WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump yesterday offered to mediate the decades-long Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, signaling a shift in long-standing US policy that the issue must be solved bilaterally. Kashmir has been divided between both countries and China since the end of British colonial rule in 1947, and remains at the root of tensions between the two nuclear-armed South Asian countries. “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator,” Trump said at the White House, where he was hosting Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan. “If I can do anything to help, let me know.” Trump also said Pakistan was helping the US advance the Afghanistan peace process. “I don’t think Pakistan respected the United States” in the past, Trump said, but “they are helping us a lot now.”
It is far from the first time that Trump has offered to intervene in a seemingly intractable international dispute. US mediation, which has long been sought by Pakistan, is likely to be rejected outright by New Delhi. On Friday, Trump said he remained at the ready to help South Korea and Japan solve their lingering dispute over World War II-era forced labor that has blighted their trade ties. In 2017, he offered to mediate territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China, Vietnam and other Asia-Pacific countries – a proposal that did not move forward.
India and Pakistan have been fighting over the Himalayan former kingdom for decades. In February, a suicide bombing claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group killed 41 Indian troops in Indian-controlled Kashmir, prompting tit-for-tat air strikes between the two countries. Some 70,000 people, mostly civilians, have died over the past 30 years in Indian-administered Kashmir, monitoring groups say. The fighting is between Indian soldiers – who number around 500,000 on the ground—and rebels wanting either independence or union with Pakistan.
The goal of Khan’s visit, said a senior Trump administration official, is “to press for concrete cooperation from Pakistan to advance the Afghanistan peace process”. The Trump administration also wants to encourage Pakistan to “deepen and sustain its recent effort to crack down on militants and terrorists within its territory,” the official said on condition of anonymity. The United States is pressing for a political agreement with the Taleban before presidential voting in Afghanistan in late September. This would clear the way for most US troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and bring an end to America’s longest war.
Washington and Kabul accuse Pakistan of supporting armed extremist groups such as the Haqqani network, which is an ally of the Taliban, by giving it refuge in Pakistani regions along the border with Afghanistan. Pakistan denies providing such support and argues that, in fact, it has sustained huge losses in terms of lives and money as it fights extremism. “We are concerned about the links between these groups and Pakistan’s intelligence services and military,” the administration official said, referring to Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network.
Days before Khan’s visit, Pakistani authorities detained Hafiz Saeed, the founder of LeT and the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in a move hailed by Trump as a result of the pressure applied by his administration. But Saeed – declared a global terrorist by the United States and the United Nations – has for years rotated in and out of detention, and Democratic lawmakers later hit back at the president, tweeting: “Let’s hold the (applause) until he’s convicted.”
Islamabad want to shore up relations with Washington after years of discord following the discovery of 9/11 architect Osama Bin Laden on Pakistani soil, where he was killed in a US raid in 2011. “One of the big storylines going into the Trump-Khan meeting is the sharp disconnect in expectations,” said Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at The Wilson Center. “Pakistan wants to use the meeting as an opportunity to reset and broaden the relationship. The US has a more narrowly defined goal of securing more assistance from Pakistan for the Afghanistan peace process,” said Kugelman.
The IMF has just approved a $6 billion loan to help right Pakistan’s faltering economy, and keeping the US onside is crucial in maintaining the flow of Western assistance, added Raza Rumi, a Pakistan expert at Ithaca College. In particular, Pakistan would like US support at the next meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – an anti-money-laundering monitor based in Paris that has threatened to blacklist the country for failing to do enough to combat terror financing, said Rumi.
The interaction between the two leaders – both celebrities-turned-politicians whose love lives once made regular tabloid fare – will also be watched closely. Before taking power, Khan once described the idea of meeting with Trump as a “bitter pill” to swallow. But the fact that Khan has brought with him his army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, will be welcomed by Washington since Pakistan’s military is widely believed to be the ultimate decision maker in matters of foreign policy, said Shuja Nawaz, a South Asia expert at the Atlantic Council.
“I think it gives a little more credibility to whatever message the Pakistanis are bringing,” he said. “In the past, we’ve always had instances where civilian prime ministers come and make some public statements and then privately they complain about the military to their American hosts, with the hope of getting them on their side.” – AFP