The U.S. State Department now appears to stand behind President Donald Trump’s claim that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate or arbitrate the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, moving away from a department official’s clarification that it considered it a bilateral issue.
Asked by a reporter if there has been any change in U.S. policy on Kashmir, Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in Washington on Thursday, “I don’t have anything to say beyond the president’s statement.”
This would be a step back from an attempt by Alice G Wells, the acting assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, to ease tensions with India over Trump’s claim, which India has denied.
Soon after Trump made the claim before reporters as he and visiting Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan were preparing to meet at the White House on Monday, Wells tried to clarify Washington’s position affirming that Kashmir was a bilateral matter, conforming to India’s stand.
She tweeted under her initials, AGW, on her bureau’s Twitter account, “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.”
Ortagus moves the department position back to Trump’s although she does not explicitly call it a change in the policy.
Trump had said, “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.'”
Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar has denied in Parliament that Modi had made any such request when he met Trump in Osaka on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan.
He said on Tuesday, “I assure the House categorically that no such request has been made by the Prime Minister to the U.S. president. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross-border terrorism.”
The episode illustrates the frequent foreign — and domestic — policy confusions brought on by a mercurial president and efforts by officials to salvage situations while working at cross purposes.
Ortagus sidestepped another question by a reporter asking how U.S.-Pakistan and India-Pakistan relations would proceed after Khan’s admission on Tuesday that there are 30,000 to 40,000 terrorists who had fought in Kashmir and Afghanistan who were in Pakistan.
Ortagus instead spoke in general terms about the interactions between Khan and U.S. leaders. She said, “This was an initial meeting. This meeting, of course, gave the chance for the President and the Secretary (of State Mike Pompeo) to meet with Prime Minister Khan, to build a personal connection and rapport. And now we think it’s time to make progress on the success of this first meeting.
Without addressing the presence of terrorists, she added, “I would note one of the things that the prime minister says, that he vowed to urge the Taliban to negotiate with the Afghan government. We are committed to peace in Afghanistan. We think that was an important step. And there was a number of issues that were discussed not only in the president’s meeting but with the Secretary’s meeting as well, and now is the time to build upon that meeting and to build upon those commitments.”
This reinforces the sense that Trump’s priority right now is making a deal with the Taliban to pull the U.S. out of Afghanistan so that he can claim to have kept a campaign promise, having failed to carry out most of them. And because of Pakistan’s patronage of the Taliban, Khan can make the Taliban make an agreement with the U.S.