Why Trump should mediate India-Pakistan on Kashmir

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In all the fuss triggered by President Trump’s claim about what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi may or may not have said to him about Kashmir, the real news of his July 22 White House press conference with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to have been lost: For the first time, a U.S. president has publicly offered to mediate the Kashmir dispute that has kept India and Pakistan in unending conflict for more than 70 years.

This is big. One cannot imagine any universe in which trying to resolve this most dangerous, most enduring and most intractable of disputes between two very volatile and nuclear-armed rivals would be a bad thing. Moreover, whatever one may think of Donald Trump, he could be just the person to give it a try.

When President Trump welcomed Prime Minister Khan to the White House, they began with a press briefing that lasted a little over 40 minutes. In response to a question regarding Kashmir, the prime minister said, “I feel that only the most powerful state, headed by President Trump, can bring the two countries together. … I’m hoping that President Trump would push this process.”

Trump was quick to take the bait but, in classic Trump style, immediately upped the ante with a response that surprised even his Pakistani guest and sent shockwaves through the Indian foreign policy establishment: “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, and we talked about this subject. And he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir.’”

The Indian foreign ministry immediately denied that any such conversation took place; the Indian media went berserk, labeling Trump a liar and prompting at least one top Trump adviser to snap back that “the president doesn’t make things up,” as Pakistani media gloated. Meanwhile, and tellingly, there has been no retraction from Trump nor any direct denial from Modi, himself a very active Twitter warrior.

In fairness, it is unlikely that Modi would have formally requested Trump to intervene as a mediator, far less an arbitrator. Indeed, it has been longstanding Indian policy to insist that Kashmir should be dealt with as a strictly bilateral issue between Pakistan and India. On the other hand, it is more than likely that the Kashmir issue would have come up in Trump-Modi discussions, especially after the events in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir escalated this February into actual military hostilities between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. 

Whether Modi misspoke or Trump misunderstood, in the furor that followed, the most important part of what the president said was overlooked: “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator. … If you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that.”

Khan pounced on the opportunity, accepting the offer immediately: “I can tell you that, right now, you would have the prayers of over a billion people if you can mediate and resolve this issue.” He might as well have added that, in addition to all those prayers, there is probably a Nobel Peace Prize waiting for whoever can pull this off. 

Trump’s response to that is important. Arguably, it’s a “to do” note to himself: “(Modi) asked me the same, so I think there’s something. So maybe we’ll speak to him or I’ll speak to him … .”

The pertinent question is not what Modi may or may not have said to Trump in the past, but whether Trump will live up to his promise to speak to Modi about what can be done — including with Trump as mediator, and maybe talks at Camp David — to find a solution to Kashmir.

I hope Trump does. I hope Modi will be open to persuasion. Here’s why:

First, the logic of India’s historic insistence on resisting third-party involvement in Kashmir was based largely on the assumption that international involvement, particularly from the United States, would be biased in Pakistan’s favor — mostly because Pakistan was a longstanding U.S. ally, while India was closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. That logic no longer applies. In fact, it has been reversed. Despite the optics of Khan’s visit to the U.S., and despite U.S. trade frictions with India, if the U.S. has a “bestie” in South Asia, it is India and certainly not Pakistan. If Trump, who considers Modi to be a “true friend,” cannot be an acceptable mediator to India, who could?

Second, it is not as if India has always opposed outside assistance in resolving Kashmir. In fact, it was India that first took the Kashmir issue to the United Nations (on Jan. 1, 1948) and, at that time, it even agreed to the U.N. Security Council resolution on holding a plebiscite in Kashmir. The arguments on why that never happened notwithstanding, today there is a new logic for India welcoming an international arrangement. As an emerging economic and regional power, aspiring as it does to a seat on the U.N. Security Council and more influence in global affairs, being viewed as resisting a chance to at least try to resolve what is the oldest unfinished dispute on the U.N. docket cannot possibly look good. On the other hand, the possible payoff of getting an acceptable resolution would be immense.

Finally, both India and Pakistan agree that the Kashmir issue is the root cause of instability, hostility and even the nuclearization of South Asia. Both Khan and Modi have publicly expressed their desire to find a permanent resolution. Although India and Pakistan have tried to find a bilateral resolution for decades, the fact is that the two countries always fell short of an actual deal. It’s quite clear that they need some help. Since both Modi and Khan seem to have struck great personal chemistry with Trump, why not put Trump and his fabled “art of the deal” to the test?

A week ago at the White House, President Trump described Kashmir as “a terrible situation.” On this, he is entirely correct. It is terrible, most terrible for the long-suffering people of Kashmir — but terrible, also, for India, for Pakistan, for the region and for the world. Anything, anything at all, that has even the slightest chance of finding a resolution to this “terrible situation” should at least be tried. 

Adil Najam is a professor of international relations and the founding dean of the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. Follow him on Twitter @AdilNajam.

Tags Donald Trump Foreign policy of Donald Trump Imran Khan India–Pakistan relations Kashmir conflict Narendra Modi

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