How Trump Administration was caught flat-footed in response to Kashmir conflict

Soldiers on the streets of Srinagar earlier last month. (The New York Times)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In its first report on Kashmir in nearly two decades, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) — considered the U.S. Congress’ own think tank — has indicated that the Trump administration caught napping by the Narendra Modi government’s revocation of special status for Kashmir provided for under Article 370 of India’s constitution, is scrambling to prevent India-Pakistan tensions in the aftermath of New Delhi’s action.

The report circulated to members of Congress on Aug. 16, acknowledged that the administration’s lack of focus “on the potential for conflict over Kashmir to destabilize South Asia,” as in earlier times, has been compounded by the fact that “at present, the United States has no Assistant Secretary of State leading the Bureau of South and Central Asia, an Acting Ambassador to the United Nations, and noAmbassador in Pakistan, leading some experts to worry that the Trump Administration’s preparedness for India-Pakistan crises remains thin.”

“Developments in August 2019 also have renewed concerns among analysts that the Trump Administration’s ‘hands-off’ posture toward this and other international crises erodes American power and increases the risk of regional
turbulence,” it added.

The report, titled ‘Kashmir: Background, Recent Developments, and US Policy,’authored by K. Alan Kronstadt, CRS’s longtime specialist in South Asian Affairs, whose extensively researched and sourced reports on the subcontinent “have come to be the gold standard for political analysis in Washington,” according to an erstwhile senior State Department and National Security Council official, who still serves as a consultant to the government, also raised questions for Congress to ponder over vis-à-vis the recent developments in Kashmir.

They included:

-- Do India’s actions changing the status of Jammu and Kashmir state negatively affect regional stability? If so, what leverage does the United States have and what U.S. policies might best address potential instability?

-- Is there any diplomatic or other role for the U.S. government to play in managingIndia-Pakistan conflict or facilitating a renewal of their bilateral dialogue?

-- To what extent does increased instability in Kashmir influence dynamics in
Afghanistan? Will Islamabad’s cooperation with Washington on Afghan
reconciliation be reduced?

To what extent, if any, are India's democratic/constitutional norms and pluralist traditions at risk in the country's current political climate?

"Are human rights abuses and threats to religious freedom increasing there? Should the U.S. government take any further actions to address such concerns?

In its pre-amble, Kronstadt’s report said that “a longstanding goal of U.S. policy in South Asia has been to prevent India-Pakistan conflict from escalating to interstate war. This meant the United States has sought to avoid actions that overtly favored either party.”

But it pointed out that “over the past decade, however, Washington has grown closer to India while relations with Pakistan continue to be viewed as clouded by mistrust. The Trump Administration ‘suspended’ security assistance to Pakistan in 2018 and has significantly reduced nonmilitary aid while simultaneously deepening ties with New Delhi.”

The report said that Washington views India as a key “anchor” of its “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, which some argue is aimed at being a counterweight to China, which neoconservatives over the years has pushed for and made no secret of.

“Yet any U.S. impulse to ‘tilt’ toward India is to some extent offset by Islamabad’s current, and by most accounts vital, role in facilitating Afghan reconciliation negotiations,” it said, and noted, “President Trump’s apparent bonhomie with Pakistani’s prime minister and offer to mediate on Kashmir in July was taken by some as a new and potentially unwise strategic shift.”

The report said, “President Trump’s seemingly warm reception of Pakistan’s leader, his desire that Pakistan help the United States ‘extricate itself’ from Afghanistan, combined with recent U.S. support for an International Monetary Fund bailout of Pakistan elicited disquiet among Indian analysts,” and noted that “they saw Washington again conceptually linking India and Pakistan, ‘wooing’ the latter in ways that harm the former’s interests.”

“Trump’s Kashmir mediation claims were especially jarring for Indian observers, some of whom began questioning the wisdom of Modi’s confidence in the United States as a partner.”

And while reiterating that “the episode may have contributed to India’s August moves,” the report said, ‘In addition, President Trump’s relevant July comments may have convinced Indian officials that a window of opportunity in Kashmir could soon close, and that they could deprive Pakistan of the ‘negotiating ploy’ of seeking U.S. pressure on India as a price for Pakistan’s cooperation with Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, it warned, "Increased separatist militancy on Kashmir may also undermine the ongoing Afghan peace negotiations, which the Pakistani government facilitates,”but acknowledged that New Delhi's process “also raised serious constitutional questions andgiven heavy-handed security measures in J&Kelicited more intense criticisms of India on human rights grounds.”

In this regard, it said that in the wake of predictions and “international concerns about potential for increased civil unrest and violence in the Kashmir Valley, and the cascade effect this could have on regional stability,”the report noted that the Trump Administration “has limited its public statements to calls for maintaining peace and stability, and respecting human rights.”

The Indian Government’s recent action, the report informed lawmakers, have“sparked international controversy as ‘unilateral’ changes of J&K’s status that could harm regional stability, eliciting U.S. and international concerns about further escalation between South Asia’s two nuclear-armed powers, which nearly came to war after a February 2019 Kashmir crisis.”

“New Delhi’s process also raised serious constitutional questions and—given heavy-handed security measures in J&K—elicited more intense criticisms of India on human rights grounds,” it added, and pointed out that “the United Nations and independent watchdog groups fault New Delhi for excessive use of force and other abuses in J&K.”

Consequently, it speculated that “India’s secular traditions may suffer as India’s Hindu national government—which returned to power in May with a strong mandate—appears to pursue Hindu majoritarian policies at some cost to the country’s religious minorities.”

The report reiterated that “the longstanding U.S. position on Kashmir is that the territory’s status should be settled through negotiations between India and Pakistan while taking into consideration the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”

It recalled, “Sporadic attempts by the United States to intercede in Kashmir have been unsuccessful. A short-lived mediation effort by the United States and Britain included six rounds of talks in 1961 and 1962, but ended with India’s indications that it would not relinquish control of the Kashmir Valley.”

“Although President Bill Clinton’s personal diplomatic engagement was credited with averting a wider war and potential nuclear exchange in 1999, Kashmir’s status went unchanged,” it added.

But the report said that New Delhi had made clear that prospects for third-party mediation were fully precluded by the 1972 Shimla Agreement, in which India and Pakistan “resolved to settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them and the 1999 Lahore Declaration reaffirmed the bilateral nature of the issue.

Kronstadt’s report on Kashmir was the first on this region of contention between India and Pakistan since CRS brought out reports on Kashmir in 2002 when it prepared three reports for the members of Congress, titled, 'Kashmir: Recent Developments and US Concerns:’ 'Elections in Kashmir,’ and 'Kashmiri Separatists: Origins, Competing Ideologies, and Prospects for Resolution of the Conflict.’

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