Trump’s comments on Kashmir during Imran Khan’s visit may reflect the US undoing its India-Pakistan dehyphenation policy.
By Kashish Parpiani and Prithvi Iyer*
Recently, during his meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office, US President Donald Trump claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi discussed the Kashmir dispute with him on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan. Moreover, Trump said that Modi even asked him if he’d like to be a “mediator or arbitrator” on the matter.
This news raised a storm as it stood in contradiction to India’s longstanding position that “all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.” Furthermore, Trump’s comments also raised questions over the long-term trajectory of US-India ties, by signalling the possible return of an erstwhile American approach of interlinking destinies in South Asia.
The Holbrooke formula on Afghanistan
In 2009, President Barack Obama’s administration sought to conduct a comprehensive review of the US policy towards Afghanistan. Motivated by Obama’s campaign promise of ending America’s wars, the administration tapped Richard Holbrooke to lead a new approach.
Holbrooke’s diplomatic prowess was well established, with his successful role as the peace broker between warring factions in Bosnia, culminating with the Dayton Peace Accords. Tapped as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Holbrooke sought to break away from the US’ overt focus on a military solution. On that point, there wasn’t a sliver of daylight between Holbrooke and Obama.
However, on the fundamental conception of the US’ approach to the region, divergences emerged. Holbrooke posited an integrative approach to the involvement of US in South Asia. More importantly, Holbrooke viewed Pakistan as the “center stage,” whilst Afghanistan was a “sideshow.” Reportedly, Holbrooke believed that Afghan stability was linked to stability in Pakistan. And that’s where “he believed that a crucial step to reducing radicalism in Pakistan was to ease the Kashmir dispute with India, and he favored more pressure on India to achieve that.”
In practice however, Obama enforced the above only in part. Boxed-in by the US military leadership to approve a troop surge, the administration sought the hyphenation of Afghanistan and Pakistan — in recognition of the Holbrooke thought and operational considerations. However, with respect to India, the Obama administration refused to further interlink the US approach to Afghanistan in view of the long term strategic potentialities with India. In many ways then, Obama sought to continue his predecessor’s policy of a compartmentalised US approach with the dehyphenation of India and Pakistan. Thus, as author George Packer recently summarised, the Holbrooke-Obama relationship “began with differences in temperament, widened with generation, and ended in outlook.”
Today nearly a decade later, with Pakistan finding itself in the US’ crosshairs over lax counterterrorism support, Imran Khan seems to be strategically employing the Holbrooke thought.
Imran Khan’s Afghanistan ‘Trump’ card
Khan’s visit to the United States came against the backdrop of Trump spurring a nosedive in US-Pakistan relations. Over the past two years, Pakistan has faced the ire of Trump’s transactional worldview. Trump has claimed Pakistan to have been “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting,” and concurrently enforced economic costs by suspending aid. Moreover, the US under Trump even supported Pakistan’s demotion to the greylist of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for “outstanding counterterrorism deficiencies.”
Seeing Pakistan’s stock with America plummet and an impending financial crisis loom large, Imran Khan has sought to rake up Afghanistan — which many believe to be Pakistan’s “only real trump card.” Moreover, as US talks with the Taliban approach a critical juncture and Trump becomes increasingly weary of the continued US presence in Afghanistan against his campaign promises, Trump has expressed faith in Pakistan to “help us out to extricate ourselves.”
Thus, the US is now approaching talks with Pakistan from the standpoint of at least securing Pakistani support towards “restraining Taliban attacks on US forces.” Whereas, Pakistan — and its security apparatus specifically, has long construed “greater influence in Afghanistan, earned by decades of support for armed militants, as a way to gain strategic depth in their rivalry with the much larger India.”
Therefore, at this juncture, Imran Khan seems to have seen the alignment between Pakistan’s interest of dampening the American policy of dehyphenating Pakistan and India, and the reemergence of a sense of American dependency on Pakistan towards the goal of a post-conflict Afghanistan. With one eye on addressing the latter to gain Pakistani cooperation, Trump seems to have blundered into the Kashmir dispute with his comments, and effectively handed Khan the former.
However, in the past, India has set a strong precedent on stopping the Holbrooke thought in its tracks, and rule out any third party involvement in Kashmir.
The past holds the key for Modi
Back in 2009, even as the incoming Obama administration merely mulled tapping Richard Holbrooke at the helm of a special office on reviewing US’ policy towards Afghanistan, the Manmohan Singh government preemptively sought the exclusion of Kashmir — and India by that extension, from Holbrooke’s purview.
Reportedly, in a meeting with US Ambassador David Mulford, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said the supposed move to include India under Holbrooke’s portfolio “smacks of interference and would be unacceptable.” Further, according to an American diplomatic cable, India’s Foreign Secretary at the time, Shivshankar Menon reportedly conveyed that move to potentially be “deeply unpopular and could negatively affect the gains in our (US-India) bilateral relationship made over the past eight years.”
Thereafter, in dehyphenating India-Pakistan towards long-term strategic potentialities with India, successive US administrations gradually moved to the position of encouraging dialogue between India and Pakistan. However, they particularly stopped short of taking sides by underscoring that the “pace, scope, and character” of any negotiation should be determined solely by the two parties.
Overtime, this cultivated trust between India and the United States led to the two countries presently sharing a thriving trade relationship — with the US becoming India’s largest trade partner, and an evolving strategic partnership — with the US now assuming the spot of India’s second largest arms supplier. Thus, Trump’s recent comments risk not only undoing US’ painstaking efforts to temper Indian suspicions of America doing Pakistan’s bidding on Kashmir, but also the progress made on the budding US-India dynamic.
It is however crucial to note, the relevance of above mentioned trust at the core of the future of US-India ties is not lost on the entire US foreign and security policy community. For instance, the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans followed Trump’s remarks with an immediate rebuke of their Commander-In-Chief. In a joint-statement conveying bipartisan consensus on the matter, Rep. George Holding (R-NC-02) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA-30) wrote: “Consistent with decades of US policy, we believe the dispute over Kashmir must be resolved bilaterally by India and Pakistan. The Republic of India is one of America’s closest and most important allies, and we look forward to working with Prime Minister Modi and Indian officials to combat terrorism and extremism throughout the region.”
In addition to commending this support from Capitol Hill, Modi must take a page from his predecessor’s approach from a decade ago, to lodge a vociferous rebuke. Today, as the US-India dynamic is attaining greater institutionalisation with consultative platforms like the US-India 2+2 dialogue and higher frequency of interaction between the respective nation’s National Security Advisors, the Modi government must reestablish at multiple levels, the redline against internationalising the Kashmir issue.
Prithvi Iyer is an intern at ORF Mumbai.