization of the issue, and saw it as a victory. “Imran Khan made Trump realise Kashmir was a ‘flashpoint’ that needs early resolution,” claimed Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
The Indian PM did not stomp into the furore, as it would have forced him to call Trump a liar, or else explain if he had any conversation on Kashmir with him. Instead, the government had Jaishankar make a public denial. This, in turn, has allowed sceptics to speculate whether there was something beyond the official denial. South Block wants the controversy to die a quick and natural death. But developments within and outside India over the past few days help it to linger on.
One such development is related to the recent deployment of additional security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir. The authorities say this is being done to beef up security during the Independence Day celebrations and to allow people to freely hoist the tricolour in all corners of the trouble-prone state. But this has not stopped speculation in political and diplomatic circles that the government’s latest initiative may go much beyond that—a key political ambition of the government vis-a-vis J&K and its grim aftermath is one of them. As a result, the issue of J&K has once again taken political pole position.
This has given a fresh life to Trump’s controversial remarks on Kashmir. People, who otherwise might have dismissed them as typical Trump-ian hyperbole that amounts to nothing, are willing to dig deeper to find out if they merit a more thoughtful assessment.
Trump’s mediatory lunge came in the wake of a series of controversial remarks made by Trump in the run-up to Imran’s visit and during his Washington stay. The first came on 26/11 mastermind and Lashkar-e-Toiba founder Hafiz Saeed’s arrest. Trump claimed Saeed was arrested after 10 years of sustained US pressure on Pakistan, ignoring the fact that the terrorist leader was arrested several times in the past decade by Pakistani agencies, then released each time after a short duration in custody.
Then came a lunatic declamation: Trump declared that he could easily have won the war in Afghanistan, but he didn’t, since he wanted to avoid the death of 10 million people. The remarks on Kashmir followed this.
“The president did a lot of damage today. His remarks on Kashmir and Afghanistan were way off the mark,” former US ambassador Richard Verma pithily remarked. But if Verma saw the damage done by the remarks to India-US relations, many other observers see the beginning of a shift in US policy on South Asia and Kashmir in particular.
Pakistani analyst on foreign affairs Hassan Akbar felt that while Trump is known to obfuscate facts, it is difficult to believe that he would have associated remarks to the Indian PM in such pointed detail without an actual conversation on the US role in India-Pakistan ties.
“It is more likely that Modi mentioned US help in managing the India-Pakistan relationship rather than mediation,” he told Al Jazeera. But he pointed out that irrespective of whether Modi requested mediation or not, the mention of Kashmir was a big win for Pakistan.
Many Indian analysts acknowledge that the US president’s remarks have made India’s policy on Pakistan a little “shakier” than before, because Trump, who was on the same page as the Modi government in putting pressure on Islamabad and castigating it publicly for harbouring terrorists, now seem to have turned soft on Pakistan.
Much of this may be linked to Trump’s desire to enlist Pakistan’s support in getting the Taliban to play ball for a smooth US troop extraction from Afghanistan. Indeed, this is just another instance of how most of Trump’s foreign policy agenda and relations with world leaders are ‘transactional’ in nature, changing from being ‘hot’ to ‘cold’, depending on whether these leaders deliver what Trump expects from them.
The current US-Pakistan bonhomie, evident since Imran Khan successfully managed to ‘reset’ Islamabad’s bilateral ties with Washington can, therefore, evaporate if the Pakistani leadership, which includes the military establishment, slide down Trump’s wish list on Afghanistan.
But the warmth could increase if Pakistan manages to pacify the Taliban, persuade it to join the political mainstream—at least, until the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete—with the promise that in the near future Islamabad would continue to support it in its bid to consolidate its position in the war-torn country.
The emerging scenario leaves India with a small window of opportunity to firm up its position in Kashmir before an emboldened Pakistan begins to thwart New Delhi’s programme in the Valley and elsewhere through its proxies.
It’s in this context that the October plenary session of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in Paris gathers special significance. India, which has refused to restart dialogue with Pakistan, saying the Pakistani establishment has not yet made any serious attempt to discard the terror tools it employs against India and its people, will try its best to keep up pressure on Pakistan at the FATF. For this to happen it will have to seek support of all the key international players, especially the US.
It remains to be seen which of the two crucial issues—terrorism or human rights—dominate the discourse on Kashmir. But one thing is for sure—the desire to play a bigger role in India-Pakistan relations and mediate on Kashmir is unlikely to be brushed off Donald Trump’s table in the Oval Office.