Flip-flopped US Approach to Kashmir Issue

Prof. Chintamani Mahapatra
August 04, 2019


When US President Donald Trump claimed in the wake of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Washington visit that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to help resolve the Kashmir issue, Pakistan instantaneously felt triumphant and turned jubilant. However, India was amazed and angry.

When President Trump made another statement and clarified that he would offer his good office to seek resolution to the Kashmir problem, if both India and Pakistan want, Islamabad’s unease was noticeable. It was clearly India’s prompt rebuttal and successful diplomacy that brought about the change in Trump’s approach.

Pakistan’s joy was natural, as successive governments in Islamabad have tried hard in vain to persuade the US administrations to intervene on their behalf to resolve the Kashmir issue. India’s amazement emanated from the fact that it was not the first time Washington’s Kashmir policy flip-flopped.

When Bill Clinton became the US President and recruited Robin Raphel, political first secretary in US Embassy in Delhi, as the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Raphel was over-excited in the new strategic context of the post-Cold War era and assertive US position in world affairs after the Soviet demise.

One of the first misadventures she was engaged with was to challenge the legal validity of the Instrument of Accession –a legal document that made Jammu and Kashmir an integral part of India. India’s immediate protest was loud and clear. Continuation of normal diplomatic engagements between New Delhi and Washington was under tremendous challenge. In the early years of his administration, Bill Clinton did not want to start an undesirable controversy. He had no other alternative but to send Raphel’s senior, Under Secretary of State Peter Tarnoff, to India to convey the message that there was no change in US policy towards Kashmir.

The United States had always maintained that the Kashmir issue is a dispute between India and Pakistan that needs resolution through peaceful negotiations. The United States subsequently had given diplomatic support to the Shimla Agreement of 1972 between India and Pakistan that makes it mandatory to resolve the Kashmir issue through bilateral dialogue between the parties. Arbitration, mediation, good offices, or any other third party intervention are clearly ruled out.

Liberation of East Pakistan and birth of Bangladesh had made Pakistan completely frustrated. It signed on to the Shimla Agreement but kept looking for options other than peaceful bilateral dialogue as stipulated in the agreement. With the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 and Soviet disintegration in 1991, Pakistan connived with Robin Raphel to rake up issues on Kashmir. When that did not pay off, Islamabad resorted to low-intensity conflict by training, aiding and abetting terrorist groups to create havoc with the lives of Kashmiris.

Even in these violent tactics, Pakistan did not succeed. The 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US made it difficult for George Bush, Jr. Administration to support any kind of terrorist activities in the name of freedom fighting or any other slogan. While seeking Pakistani assistance to wage war in Afghanistan, the Bush Administration came hard on Pakistan-sponsored cross-border terrorism.

However, his successor, President Barak Obama, yet again flip-flopped on Kashmir policy, when he designated Richard Holbrooke as a special envoy to deal with issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan region. There were talks that he would be in charge of the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India region, and that meant Kashmir issue could be part of his diplomatic itinerary. India sent a very strong message against designating any such area that would include Kashmir or India. The Obama administration backed off in time, and a diplomatic disaster was avoided.

This time it was President Trump’s turn. His earlier statement that Prime Minister Modi had asked him to intervene in Kashmir issue had a diplomatic bomb in its womb. Had timely clarification not come, this bomb could have exploded damaging the structure of Indo-US strategic partnership beyond repair. President Trump, a tough negotiator, flip-flopped yet again, but in time.

One wonders, how could President Trump even think like being a mediator on Kashmir issue. Could he resolve the Palestinian issue? Could he resolve the Korean issue? Could he resolve the Iran-Saudi differences? Could he do anything about Japan-Russian territorial disputes?

It is in the interest of Indo-US strategic partnership that the US never ever raises the issue of mediation as far as Kashmir issue is concerned. Pakistan no doubt will keep seeking internationalization of Kashmir issue in every forum it gets a chance to do so. However, a country like the United States falling prey to Islamabad’s misinformation campaign is unexpected.

President Trump is trying hard to wind up major US military operations in Afghanistan. How can then he suggest that he would try to mediate the Kashmir issue between India and Pakistan? If Pakistan was not loyal to the United States and used the US military and economic assistance to support terrorists who killed US military personnel in Afghanistan, Can Trump trust Pakistan or even expect that India would trust Pakistan?

What India would expect from a strategic partner like the United States is a commitment not to back a state that sponsors terrorism, particularly a state that brags about its nuclear capability and brandishes its nuclear power even unprovoked?