POV: READING TRUMP RIGHT
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