India Today - - INSIDE - By Sharat Sab­har­wal

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s claim that Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi had asked him to me­di­ate on Kash­mir un­leashed a po­lit­i­cal storm in India. The alleged re­quest flies so force­fully in the face of India’s po­si­tion that one can­not imag­ine an In­dian prime min­is­ter mak­ing it. The gov­ern­ment strongly de­nied it, re­it­er­at­ing bi­lat­er­al­ism in ad­dress­ing all is­sues be­tween India and Pak­istan. The mat­ter should rest there. How­ever, the clam­our to cor­ner the gov­ern­ment over­shad­owed the im­pli­ca­tions of Trump’s words.

First, not dis­tin­guished for their pre­ci­sion and choice of words, Trump’s state­ments are nonethe­less not with­out con­text. His readi­ness to me­di­ate, also re­it­er­ated in a sub­se­quent state depart­ment clarificat­ion, was clearly an at­tempt to hu­mour the Pak­istani es­tab­lish­ment, ever keen to in­ter­na­tion­alise Kash­mir, but with­out much suc­cess in re­cent years. The con­text is the US-Pak­istan trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ship com­ing alive again, this time to fa­cil­i­tate the with­drawal of US forces from Afghanista­n. In their talks with the Amer­i­cans, fa­cil­i­tated by Pak­istan, the Tal­iban have kept the fo­cus on with­drawal of for­eign forces— to the exclusion of a cease­fire and ne­go­ti­a­tions with the Afghan gov­ern­ment (de­scribed as a US pup­pet) on power-shar­ing and a fu­ture po­lit­i­cal set-up. Dur­ing his visit to the US, Im­ran Khan, ac­com­pa­nied by his mil­i­tary and in­tel­li­gence chiefs, promised to urge the Tal­iban to talk to the Afghan gov­ern­ment. The Tal­iban have no in­cen­tive to cease the hos­til­i­ties that have brought the Amer­i­cans to the ne­go­ti­a­tions ta­ble, and are likely to push for a mo­nop­oly on power—as in the ’90s—af­ter the Amer­i­can forces de­part, caus­ing a re­newed power strug­gle. There are con­cerns that the war­weary Amer­i­cans, work­ing with a tight time­frame dic­tated by Trump’s re-elec­tion cal­en­dar, may ac­cept a face-saving deal that leaves Afghanista­n at the mercy of the Tal­iban and Pak­istan, with detri­men­tal con­se­quences for India and the re­gion. In spite of our deep and abid­ing in­ter­est in Afghanista­n, we re­main pe­riph­eral to the Pak­istan­bro­kered peace moves.

Sec­ond, re­newed US-Pak en­gage­ment be­lies yet again the hy­per­bole sur­round­ing our pol­icy of iso­lat­ing Pak­istan and the ex­pec­ta­tion that oth­ers will fol­low us in not en­gag­ing with it. We for­get

that other in­flu­en­tial coun­tries fol­low their own in­ter­ests and have of­ten lever­aged their tilts in the Indo-Pak con­text to pro­mote their agenda vis-àvis the two coun­tries. The Amer­i­cans kept a cash­strapped Pak­istan un­der tremen­dous pres­sure through 2018 by sus­pend­ing se­cu­rity as­sis­tance and adopt­ing a tough pos­ture at the Fi­nan­cial Ac­tion Task Force (FATF). Their wish-list in­cluded ir­re­versible ac­tion against all ter­ror groups in Pak­istan, but the pri­mary fo­cus re­mained on Afghanista­n. Given Pak­istan’s poor track record, its re­cent moves against ter­ror groups do not inspire much con­fi­dence. How­ever, just when we would have ex­pected Pak­istan to be moved to the FATF’s black list and its eco­nomic cri­sis to deepen, the Amer­i­cans have thrown it a life­line. Pak­istan has used such life­lines in the past to step up its re­van­chist agenda against us.

Third, while swear­ing by bi­lat­er­al­ism, we have of­ten used the good of­fices of in­flu­en­tial third par­ties to re­solve cri­sis sit­u­a­tions with Pak­istan, ev­i­denced most re­cently by the post-Balakot de-es­ca­la­tion. While the world has de-hy­phen­ated us from Pak­istan, we have un­wit­tingly brought back a hy­phen­ation of sorts by aban­don­ing our pol­icy of not re­act­ing to Pak­istan’s ful­mi­na­tions in mul­ti­lat­eral fo­rums, matching them word for word, mount­ing a high-pitched cam­paign against Pak ter­ror and ac­tively seek­ing sup­port of lead­ing coun­tries to rein it in. There is a thin line be­tween those coun­tries pulling our chest­nuts out of the fire and ac­quir­ing the am­bi­tion to me­di­ate.

Fi­nally, bi­lat­er­al­ism de­mands that we man­age the Pak­istan prob­lem our­selves. Co­er­cion is an ob­vi­ous tool to deal with a re­cal­ci­trant state such as Pak­istan, but diplo­macy too has a place in even the most dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ships, if only to man­age them bet­ter. Diplo­matic en­gage­ment does not rule out co­er­cive/ puni­tive mea­sures, when re­quired. More­over, is­sues such as Kulb­hushan Jad­hav’s con­tin­ued cap­tiv­ity can­not be re­solved only through co­er­cion or le­gal ma­noeu­vres at the In­ter­na­tional Court of Jus­tice. By elim­i­nat­ing bi­lat­eral diplo­macy from our reper­toire, we in­vite third-party med­dling. ■

The au­thor is a for­mer high com­mis­sioner to Pak­istan. Views are per­sonal

Trump’s claim that Modi had asked him to me­di­ate on Kash­mir un­leashed a po­lit­i­cal storm, but the clam­our over­shad­owed the im­pli­ca­tion of his words

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