A credibility-challenged US President Donald Trump has muddled the carefully built relations with India by his dubious claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sought his mediation with Pakistan to find a solution to the Kashmir problem – an assertion that was immediately trashed by New Delhi.
Speaking to reporters before his meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump dropped the stunner: “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject. And he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir'”.
India’s External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Raveesh Kumar rejected Trump’s claim, saying, “No such request has been made by Prime Minister to the US President. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally”.
Trump’s mercurial personality is sometimes a loose cannon in politics and diplomacy changing policies on a whim and making dubious claims to boost his outsize ego.
And this was one such moment.
His administration official in charge of South Asia, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Alice Wells, moved quickly to douse the controversy. She tweeted, “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist.”
Congressional leaders from the Democratic and Republican Parties also repudiated Trump’s claim to be mediator and reaffirmed the US position that Kashmir was bilateral issued between the neighbors.
Trump’s own foreign policy advisers like National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo see India in the larger geopolitical strategic environment in dealing with China and helping the US across continents and oceans. And they know enough about India to not make such claims.
Wells surely had Pompeo’s approval to make a statement that goes against the president’s public pronouncement.
At the beginning of their media encounter, Trump said the US could “intercede” with India in settling disputes with Pakistan. But later it became mediating on Kashmir and then arbitrating.
For Trump there is an important short-term political objective in appeasing Khan – arriving at some kind of a settlement with the Taliban in Afghanistan so he can bring the US troops back home.
Trump acknowledged that Pakistanis “have a power that other nations don’t have with respect to Afghanistan”.
This is all the more important for Trump with the presidential elections around the corner as he has failed to make a deal with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whom he had feted in a similar manner, and most of his election promises unfulfilled.
“We’re working with Pakistan on getting a solution”, he said, adding, “We’ve made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress”.
Trump’s claim that Modi wanted him to be the “arbitrator” in the dispute exposes the hollowness of his claim.
Kashmir has become a touchstone of India’s national integrity and after an ill-conceived initial appeal to the United Nations, New Delhi has carefully kept outsiders from even mediating, refusing many well-intentioned offers. Arbitrating that gives the right to judge and make awards is so well beyond mediating that it is inconceivable Modi or any Indian leader would even think of giving anyone that authority.
The policy of avoiding outside involvement has bipartisan – or more accurately, multi-partisan – agreement in India.
Trump’s claim will roil Indian politics, giving the opposition an opportunity to attack Modi, who has built his reputation as a hardliner in dealing with Pakistan.
As for Modi, his government, his party and his supporters Trump’s statement will now give them pause as they consider the reliability of dealings with the US president.
Another significant shift shown by Trump was in his tough attitude to terrorism emanating from Pakistan. For example, after the Phulwama attack that killed about 50 Indian security personnel, Trump said, “India is looking at something very strong. And I mean, India just lost almost 50 people with an attack. So, I could understand that also”.
But on Monday, Trump moved to a neutral position equating India and Pakistan, saying, “I think it is a two-way street. You say that India is coming in and destabilizing Pakistan, and India is saying Pakistan is coming and destabilizing”.
The seriousness of anything Trump said about South Asia has to be weighed against another of his flippant statement: “If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people”.
There are also some historical developments to be considered from Khan’s perspective.
Pakistan reaped the benefits of being an intermediary between the US and another country, China, when it facilitated US diplomat extraordinaire Henry Kissinger’s contacts with Beijing in July and October 1971 that led to the two countries setting up diplomatic relations, seen as coup for President Richard Nixon.
Kissinger in return created the policy of tilt to Pakistan — and against India — during the Bangladesh War.
Now Khan can feel he could pull off something like that in return for helping the US deal with the Taliban — but he might recall that in the end, it did not help Pakistan and Bangladesh got its freedom.
Pakistan’s later manipulation of the US got it billions of dollars and influence when it allied with the US and the Taliban against the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan and then with Washington nominally against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But it ended badly for Pakistan when terrorism it fostered came back to haunt it.
The only time India accepted a foreign involvement in its bilateral problem was after the 1965 India-Pakistan War, but it was not specifically about Kashmir. Then-Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin arranged a summit between Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan’s dictator Ayub Khan in Tashkent. They signed a declaration ending the war, but tragically Shastri died soon after in that city.