Kashmir Wasn’t a 'Covfefe' Moment for Trump

US President Donald Trump (L) greets Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House in Washington, DC, on July 22, 2019. (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Barely a year ago, President Donald Trump had famously claimed that Pakistani leaders offered “nothing but lies and deceit”, and now in a 180-degree turn, thinks it fit to not only host their Head of State, all the while gushing about how the two countries are on the threshold of improved relations on the political and trade fronts.

What’s more, Trump also made Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan feel as if “he had won the World Cup” with his comment about being asked to mediate on Kashmir by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, creating somewhat of a storm in the teacup of Indo-US relations that had turned the corner under his two predecessors in the White House.

Following India’s rebuttal of Trump’s claim, the White House joined hands with the Indian Foreign Office in a damage control exercise that essentially focused on the US President’s penchant for having “covfefe” moments. In other words, putting his foot firmly in his mouth.

Even as both sides attempt to close the chapter while reiterating that all matters related to India and Pakistan need to be resolved bilaterally, there is a strong suspicion that Trump’s comment wasn’t actually a “covfefe” moment. It may well be a pre-planned and brilliantly executed opening gambit of his bid for re-election in a year’s time from now.

The US President whose tenure has been anything but spectacular will face the electorate next year on the back of a first term that has been shrill with promises but underwhelming in results. By cozying up to Pakistan at this juncture, Trump may be hoping that Islamabad could use their good offices with the Taliban to ensure a cease-fire in Afghanistan that could help Washington pull back its troops.

If Trump could lean on Imran Khan, and through offers of financial and military aid get his administration to broker a cessation of hostilities between the Taliban and the current dispensation in Kabul, the United States would finally be able to wind up its military presence in the area.

Even if the USA manages some sort of negotiated deal in Afghanistan that ensures a phased pull-out of their troops from the region, it would be a major triumph for Trump and practically guarantee a second term in the White House. In fact, there were enough subtle messages during his meeting with Khan about Pakistan’s role in resolving the conflict.

“If I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the earth. It would be gone in ten days,” Trump told Khan, who not only acquiesced but also responded sagely that peace was a better option. It wasn’t difficult to see what the two leaders were cooking up as immediately after his comments on Afghanistan, Trump went “covfefe” with his statement about mediating in Kashmir.

A statement that made Imran Khan feel as if he had won the World Cup in the hope that Islamabad had finally managed to internationalize Kashmir, something that New Delhi has, for most of the last seventy years, prevented from happening.

It is quite obvious that Trump’s cozying up to Pakistan- after first allowing Imran Khan to deplane at Washington’s Dulles airport without any of the trappings of a state visit- is an attempt (impromptu or otherwise) to mend relations with Islamabad. The question is, why now? Also how will Pakistan explain away Trump’s infamous January 2018 tweet stating that the US had “foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid”, while accusing its leaders of treating American officials like fools and giving safe haven to terrorists.

Political commentators in the United States aren’t sure that Trump has got his facts right. Arif Rafiq, a policy analyst, was quoted by the New York Times suggesting that Washington was overestimating Islamabad’s influence over the Taliban, though he argued that the US should keep the channels open with Islamabad and not cede the region to Beijing.

Imran Khan, whose ascension to the top political office in Pakistan was as controversial as Trump’s, had been making noises about resolving Kashmir and not ceding ground to Washington ever since he came to power. Which is why getting Trump to speak about Kashmir was a triumph, and was greeted as such by Pakistani news channels.

It would be a horrible mistake if New Delhi allows Washington to get away easily with the Kashmir comment as if it could end up harming Indo-US bilateral relations and stymie efforts to call Pakistan’s bluff on terror at international forums.