Kashmir issue: Donald Trump is pulling a fast one on Imran Khan; no cause for India to worry

Sreemoy Talukdar

It never fails to surprise when Donald Trump's mention of Kashmir generates heat and noise in India. On Tuesday, for instance, the US president met Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum summit in Davos. Before going for the bilateral meeting, Trump told reporters, again, that he is watching the "Kashmir" situation "very closely" and is ready to help if needed. This was enough to send commentators and media into a tailspin.

In India, Trump's comments made instant headlines. The government did not react but talking heads and policy wonks were soon busy dissecting his comments and ascribing motives. This is weird.

Had Trump been a president in the same mould as other heads of states whose comments are an indication of policy positions, such enthusiasm over his tweets would have been understandable. This is a POTUS who has forced NATO to put 'time limit' on speeches to cope with his short attention span, has no grasp of history, even lesser grasp of geography, tweets gibberish in the middle of the night, threatens to destroy cultural sites of a nation he doesn't like, says one thing about Pakistan, and something quite another later. This is a "very stable genius" who has totally upended all notions about the institution called 'American Presidency'.

To do a textual reading of Trump's comments, therefore, is to credit his words with meanings he may not have himself intended to. Trump has shown in the past that he likes to say nice words about the heads of states while in their company. He once called Chinese president Xi Jinping "a very, very good friend" and then, later on, termed him an "enemy". So, one should be very careful in taking the words seriously when Trump describes Pakistan prime minister as "a very good friend", as he did on Tuesday.

That said, Trump, with all his idiosyncrasies, is not an irrational actor. There is a context to his comments, and (to his mind) very good reason behind raising the topic of Kashmir just before going for the meeting with Khan. The point is that his comments serve a finite purpose and are restricted to the immediate context instead of indicating tectonic shifts in US policy positions.

The chronology of Trump's comments (with Khan by his side) is interesting. Worth noting that it was Trump who picked up the topic of Kashmir in his opening remarks. As a White House readout of the presser notes: "We're going to be talking about trade and many other things. But trade is going to be of very, very paramount importance. And we're doing more trade as it turns. And we're working together on some borders, and we're talking about Kashmir and the relation to what's going on with Pakistan and India. And if we can help, we certainly will be helping. And we've been watching that and following it very, very closely."

Interestingly, it was Khan who picked up the topic of Afghanistan €" the issue that is of paramount importance to the Trump administration in an election year. Trump would like nothing more than to seal a "peace process" (more an exit strategy) and withdraw US troops from the region to end an 18-year-old war. And, he reckons that Pakistan, after a history of playing spoiler, is quite close to help the US in achieving that goal.

This also indicates that the ebb and flow of US-Pakistan ties is intrinsically linked to the security relationship between the two nations over Afghanistan, and Trump's raising the topic of Kashmir, without Khan's prompting, indicates that Pakistan is delivering on its promises to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and maybe even facilitating the "peace process".

This may explain why US policy towards Pakistan is becoming softer and bilateral ties are becoming "warmer", as the ongoing four-day official visit of a senior US diplomat to Islamabad would suggest. Alice Wells, principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia is expected to hold talks on Afghanistan and bilateral ties amid an assessment from the US Department of State that Pakistan is finally walking the talk.

Worth noting that the Trump administration has announced the resumption of the suspended International Military Education and Training (IMET) programmes for young Pakistani army officers and are reportedly firming up bilateral trade and commercial ties that also found mention in Trump's comments.

Washington's optimism stems from reports that indicate Pakistan is working its leverages with Taliban. Pakistan seems to have understood that Trump administration won't be taken in with words unless there is demonstrable action and a Reuters report from early 2019 notes that it is extending help to the US, including "exerting pressure on Taliban leaders who fail to cooperate" even by "by detaining members of the militants' families".

It is evident that Trump felt obligated to raise the Kashmir issue and deliver a small "domestic win" for Khan and the powerful military-industrial complex that it walking a tightrope between pressurising the Taliban and risking its own security architecture.

This is also the reason why we should not attach too much importance to Trump's words. He has now raised the Kashmir issue several times and on at least seven occasions has offered to "mediate".

At the same time, with Trump seated beside him, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated during the G-7 Summit last August that Kashmir is a "bilateral issue" and there is no space for third party involvement. Trump, in his part, had declared Modi "really feels he has it under control" and "I think they (India and Pakistan) can do it (resolve the issue) themselves".

Repeated reference to Kashmir may indicate that being a self-proclaimed "stable genius", Trump seriously believes that only he can solve the intractable 'Kashmir dispute'. But he is also rational enough to understand the limitations and leverages of that position vis-à-vis US-Pakistan and India-US ties.

Instead of getting blindsided by the Kashmir bogey, therefore, the Indian media should note that Trump dismissed the idea of touring Pakistan during his expected visit to India. Early reports indicate that Trump's scheduled maiden visit as head of state may include a town hall event. These are signs that the India-US relationship is stable and based on mutual interests and convergence of strategic imperatives. It is free of the conditionalities that shape US-Pakistan ties.

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