It appears that US president Donald Trump lied about Prime Minister Narendra Modi asking for his help to “mediate” on Kashmir. Notwithstanding the categorical denials issued by India — by way of official statements, reiteration of the statement on the floor of Parliament by senior Union ministers Rajnath Singh and S Jaishankar — official records show that the Kashmir issue never came up for discussion between the US president and the Prime Minister of India during the G20 summit.
The US, too, has subsequently dialed back the president’s stunning claim with the State Department’s acting assistant secretary Alice G Wells, the highest-ranking official on the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (SCA), clarifying on Twitter that “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. - AGW”.
Trump has subsequently been roasted by US lawmakers. Congressman Eliot L Engel, Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, has reaffirmed the long-standing US position on Kashmir — that it is strictly a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan — while Congressman Brad Sherman tweeted that he has “apologized to Indian Ambassador Harsh Shringla for Trump’s amateurish and embarrassing mistake.”
The point worth considering is not whether Trump lied, rather why he might do so.
There could be several reasons behind the US president’s remark during the bilateral with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan at the White House that has caused a furore in India. Apart from the sweeping disbelief and outrage that Trump would make such a claim, the controversy has given the Opposition a much-needed issue that it used gladly to disrupt Parliament proceedings. In short, the excrement has hit the fan.
Trump’s claim of a Kashmir “mediation offer” by Modi, a statement India has hotly denied, could be aimed at the fact that it hands the Pakistan prime minister a stunning foreign policy “victory”. Here was Khan flying to Washington DC on a commercial flight, getting snubbed on arrival by the Trump administration and generating a hell lot of bad press at home. If this was aimed by “softening up” Khan before the actual meeting, Trump has given him a gift that perhaps took even Khan by surprise.
The moot question is, why did Trump, who has criticised Pakistan often in the past, do so? Why did he feel the need to put Khan in comfort? The answer lies partly in Trump’s myopic attitude towards foreign policy.
Ever since assuming office, this US president has shown a complete inability to grasp America’s long-term strategic concerns and has often used axiomatic position as a tool to gain leverage in a “deal”. He has also shown scant disregard for bracketing long-standing trade and immigration-related frictions from spilling over and affecting the close strategic partnerships. He has alienated America’s closest allies, disrupted partnerships with countries that share similar values and political systems and has cozied up to nations that pose a threat to Western values and security. On major policy issues, he has also flip-flopped quicker than a hummingbird flaps its wings.
By way of gifting a sound bite that would be music to Khan’s ears, Trump was clearly trying to please the Pakistani prime minister. The need for this arises because Trump has literally boxed himself into a corner over Afghanistan by talking big without understanding the complexity of an 18-year-old war. Right now, to placate his base ahead of the 2020 presidential campaign and secure an “exit deal” for American troops, Trump is solely dependent on Pakistan’s ability to deliver on its promises.
He has also belatedly figured out that in this game of poker, he has the worst hand. And during his bilateral with Khan, he made no bones about the fact that he wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. The fact that he found it not fit to clarify that “getting out” doesn’t mean abandoning all the stated aims and objectives of the US in Afghanistan should inform us about the level of his desperation.
A readout of the Trump-Khan meeting, released by the White House, reveals the nature of Trump’s desperation amid his incoherent bluster: “So we’re working with Pakistan and others to extricate ourselves. Nor do we want to be policemen, because basically we’re policemen right now. And we’re not supposed to be policemen. We’ve been there — we’ve been there for 19 years, in Afghanistan. It’s ridiculous. And I think Pakistan helps us with that because we don’t want to stay as policemen. But if we wanted to, we could win that war. I have a plan that would win that war in a very short period of time.”
If we contrast Trump’s comments with what he said about Pakistan in the past, the dramatic turnaround in his position becomes stark. In a speech delineating US policy on Afghanistan and South Asia, Trump berated Pakistan for taking “billions and billions of dollars” from the US, and “at the same time… housing the same terrorists that we are fighting.” He had also noted in that speech that “20 US-designated foreign terrorist organizations” were operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He added that the US “can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”
In that same speech, Trump vowed to “develop strategic partnership with India” and called it “a key security and economic harbor of the United States.” He also called upon India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, “especially in the area of economic assistance and development.” For many in Indian political and strategic establishment, this was a much-needed course correction in US policy towards South Asia. But India could be forgiven for getting Trump wrong. Not many succeed.
