The piquancy created by President Trump’s recent claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate or arbitrate in Indo-Pak talks has lessened a bit. He has changed the narrative into his willingness to assist “if the two South Asian neighbours wanted him to help in resolving the decades-old issue”. Is Mr Trump seeking to score political brownie points by seeking to ‘solve’ Kashmir, after his overture to North Korea, and thus be adjudged as the statesman of the century seeking parity with some of his more illustrious predecessors such as Washington, Adams, Jefferson? Suffice it to submit that he is proving to be increasingly difficult for India. The Modi government’s decision to cut down drastically on oil imports from Iran has led Tehran ro shift its position on Kashmir. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and the foreign ministry have issued statements on Kashmir that were critical of the Indian government and its security forces. Indeed, Khamenei, for the first time in seven years, equated the situation in Kashmir with that of Yemen and Bahrain as one that required the support of “all Muslim nations”.
To be fair to Mr Modi, it is inconceivable that he made that request. What lends hilarity to the tale is that the Prime Minister could not refute Trump in public, lest that should be tantamount to saying that the US President is a liar.
Trump’s motive to fabricate a lie on an issue that is fairly sensitive for India is a moot point, but his lie did conform to the rich tradition of Presidential lies that form the bedrock of American politics. While amateur analysts of Freudian slips have had a field day with numerous examples of Bush’s gaffes, the Trumpian variety needs closer scrutiny.
Trump’s lie looks almost innocuous when compared to four key presidential lies listed by Eric Alterman in his book When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences; Franklin Roosevelt and the Yalta accords, John Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, Lyndon Johnson and the second Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Ronald Reagan and Central America in the 1980s. Assuming that Trump said this to Imran Khan in order to placate Pakistan in the attempt to wriggle out of the Afghan quagmire, it bears recall that during the Cold War, presidential deception for security purposes became entrenched, defended in elite circles as a distasteful but necessary matter of realpolitik and, frequently, national survival.
Roosevelt believed that he would be ‘preserving’ the postwar peace. Kennedy understood his deception as necessary to ‘protect a politically unpopular compromise’ that had been necessary to prevent a potential war between superpowers. Lyndon Johnson felt it was necessary to deceive in order to ‘prevent the spread of Communism in South-east Asia’, just as Reagan believed he was doing two decades later in Central America. Even George W. Bush believed that the spurious stories he told the nation with regard to Iraq were offered in the service of ‘national survival’.
Today, Pakistan is poised to come out of its economic and strategic isolation not only because the Afghan peace talks between the US and the Taliban have reached a critical phase requiring Pakistan’s midwifery, but also because three big powers on the world stage ~ China, Russia and the US ~ are courting Pakistan to hold talks to mediate on Afghanistan. Internationalising Kashmir with American mediation is the pet fantasy that Pakistan harbours ever since Partition. Trump, who is aware of that, nudged a beleaguered and placatory Pakistan. He is acutely aware that this works wonderfully well in the subcontinent as elsewhere, but the only trouble is that the unseemly and desperate hurry for an escape route from Afghanistan would cause permanent damage to the subcontinent. One recalls how backed by President Eisenhower, Secretary of State John Dulles wanted to use leverage through its economic assistance programmes, to press for a solution on Kashmir, but Prime Minister Nehru did not go along with the US proposal.
Interestingly in 1993 when Robin Raphel, as the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, said that the USA never accepted the accession of Kashmir in India, the Clinton administration backtracked and endorsed the Shimla agreement, saying that Pakistan and India have to resolve it by themselves. If Trump had checked with some primer on Indo-Pak relationship he would have known that following the 1971 war India was able to extract major concessions from Pakistan at the Shimla talks that followed. Sub-paragraph 1(ii) of the Shimla Agreement in 1972 stipulated that the two countries have resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. This meant that India-Pakistan differences could be discussed outside a bilateral context only if both countries agreed to do so. Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee agreed in 1999 to intensify efforts to resolve bilaterally all issues including Kashmir in Lahore. If historical precedents are any guide, during the Bush Sr. administration, the USA favoured bilateral negotiations to resolve the Kashmir problems under the framework of the 1972 Shimla agreement. When Narasimha Rao visited the USA in May 1994, President Clinton endorsed bilateralism and the Shimla agreement as a security policy to resolve the Kashmir issue. Will Modi urge Trump to mediate on India’s claim to PoK after the scrapping of Article 370? Therefore, any move towards political grandstanding without an effort to go deep into the issue will not help.
But the most important lesson to be drawn is that the mercurial Trump’s support cannot always be taken for granted. He is given to changing gears. Analysts refer to the Holbrooke doctrine which was a crucial move towards curbing radicalism in Pakistan and ease the Kashmir dispute. Richard Holbrooke, the influential American diplomat and author, was in favour of exerting more pressure on India to achieve that.
But India must make it clear to the US that the success of its Afghan policy might depend not only on Pakistan but more crucially on the dismantling of its terror infrastructure visibly and verifiably to India’s satisfaction and within a stipulated timeframe. And on that will depend the resumption of Indo-Pak talks on all bilateral issues, including Kashmir. Kashmir’s resolution cannot mean a sanction to Pakistan’s encroachment on Afghanistan.
It was during the Kargil crisis in 1999, a fact confirmed by Stephen Cohen, that the USA came out in full support of India against Pakistan for the first time, which grew even stronger under the Bush Jr. administration. It gained momentum during the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. One hopes that with a strong institutional mechanism of Indo-US friendship, the American President is just a cog in the wheel who cannot undo years of good work of the previous leaders of the two countries. Trump should surely be briefed that any attempt to internationalise Kashmir is a red line for India. But that said, India must have to understand that Kashmir’s future as a democratic, inclusive, and pro-secular space is inextricably linked to how India and Pakistan conduct themselves. And the need for true bilateralism is necessary in a Kashmir without its special status.