President Donald Trump has completely demolished the universally practised mantra that diplomacy was the art of understatement which kept it from running into irreversible positions and robbing it of all flexibility. Being flexible is not the same thing as being shifty in international relations. Instant responses could prove to be potentially injurious in that arena particularly if they happened to be couched in hyperbolic expressions that made diplomatic ‘pressure’ indistinguishable from military ‘blackmail’.
Being ‘brutally frank’ does have a place in foreign policy but the response should not create a suspicion that a falsehood had been resorted to in tailoring it to a particular context. All of this happened on the maiden visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan to Washington to meet President Trump. The nature of US-Pakistan talks during the visit has to be closely examined as these have significance for India’s policy on Pakistan, Afghanistan and the new terror rooted in Islamic extremism.
Imran Khan arrived in Washington accompanied by Army chief Gen. Bajwa and the new head of ISI to a minimal protocol of welcome – fitting in with the backdrop of an ongoing tussle between Pakistan and the American President Donald Trump over the situation in Afghanistan. Trump had unambiguously denounced the present Pakistan regime for providing a safe haven to Islamic terror outfits across the spectrum on its soil, cut off funding earlier provided for the ‘war on terror’ on account of the duplicitous conduct of the Pakistan army in combating the Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda- Taliban combine as well as the Haqquani network and demanded that Pakistan must play the honest broker in bringing about a peace pact between US and Taliban to facilitate American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Pakistan put up a show of recalcitrance – manoeuvring all the time to keep India out of the Afghan table and planning to retain its sway in Afghanistan in any future arrangement there. Pakistan had also evidentially brought in its old plea that the troublesome situation on its eastern front in Kashmir had distracted its attention from the Afghan front on the west and that the US therefore should intervene to get India to resume negotiations with Pakistan on the ‘core issue’ of Kashmir.
A careful assessment by Pakistan of how desperate President Donald Trump might be to reach a ‘peace pact’ with Taliban in Afghanistan and pull the US troops out of that country before the next Presidential election in US, must have preceded the visit of Prime Minister Imran Khan for his first one-on-one meeting with the American President. Trump had discarded the policy line of his predecessors of making a distinction between ‘good terrorists’ and ‘bad terrorists’ in the Indian context and demanded upfront that Pakistan put down both Islamic radicals of Al Qaeda-Taliban who threatened the US-led West and the terrorists belonging to outfits like LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizbul Mujahideen that specifically targeted India in Kashmir and elsewhere. The Pakistan army has traditionally enjoyed support from many in the Pentagon right from the days of anti-Soviet armed campaign in Afghanistan – which only increased during the checkered course of the ‘war on terror’ in which Pakistan was looked upon as the ‘front line’ ally.
The Indian concerns on cross border terrorism emanating from Pakistan and the primary concern of the present US policy makers of somehow getting over the messy Taliban presence in Afghanistan with the help of Pakistan may again create a cross current in Indo-US relations that would require deft handling on our part. President Trump might have thought it was no big deal if he endorsed the idea of India and Pakistan resuming talks to bring peace to Kashmir – wherein his understanding ‘bombs were exploding every day’ – and even offered to mediate particularly after Imran Khan had openly appealed to him to help the two countries to resolve their differences through dialogue. The pompous in Donald Trump got the better of the seasoned statesman that an American President had to be, when he claimed that Prime Minister Modi, during a bilateral meeting between them at the G20 summit at Osaka, had requested him to mediate on Kashmir.
The External Affairs Minister of India has, in a statement in Parliament, promptly denied that any request was ever made in deviation from India’s consistent stand that Indo-Pak talks needed no third party involvement. Quite expectantly a clarification has come from the American side by way of a statement of the Under Secretary of State, Alice Wells, saying that Kashmir should be tackled bilaterally by India and Pakistan but adding that ‘the US is ready to assist’. If Kashmir did figure in Modi-Trump conversation at Osaka, the uncalled for twist given to it by Trump perhaps showed his desperation for getting Pakistan to deliver on the Afghan front.
His hyperbolic assertion that he wanted peace in Afghanistan even as the alternative course to victory there – of ‘wiping that country off the face of the earth’ – could be followed any time, was again meant to make an impact on Pakistan. Afghanistan is not the first country for which Trump has used the military threat as a form of diplomatic pressure. It has to be seen how this affects his own political fortune. India can leave it there and firmly pursue its Pakistan policy and the line against cross border terrorism.
The learning for India is that Indo-US convergence on the threat of Pakistan-sponsored terror may weaken a bit because of the developments in Afghanistan. Pakistan may crawl back into US favour by pretending to influence the Taliban into joining the new Afghan government – and giving an assurance, for whatever it was worth, that it would not plan another attack on the US from Afghanistan. This is a win-win situation for Pakistan on the Afghan front. There is no sanction or pressure on Pakistan to abstain from infiltrating terrorists into Kashmir.
There are reports on the Pakistan Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) extending the base of LeT and JeM to Afghanistan to strengthen its hold in that country. There is every likelihood of Pakistan keeping up its plea for resumption of India-Pakistan dialogue and yet stepping up its campaign of Jehad in Kashmir with the help of militant outfits under its control. Kashmir is the cornerstone of India’s internal security, increasing threat of ‘radicalisation’ on the subcontinent and the country’s foreign policy at large. Home Minister Amit Shah has, after his maiden visit to Srinagar, rightly called for a comprehensive and integral framework of strategic and operational moves to keep India on top of the developing situation there.
BY D.C. PATHAK
(The writer is a former Director Intelligence Bureau. The views expressed are personal)