Author : Harsh V. Pant

Originally Published 2019-08-26 06:15:28 Published on Aug 26, 2019
Donald Trump’s engagement with the Kashmir issue has a lot to do with his need to secure Pakistan’s backing for his Afghanistan policy.
G7 Summit | Modi and Trump meet in the shadow of subcontinent’s changing geopolitics

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi gets ready to meet US President Donald Trump in France on August 26 on the side-lines of the G7 summit, it has been reported that the US President is planning to ask Modi about his plans to “reduce regional tensions” in the aftermath of India's decision to end special status to Jammu and Kashmir by revoking Article 370 and split it into two union territories.

As per media reports, the US is suggesting that Trump would like “to hear from Prime Minister Modi on how he plans to reduce regional tensions and uphold respect for human rights in Kashmir, as part of India's role as the world's largest democracy.”

Trump has been talking about Kashmir off and on for the last few weeks, at times offering to mediate between India and Pakistan, at times more perfunctorilyOn August 20, he gave his own unique interpretation to the Kashmir problem when he said: “Kashmir is a very complicated place. You have Hindus and you have the Muslims and I wouldn't say they get along so great...I will do the best I can to have two counties that haven't gotten along well for a long time and frankly, it's a very explosive situation.”

He also spoke to both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani premier Imran Khan by telephone recently. Modi made it clear to Trump that extreme rhetoric and incitement to anti-India violence by certain leaders in the region was not conducive to peace after which he asked Khan to “moderate rhetoric” with India over Kashmir.

At one level, it is difficult to fathom Trump’s approach on this issue, as much like other issues, he seems to respond to immediate pressure rather than approaching issues strategically. During Khan’s visit to the US, Trump unexpectedly, and rather dramatically, offered to “mediate or arbitrate” the Kashmir dispute, which led to screeching headlines and political upheaval in India.

This would have genuinely come as a shock to many in India as it reverses the decades-old US policy of viewing the Kashmir dispute as a bilateral matter to be resolved between India and Pakistan, in sync with Indian sensibilities. Though all American Presidents have been tempted to wade into the Kashmir dispute every now and then, it is now well-understood in Washington that this is a no-go area for the US if it wants ties with India to grow and mature.

So, what prompted Trump to say what he said remains a matter of intense speculation in India? One can weave in all kinds of conspiracy theories, but the reality remains that it is very difficult to figure out what Trump is thinking most of the time on serious matters of geopolitics. If his own state department finds it difficult to navigate his thought process, India has a very difficult task at hand.

Yet there is no doubt that Trump’s engagement with the Kashmir issue has a lot to do with his need to secure Pakistan’s backing for his Afghanistan policy. Trump has been clear that he wants to get out of Afghanistan, especially as the US presidential elections approach. He wants to go to his voters and tell them that he has delivered on a major electoral promise, thereby preparing ground for his re-election in 2020.

In recent days, there have been speculations that the Taliban and US are ready to sign a deal with many expecting a formal announcement on troop drawdown soon. Trump needs Pakistan to secure this peace deal and Pakistan would expect Trump to take up the Kashmir issue with India. For Trump, reducing American military footprint in Afghanistan is a key policy priority and he won’t mind humouring Khan to get this outcome.

As New Delhi showed by revoking Article 370, India’s ability to shape the priorities of its neighbours remains quite significant. When Pakistan desperately tried to link Kashmir and Afghanistan, it was reminded by the Taliban that “linking the issue of Kashmir with that of Afghanistan by some parties will not aid in improving the crisis at hand because the issue of Afghanistan is not related.” Pakistan’s inability to think of Afghanistan beyond its ‘strategic depth’ fallacy will ensure that whoever comes to power in Kabul will look to New Delhi to safeguard its sovereignty.

Despite Trump’s outreach, New Delhi has categorically made it clear to the US that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan and there was no role for a third party. For all of Trump’s outbursts on Kashmir, the US will not be able to fundamentally alter either the ground realities in the region or India’s policy vis-à-vis Kashmir. The rest of the international community seems to have come to terms with it, as was reflected in French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement that “issue of Kashmir should be resolved between India and Pakistan and no other party should be involved.”

Modi would be hoping for a similar sentiment from Trump when he sees him later today.

This commentary originally appeared in Money Control.

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Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

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