India should be wary of Trump's Kashmir diplomacy

India should be wary of Trump's Kashmir diplomacy

Trump’s Kashmir Climbdown

US President Donald Trump. (AFP Photo)

The sound of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s jovial smack on President Donald Trump’s hand during their meeting in Biarritz, France, reverberated in Islamabad as much as in New Delhi, albeit differently. The chemistry between the two leaders and Trump’s acceptance of Modi’s assertion that the situation in Kashmir is “under control” seemed to finally allay growing apprehension in India about Washington’s attempts to create space for third party mediation on Kashmir.

Earlier, India had officially rebutted Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that Modi had sought his help in resolving the Kashmir issue. Both domestically and externally, Kashmir has been at the centre of the government’s agenda, and therefore an official rebuttal to Washington’s claims was expected. The rebuttal was also necessary to set the record straight on New Delhi’s long and undiluted stand on the bilateral nature of the dispute, based on the Simla Agreement of 1972 and the Lahore Declaration of 1999. While in the Simla Agreement, the two countries “resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them,” the Lahore  Declaration reiterated the “determination of both countries to implement the Simla Agreement in letter and spirit.”

In some ways, the question of US mediation between New Delhi and Islamabad was settled when President Bill Clinton declined to mediate, despite Nawaz Sharif’s request, during the Kargil conflict in 1999. But with his recent unthought remarks, Trump had seemed set to turn the clock back on consistent, decades-long efforts to de-hyphenate India and Pakistan in Washington’s policy and approach towards the two countries.

As such, the looming possibility of re-hyphenation in the US approach became the Modi government’s biggest diplomatic challenge with Washington. Fortunately, strategic partnerships in the era of ‘multi-alignment’ function differently and provide myriad avenues to championing the relationship, even when one or the other ties that bind do not function optimally. This is the reason for the diplomatic bonhomie and the channels being open despite there being strains in India-US relations, with the trade dispute in the backdrop and political ties being not so favourable after Trump said twice that he was willing to mediate over Kashmir.  

Those “off-the-cuff” remarks on mediation seem to have been moderated by balanced advice and mature diplomacy. But Trump’s style of diplomacy gives us ample reason to doubt America’s consistency on its belief that India and Pakistan can “discuss and resolve these issues bilaterally.” Personally, diplomacy for Trump boils down to his maverick style, characteristic of hijack-diplomacy, which he so frequently employs in dealing with countries across the globe -- to say or do things that are not only unsubstantiated but also unexpected. His decision to cross the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) and meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on short notice, the tariff threats against NATO allies like France, troop-withdrawal threats to Japan, the decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, pulling the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as from the Paris climate deal, and now his sudden change of heart for Islamabad are all symptomatic of hijack-diplomacy and reflect his ‘America First’ priority.

The other significant aspect of Trump’s offer to mediate between India and Pakistan is his desire to appease Islamabad on Kashmir to obtain its cooperation over Afghanistan, from where he wants to exit through a Faustian deal with the Taliban. Trump’s new dalliance with Islamabad is understandably pegged on getting the latter to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, leading to a ‘honorable exit’ out of Afghanistan for the US. Peace in Afghanistan is far from achievable, with the fourth day of the ninth round of the Doha negotiations having ended without acceptable terms and with the Taliban set to return to the governing table after the American troop withdrawal. The absence of the Ashraf Ghani-led Afghan government from these negotiations with the Taliban, the fate of the scheduled elections in Afghanistan within a month, and the future of Afghan women, all portend instability for the whole region, which will worsen should America pull out of Afghanistan. As such, recent steps by Trump to placate Pakistan are suggestive of a swap that prioritizes short-term, doubtful gains in Afghanistan over long-term interests in the broader Indo-Pacific region through its partnership with New Delhi.

Evolving politico-security trends

It is not unprecedented for New Delhi to get caught in the cross-fire of regional politics and security involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US in a single strand. The evolving politico-security trends in Afghanistan have complicated internal as well as external situations for India. Afghanistan, post American withdrawal, presents an internal security risk from a spill-over of terrorists from the Af-Pak theatre; externally, it will once again bring Islamabad and Washington closer together.  Trump desires that India should do more in fighting terrorism in Afghanistan -- possibly with boots on the ground. That further complicates India’s diplomacy with the US.

A lot will depend on how the ongoing US-Taliban negotiations unfold and shapes the post-US withdrawal security in Kabul, the nature and role of residual US security presence in Afghanistan, the upcoming Afghan national elections in September, the terms of the final agreement between the US and Taliban and, above all, on Taliban’s commitment to the agreed terms. This awkward mix is bound to throw challenges to bilateral ties between India and the US in the short term, which might get reinforced over time by the nature of Trump’s leadership and America’s changing interests in the region. New Delhi should desist from seeing the latest Trump climbdown on Kashmir as a given.

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