WASHINGTON, D.C.—President Donald Trump left India shell-shocked by turning the decades-long U.S. non-interference policy on its head when he offered to mediate between India and Pakistan to resolve the long-simmering Kashmir dispute.
Even more shocking was his claim, during an Oval Office meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on July 22, that it was India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has suggested that he get involved and help both New Delhi and Islamabad resolve this problem.
India reaction to President Trump’s remarks were fast and furious. The spokesman for Ministry of External Affairs Raveesh Kumar flatly denied that Prime Minister Modi had ever made such a suggestion, and asserted that “No such request has been made by Prime Minister to the U.S. President. It has been India's consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism.”
“The Simla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally,” Kumar’s statement added.
Even long time career diplomats dealing with South Asia, including those in his own administration, and other diplomatic sources India Abroad spoke to were also shocked by Trump’s offer to mediate and found his contention that it was Modi himself asked him to do so “incredulous and incredible.”
A longtime diplomatic observer told India Abroad that career bureaucrats at the State Department and the National Security Council “got not just heart-burn but severe acid reflux,” when they heard Trump’s offer and claims. Immediately after news broke of Trump’s offer of mediation in Kashmir, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah was quick to react, with a tweet that said, "Is Govt of India going to call @realDonaldTrump a liar or has there been an undeclared shift in India's position on third party involvement in #Kashmir?"
Another erstwhile J&K chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti welcomed Trump's offer to mediate the Kashmir issue, saying, "Welcome such a positive development laden with potential to establish permanent peace in the subcontinent.”
The diplomatic bombshell came during Trump’s meeting with Prime Minister Khan in the Oval office, when a reporter asked about the other security threat in South Asia — besides Afghanistan — the Kashmir dispute which has remained “unresolved even by the United Nations and even by the U.S.,” and if President Trump is “going to make any kind of submission and intervention?”
Khan taking the question first, said, “I will be asking President Trump. He’s — it’s the most powerful country in the world, the United States. It can play the most important role in bringing peace in the subcontinent.”
“You know, there are over a — over a billion and a quarter people in the subcontinent. They are held hostage to the issue of Kashmir. And I feel that only the most powerful state, headed by President Trump, can bring the two countries together,” he said.
Khan added, “From my point, I can tell you, we have tried our best. We’ve made all overtures to India to start dialogue, resolve our differences through dialogue. But unfortunately, we haven’t made headways as yet. But I’m hoping that President Trump would push this process.”
And this was where Trump jumped in, recalling that “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.’ Because this has been going on for many, many years. I was surprised at how long; it’s been going on a long —”
Khan chimed in, pointing out, “Seventy years,” to which Trump replied, “And I think they’d like to see it resolved. And I think you’d like to see it resolved. And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator. It shouldn’t be — I mean, it’s impossible to believe two incredible countries that are very, very smart, with very smart leadership, can’t solve a problem like that.”
“But if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that,” he reiterated.
The Pakistan Prime Minister, hardly able to contain himself, gushed: “President, 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.”
And, now, there was no stopping Trump, and obviously, not just the mandarins in New Delhi, but all South Asia watchers and the D.C., who have followed the Kashmir issue for decades, were probably listening in horror, when he declared, “It should be resolved. So, it — but he (Modi) asked me the same, so I think there’s something. So maybe we’ll speak to him or I’ll speak to him, and we’ll see if we can do something because I’ve heard so much about Kashmir. Such a beautiful name.”
“It’s supposed to be such a beautiful part of the world. But right now there’s just bombs all over the place. They say everywhere you go, you have bombs and it’s a terrible situation. Been going on for many years. If I can do anything to help that, let me know,” he added.
Trump then went off on a tangent, noting, Let me give you one thing on Afghanistan, as an example. So, a lot of you don’t know this, but we dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever built in history. We dropped it in Afghanistan. We were getting ready to make many of those bombs. This left a hole that was — it took out a lot of the tunnels and everything else. But it left a hole in the Earth that looked like the moon; it looked like a crater from the moon. It’s still there. It was — nobody has ever seen anything like it. People heard it 15 miles away. They said, ‘What was that?’ It shook the Earth. Non-nuclear — the largest ever made, by far.”
He continued, “And they were going to make many of them. And I said, ‘No, we don’t have to. I don’t want to drop that. I don’t want to do that.’ So many easy solutions. That’s actually the easy solution. And they’d come in and they’d say, ‘Let’s have peace.’ But you don’t have to do that. I think we’re going to be very successful with having to go that route. And I have tremendous confidence in the Prime Minister.”
Earlier, he had showered kudos on Pakistan for helping to advance the peace process in Afghanistan, particularly in negotiating with the Taliban, just six months after he had pilloried Pakistan and cutting off all security assistance for Islamabad.
"We've made a lot of progress over the last couple of weeks, and Pakistan has helped us with that progress," he said.
And then, he told a beaming Khan, “"A lot of things are happening for the United States, and I think a lot of great things are going to be happening for Pakistan under your leadership.”
But Trump, was not averse to taking personal credit for the apparent change in Pakistani cooperation, saying that before his advent, "I don't think Pakistan respected the United States, I don't think Pakistan respected its presidents."
Khan, who could only keep nodding and smiling, and unable to get in a word edgewise, as Trump continued to hold the floor, finally chimed in saying, "I am one of those who always believed there was no military solution," and added, "I have to compliment President Trump, because he has now forced people to end the war.”
But while Trump, obviously was seeking a political settlement with the Taliban before the Afghans go to the polls in late September, clearing the way for him to withdraw U.S. troops from this war-ravaged country where U.S. troops have been fighting its longest-ever war, also was not bereft of macho talk, warning that “if we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don't want to kill 10 million people,” and that "Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
At the outset, Trump set the amiable tone for meeting with Khan, saying, “It’s my great honor to have the very popular and, by the way, great athlete — one of the greatest — but very popular Prime Minister of Pakistan.”
He said, “We have many things to discuss-- military and terrorism and trade. And, I think we’re going to spend a lot of time talking about trade because we do very little trade with Pakistan compared to what we could be doing and should be doing when our countries really get along perfectly. And I think we’re having that start. We’re going to have that start.”
After saying, “ Inshallah” (God willing in Arabic,” Khan said, “I’ve been looking forward to this meeting since I assumed office as Prime Minister of Pakistan. I mean, the United States is vital for Pakistan. We have links which have gone back since Pakistan became independent. You know, we’ve been fighting wars together-- first Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan was a frontline state, allied to the U.S. And then again the War on Terror, which was after 9/11.”
Towards the end of the meeting, which was perhaps the longest-ever Oval Office interaction with the media, Khan was asked about the curbs on the freedom of press, on the media, on journalists, by his administration.”
He denied any such curbs, arguing that “Pakistan has one of the freest presses in the world. All you have to do is — since I’ve been the Prime Minister in the last 10 months — I mean, the criticism I have received from my own press --unprecedented. So, to say that there are curbs on Pakistan press is a joke.”
Trump, then jumped in protesting to much laughter that “when you say “unprecedented,” it can’t…Wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. There’s no way you’re treated worse than I am.”