Till January 2018, Trump’s belligerence on Pakistan continued where he said the US has been taken in by Pakistan’s “lies” and “deceit” and paid billions of dollars while Pakistan subverted US interests in Afghanistan.
The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 1, 2018
Towards the end of that year, with the “unwinnable” and “endless war” in Afghanistan showing no signs of abetting, Trump’s patience began to wear thin. In December 2018, Trump wrote to Imran seeking Pakistan's “support and facilitation” to obtain a negotiated settlement in Afghan war, according to the Pakistani side that had first revealed the contents of the letter.
By next month, Trump had completed his turnaround by seeking a “great relationship” with Pakistan. While the Trump administration wants the Taliban to reach a settlement to ensure that the militia no longer harbours terrorists, stops terror attacks and works out a new “political arrangement” with the civilian government, the Taliban has so far proved to be a difficult and unreliable negotiator. They have increased violence against civilians and have refused to enter into any sort of power-sharing arrangement with the Ashraf Ghani government that has been kept out of the “peace process” and rendered helpless and powerless.
Trump feels that Pakistan can act as a facilitator with the Taliban, persuade them to end the cycle of violence and reach a settlement with the US. Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has until 1 September to negotiate a deal.
As Michael Kugelman of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Centre writes in Foreign Policy, “The bottom line is that Washington badly needs Islamabad’s help in Afghanistan, and it can’t afford to take a harder line toward a partner that it doesn’t want to antagonize. With its hands tied, the United States is in no position to wield a big stick.”
From Trump’s perspective, a throwaway line on Kashmir that will gladden Khan’s heart and give the Pakistan prime minister and his bosses in Rawalpindi the maneuverable space to cooperate with the US on Taliban is a small price to pay for a big “win”. If India is outraged, that will soon die down. Trump may claim during his upcoming meet with Modi that he was simply playing truant to see Khan’s response.
The second reason why Trump may have picked up the Kashmir red herring is to simply needle India on an issue that is sensitive and polarising. He may have been fully aware of the furore and outrage that would be caused in India and was simply playing along a carefully laid script so that this position can later be used as a bargaining chip during trade talks with India.
We have already seen that this president gives the issue of trade disproportionate importance in bilateral ties and measures the metric of closeness through the lens of “free and fair” trade. Trump’s fixation on trade at the cost of affecting strategic and defence cooperation — areas where the Indo-US partnership has made great strides — is a known tactic. It is possible that the Trump administration feels frustrated with the pace of trade talks, and recent belligerence from both sides has not helped the cause.
The issue is deeply political for Trump. As Pratik Chougule, former policy coordinator on the Trump 2016 presidential campaign, points out in The Diplomat, “Trump’s Republican supporters are outliers in their skepticism toward U.S. initiatives on international trade, immigration, and global development — a worldview translating into wariness toward India. More so than his predecessors, who actively courted the increasingly influential Indian-American community, Trump faces zero-sum choices between his base and a diaspora seeking to bolster U.S.-India ties.”
Trump may have hoped that a reference to Kashmir would open wide eyes in India and prise open the deadlock on trade talks.
The third reason why Trump may have stumbled on to a controversy is that far apart from these considered tactical positions, a vainglorious Trump was simply unprepared for the meeting. He wasn’t briefed enough on South Asia policy and was unaware of the sensitivity of the issue he was blustering on. That certainly seems to the opinion of American media at large and US lawmakers.
Trump may have strutted into the topic, led by clever manipulation from Khan who was subtly playing to Trump’s vanity during talks, using phrases like “most powerful country in the world”, “the most powerful state, headed by President Trump” and Trump thought that the only thing missing from this 70-year conflict between India and Pakistan was his genius and big brain that would be enough to stop “bombs from going off everywhere”.
Whatever may be the motive, one feels the need to offer Khan one piece of advice. He might be the darling of Pakistan media right now, but to take Trump’s words at face value is a tactic fraught with danger.
Updated Date: Jul 24, 2019 17:24:07 IST