Subcontinental Geopolitics

India-Pakistan: Regional equations

Print edition : August 30, 2019

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan (left) chairs a National Security Committee meeting with armed forces chiefs and other government officials in Islamabad on August 7. Pakistan announced that it was expelling the Indian High Commissioner and suspending bilateral trade with India after New Delhi stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special autonomy. Photo: AFP

Imran Khan with U.S. President Donald Trump at the start of their meeting in Washington, D.C., on July 22. Photo: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS

Imran Khan manages to bring up the Kashmir issue during his visit to Washington, but the Trump administration reiterates that it will play a robust role in Kashmir only if India gives the green light.

The visit of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to the United States in late July was viewed as a diplomatic success by the government in Islamabad. “He came, he saw, he conquered”, a banner headline in a leading Pakistan newspaper read. On his return to Islamabad, Imran Khan compared the results of his trip to Washington to that of Pakistan’s cricket World Cup victory under his captaincy. Pakistan, he said, had successfully “reset relations” with the U.S. on the basis of equality. Imran Khan was given credit for persuading U.S. President Donald Trump to mention the “K” (Kashmir) word. For the first time in many years, a U.S. President offered to mediate on the Kashmir issue.

The euphoria generated by Imran Khan’s visit has since worn off. The Pakistani political and military establishment face a reality check after India unilaterally altered the status quo in Kashmir. The Trump administration did not even mildly criticise the Indian move, making it clear where Washington’s priorities lay in the Indian subcontinent.

When he was in the opposition, Imran Khan used to frequently rail against the “unequal” relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. and was particularly harsh in his criticism of U.S. military actions in the tribal areas of Pakistan. But now he is under the tutelage of the military establishment, which had played a big part in getting him elected to the Prime Minister’s post. The new government in Islamabad, which had to seek funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to revive the economy, has been trying to repair relations with Washington. The Trump administration has reciprocated, keen as it is to remove the bulk of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in an expeditious manner.

It has been reported in the U.S. media that Republican Senator Lindsay Graham and the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad bin Salman, both of them having a lot of clout in the White House, played a big role in preparing the groundwork for Imran Khan’s visit to the U.S. They convinced Trump that Pakistan would be able to get all the Afghan Taliban factions to agree to a peace deal. President Trump, while welcoming Imran Khan in Washington, was effusive in his praise, describing him as “a great leader” and Pakistan as “a great country”. Only last year, he had tweeted that Pakistan had “given us nothing but deceit” and had given “safe haven” to armed fighters from Afghanistan. Imran Khan had angrily retorted to Trump’s comments then by saying that Pakistan had suffered more than 75,000 casualties and lost more than $123 billion in the U.S.-sponsored war on terror. He said that the U.S.’ total aid to Pakistan during the period amounted to $20 billion.

Imran Khan was accompanied on his trip to Washington by the Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the Intelligence chief, Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed. The U.S. wants the Pakistani security establishment to further tighten the screws on organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network. Importantly, Imran Khan, in a speech delivered during his visit, revealed that Pakistan no longer adhered to the doctrine of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. Under the doctrine, Pakistan uses Afghanistan as “an instrument of strategic security” against India. The Pakistani security establishment used to claim that Afghanistan fell within its zone of influence and viewed the growing role of India there with open animosity.

A statement from the White House acknowledged that “Pakistan had made efforts to facilitate Afghanistan peace talks, and we are going to ask them to do more”. From Trump’s recent statements it is clear that in return for Pakistan’s cooperation, his government is willing to take many of Pakistan’s concerns on board, including that of Kashmir, at least for the time being. During Imran Khan’s visit, Trump indicated that his administration would be more than willing to resume security aid, expand bilateral trade and even mediate on the Kashmir issue in exchange for Islamabad’s cooperation in bringing the war in Afghanistan to a negotiated end.

Trump told the media in Washington during Imran Khan’s visit that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate in the Kashmir dispute when he met the latter on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka in July. “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago and we talked about this subject [Kashmir]. And he actually said, would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?” Trump said.

Trump also mentioned that Pakistan “is helping us a lot now on Afghanistan”. Pakistan, he said, would be able to save millions of lives in Afghanistan because of the influence it had and “help us to extricate ourselves from Afghanistan”. Trump said that unlike in the past, the new leader of Pakistan “respects American leadership”. Trump has not restored the $1.3 billion aid package for Pakistan he had cut soon after taking over although he has given broad hints of restoring it if Pakistan continues with its close cooperation with the U.S. in Afghanistan.

A week after Imran Khan’s visit, Washington announced its decision to sanction $125 million worth of logistical and technical support for Pakistan’s U.S-supplied F-16 jets. India’s External Affairs Ministry protested to the Trump administration, expressing “grave concern” over the announcement of military assistance to Pakistan. Indian officials said that the concerns expressed to Washington signalled New Delhi’s worries about “the signs of growing military cooperation and resumption of military supplies” by the U.S. to Pakistan.

