The leitmotif of the visit by Pakistan PM Imran Khan to the US turned out to be President Trump’s remarks on the Kashmir issue. However, in time, this may not even be a sideshow. Imran Khan himself is unlikely to have concluded that Trump’s mediatory mission on Kashmir is round the corner.
Pakistan has no misconceptions that India will never accept overt mediation. Indeed, whenever Delhi took American, British or Soviet mediation, that was like cherrypicking, highly selectively, and never explicitly. Forever will Delhi hail ‘bilateralism’ as the only route available. And forever it will stall if a bilateral track were to really open. Given the political climate in India, even picking up the threads of Kashmir negotiations where the UPA government left has become problematic. ‘Jai Shri Ram’ as the war cry has far from outlived its utility even after the elections three months ago. Multiple attacks are reported; people are getting beaten up and forced to chant the war cry. A Muslim MP faced taunts from fellow lawmakers. A dark, foreboding atmosphere is prevailing in India.
In such a climate, Trump was whistling in the dark. The ‘enemy image’ of Pakistan is integral to the polarising situation within India. It almost seems the clock might have rewound to 1960 when the then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai came to New Delhi with a formula that ‘in the east (today’s Arunachal Pradesh), a settlement can be found. Our aim is still to explore ways of a settlement’. But the leadership rejected out of hand all his proposals due to the circumstances within India. As at that fateful point, India’s domestic situation today is highly complicated, which makes the Indian stance on the Kashmir problem impossibly maximalist.
Therefore, if a US-Pakistan understanding does emerge out of the Afghan settlement as regards the Durand Line — which is entirely conceivable — a settlement on Pakistan’s border with India in a similar spirit of give-and-take and realistically adjusting to the ground realties cannot happen. Today, a consensus may be possible within India in regard of what Zhou would have proposed in 1960. (Zhou also came to India following a border settlement with Burma.) But then, times have changed and China has changed. The tragedy of Kashmir is also that our statesmen forget that they have been elected to persuade and to lead, and not to be pinned down by the momentary moods or pernicious prejudices of public opinion.
What if Modi, indeed, had sought Trump’s help to help resolve the Kashmir problem? It wouldn’t be necessarily catastrophic. The ‘bilateralism’ mantra is being chanted only ritualistically. Again, it’s highly doubtful whether India can ever really emulate the Israelis in their brutality to put down a mass upheaval till eternity. Above all, a colossal drain of resources is taking place in search of peace in the Valley. Meanwhile, Pakistan is changing, and negotiating with it today with some American help may be the expedient thing to do.
A few things must be noted here about Imran Khan’s visit to the US — with caveats, of course. Indeed, no dramatic announcements came out of the visit regarding Afghanistan, but then, none was expected either. Everything in the downstream will now depend on what happens in relation to Afghanistan — that was quintessentially what the visit was expected to address. No doubt, the visit has been a runaway success for Imran Khan personally, and for Pakistan and there have been great optics and good vibes, but whether all that really leads to a revival of the US-Pakistan relationship time will tell.
Having said that, India will be seriously erring by downplaying the significance of Imran’s visit for regional security. Importantly, Trump spoke on Kashmir right at the outset without prompting, presumably with deliberation. He also tried to ingratiate himself with Imran — ‘very popular… great athlete, one of the greatest… it’s an honour to have you with us’, ‘great people’, and so on. The US is desperately seeking Pakistan’s help to end the Afghan war. Trump actually admitted it: ‘I think Pakistan is going to help us out to extricate ourselves… we’ve been there for 19 years, in Afghanistan. It’s ridiculous. And I think Pakistan helps us with that because we don’t want to stay as policemen… I think we’ll have some very good answers on Afghanistan, very quickly.’
He also said: ‘To be honest, I think we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than we did when we were paying that money ($1.3 billion as aid). But all of that can come back, depending on what we work out. We’re working out things that are very important… And I think, at the end of this, at the end of a very short time, we’re going to have a very great relationship with Pakistan. And we should.’
If any POTUS ever said any such thing to an Indian PM, our elites would have gone into ecstatic raptures. But Pakistan is playing cool. That comes out of the quiet confidence that the Taliban has gained ascendancy and now it’s a question of how far to share political power. Equally, Pakistan has ensured that China and Russia (and even Iran) are comfortable with the return of the Taliban to power. Above all, this is an extraordinary situation where a convergence with Pakistan to end the Afghan war is crucial for Trump himself personally during his upcoming campaign in the tumultuous November 2020 election. To be sure, it is with a strong hand that Pakistan is bidding for a full-spectrum revival of its relationship with the US.
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