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Monday, August 15, 2022

Two plus one

Imran-Trump talks in Washington have some significant messages for Delhi on Afghanistan and Kashmir. The dynamic has changed again

Written by Nirupama Subramanian |
Updated: August 3, 2019 12:30:19 am
Two plus one Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington has shown that US need to engage with Pakistan on Afghanistan is greater than its need to isolate it. (AP/PTI Photo)

The ground beneath India-Pakistan relations has moved once again, and all it took was the coming together of two maverick celebrities-turned-heads of state in a distant capital jamming about Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Five months ago, India celebrated what Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP described in election speeches as a victory over Pakistan. Others more circumspect demurred from describing the IAF strike in Balakot, carried out after the Pulwama bombing, in victory-defeat terms. After all, India had lost one aircraft to Pakistani fire with the pilot captured; another aircraft with six IAF personnel plus a civilian on the ground to friendly fire; and could put up no hard evidence, at least in the public domain, to back the claim that the IAF airstrikes had killed terrorists in a Jaish-e Mohammed training camp. Still, there was no denying that despite the nuclear overhang, India had found the space to carry out a conventional military response to a terrorist attack claimed by a Pakistan-based group.

The seeming international isolation of Pakistan at that time and the pressure on it to return the pilot captured when the IAF plane was downed, were seen as a success of PM Modi’s diplomacy in the world. The UN designation of JeM head Masood Azhar was the icing on the cake. It all came together nicely for India then, not to speak of how it was milked for the election. Later, there was euphoria that Pakistan had been kept out of the guest list for the new government’s inauguration. The FATF’s threat to blacklist Pakistan by October was received in Delhi with a sense of vindication.

What India forgot, or ignored, was that, for the US, when it came to Pakistan, it was always going to be about Afghanistan. Pakistan is no longer looking isolated. Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Washington has shown that US need to engage with Pakistan on Afghanistan is greater than its need to isolate it. It has shown three other things — Delhi cannot push its own ties with Pakistan into a freezer and forget about them, and expect the world to forget about them too; two, with Trump ready to make deals with Pakistan, the government cannot be as gung-ho about the BJP’s ideological projects in Kashmir as statements by senior ministers suggest; and three, it is Delhi that is looking isolated on Afghanistan.

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Riding on its credentials as the facilitator of the Afghan peace talks, Pakistan looked very much at home in Washington. And Imran Khan, who was being excoriated by opponents back home for a below average one year in office, returned home on the anniversary of his election victory, as he said, not as a PM coming back from a visit to the US, but like a cricket captain coming home with the World Cup.

What did Pakistan get out of the visit? Nothing tangible yet — military aid that the US suspended in January 2018 remains suspended; the $125 million announced days after Imran Khan’s visit is for end-use monitoring of Pakistan’s F 16s and was likely unrelated to the visit.

But never since 2001 has Pakistan heard so much praise and gratitude from the US. For the first time in nearly two decades, here is a US President who has not asked Pakistan to “do more”, and is focussed instead on how to “extricate ourselves” from that country. The Pakistan Army’s key role in bringing the Taliban to the table has pushed to the far recesses of Trump’s transactional mind his outbursts against “lying” “deceitful” Pakistan. In gratitude, he played Pakistan’s song by offering to mediate on the Kashmir issue.

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India dissed Trump’s remark that PM Modi asked him to play the role of mediator in Kashmir as untrue, but that did not prevent the US President from making the same offer once again, a week later. There was another India reference at the Khan-Trump meeting, recorded in the transcript: “But we will be talking about India; a very big part of our conversation today. And I think maybe if we can help intercede and do whatever we have to do. But I think it’s something that can be brought back together. And we’ll also be talking about Afghanistan… we will be talking about India and Afghanistan very much so,” President Trump said.

No joint statement was issued after the Imran-Trump meeting, which mostly means there was nothing spectacular to say. But while the Trump Administration may not have materially shifted its position on Pakistan, in the coming weeks and months expect Pakistan to milk Trump’s change of heart for what it is worth before it changes again, a real possibility if the Rawalpindi lot fail to deliver on their commitments in Afghanistan — getting the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire, and to talk to the Afghan government. For starters, Pakistan must be eyeing the looming October deadline set by the FATF. The FATF is a US baby.

India has also just conceded, while dismissing Trump’s offer of mediation on Kashmir and asserting that all outstanding issues with Pakistan will be settled bilaterally, that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. So, contrary to what the Modi government has maintained all along, there is something to be discussed with Pakistan on Kashmir. But if India and Pakistan cannot resolve Kashmir bilaterally, others are going to want to help them do that, especially if they have to step in from time to time to separate the two during fights. For now, Trump’s repeated offers of mediation make it difficult, if not impossible, for the BJP to ram through its dream constitutional changes in J&K, even though the manner in which senior members of the government have been rattling the Kashmir cage indicates otherwise.

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What the government should be obsessing about more than its ideological project in J&K right now, is how the Afghan deal in the making, in which Pakistan has emerged as the main player and India has no role to play, could impact the situation in Kashmir, and further, how to begin an engagement with Pakistan, if not outright dialogue, that would help Delhi extricate itself from a self-painted corner and prevent outsiders from rushing in with offers of help.

nirupama.subramanian@expressindia.com

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First published on: 03-08-2019 at 12:30:18 am
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