The Trump administration had cut $300 million military aid to Pakistan in September 2018. Pakistani officials said that they did not discuss the matter of financial aid during Imran Khan’s visit. They claimed that increasing “trade not aid” was part of the agenda for discussion. Successive Indian governments have so far strictly considered the Kashmir dispute a “bilateral issue” to be resolved through talks between the two countries while Pakistan has always been demanding international mediation. The Kashmir dispute is one of the oldest unresolved international disputes, dating from the birth of the United Nations. Although Modi has refused to comment on Trump’s offer to mediate on the dispute, the Indian Foreign Ministry has rejected the claim by Trump. Both Trump and Modi have a history of making unverified and less than truthful statements.

In the first week of August, Trump repeated the offer to mediate on Kashmir but added that the decision would be up to the leaders of the two countries. He said that the ball was now in India’s court. “It is really up to Narendra Modi,” he said. Trump, in his inimitable style, described Imran Khan and Modi as “fantastic” people. “If they wanted me, I would certainly intervene,” he said.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the sidelines of a meeting of the Asian Security Forum, held in Bangkok in the first week of August, that any discussion on the disputed region of Kashmir would only be a bilateral one, between Islamabad and New Delhi.

Senior State Department officials clarified that Trump’s mediation offer on Kashmir should be viewed in the context of the U.S.’ desire to improve relations between India and Pakistan. “We recognise that Kashmir has been a bilateral issue but there are opportunities as Pakistan takes steps that build confidence in its own efforts to counter terrorism (and) ultimately towards a constructive dialogue. We stand ready to assist if asked by the two parties to do so,” a senior State Department official said after Trump’s comments about mediation on Kashmir.

All the same, it is after a long time that a sitting U.S. President has offered publicly to be a peacebroker on Kashmir. The U.S. and the United Kingdom had once got India briefly on board as they tried to broker a Kashmir peace plan in 1962. The U.S. got Jawaharlal Nehru to agree to hold talks with Pakistan after the military defeat India suffered at the hands of China in 1962. Nehru had a brief military dalliance with the U.S., when Washington rushed in military aid to a panic-stricken Congress government. However, the brief Western-mediated talks collapsed in 1963 and India lapsed into its default hard-line position on Kashmir.

The Barack Obama administration, at the beginning of its term, appointed Richard Holbrooke as its special representative to the region. Holbrooke believed that stability in Pakistan was key to resolving the situation in both Afghanistan and Kashmir. He believed that political stability in Pakistan could only be achieved by solving the Afghanistan and Kashmir problems. Holbrooke wanted Washington to put more pressure on New Delhi to resolve the Kashmir dispute. New Delhi had taken a strong stand against the hyphenation of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir (Af-Pak-Kashmir) by the State Department. Obama, who was planning his military surge to the East to challenge China, needed India as an ally. The Indian Foreign Ministry warned the U.S. that the strategic ties between the two countries would suffer if Holbrooke was allowed to include Kashmir in his portfolio. Holbrooke’s proposals on Kashmir were first put on the back burner and then eventually discarded. Obama ordered a huge military surge in Afghanistan hoping to defeat the Taliban militarily. The Kashmir issue receded to the background much to New Delhi’s relief. Even when widespread protests broke out in Kashmir and the Indian security forces used excessive force resulting in hundreds of casualties, the Obama administration remained quiet.

Imran Khan may be trying to revive the Holbrooke doctrine hoping that Trump will play along at least for the time being. Since the time of George W. Bush, successive U.S. Presidents have believed that India is a rising global power whose support is essential for Washington as it confronts new and old enemies globally. The Trump administration has reiterated that it will play a robust role in Kashmir only if India gives the green light.

AF/Pak/Kashmir connection

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government’s decision to ride roughshod over the political rights that a previous Indian government had solemnly granted to Kashmiris is being partly viewed as a response to the Trump administration’s embrace of Pakistan and bringing the Kashmir issue to the forefront. It may also not be a coincidence that firing along the Line of Control has intensified considerably since Imran Khan’s visit to Washington and the beginning of the Afghan peace talks in Doha. The Indian government, by its actions, is showing to the world that there is in fact an Af/Pak/Kashmir connection.

The U.S. special envoy to Af/Pak, Zalmay Khalilzad, was in New Delhi, on August 6, the day India abrogated the special status given to Kashmir. He was the senior-most U.S. official to visit India after the dramatic developments in Kashmir. Khalilzad met the External Affairs Minister. According to Indian officials, “useful discussions” were held and the U.S. envoy was briefed about the decision made on Kashmir emphasising that it was an “internal affair”. Khalilzad had questioned whether the trifurcation of Kashmir would be beneficial for the cause of peace and tranquillity in the region. The diplomat briefed Indian officials about the progress made in the talks with the Taliban. According to reports, he suggested that India explore the possibility of establishing contacts with the Taliban. The Indian side raised the issue of proximity of the Taliban to the Pakistani military establishment and the dangers it posed to the country’s security.

Islamabad’s isolation became even more apparent after the Afghan Taliban issued a statement cautioning the government against linking the Afghan issue with Kashmir. “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, nor should Afghanistan be turned into a theatre of competition between other countries,” the Taliban statement said. If Pakistan is seen to be intervening in the internal affairs of Afghanistan again, it faces the real risk of being suspended by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which monitors terrorism financing. The FATF is voting in October to decide to remove Pakistan from its “grey list”. An adverse vote will be devastating for Pakistan’s economy as it will close avenues to the international financial markets at a time when the country is in desperate need of loans to keep the economy afloat.

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