There was great buzz ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s maiden meeting with US President Donald Trump. Pundits expected both to get along well and kick start a process of resetting fractured Pak-US relations. This is exactly what panned out as both developed a good camaraderie with Trump later speaking highly of Khan. However, the meeting was marked by another very explosive and important side event that continues to reverberate even now. In response to a question on Kashmir, Imran Khan palmed off the issue and sought Trump’s mediation. What followed was something that the doctor did not order for India. Though Trump’s lucid account of how Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked him to arbitrate in the Kashmir conflict was vehemently rejected by New Delhi, it was not completely repudiated by US officials and was seen as a great boost to Islamabad’s bid to resuscitate the issue internationally. If anything, Kashmir became the issue that received greater attention in media coverage of the Trump-Khan summit.
With rapport established, it was expected that Khan will ratchet up his pitch to the US to use its good offices for dialogue with India while accentuating the fact that it is India’s obduracy that is impeding peace on the Subcontinent. This ideally would have played to Islamabad’s advantage as it tries to highlight the vitality of conflict resolution as opposed to mere ad-hoc crisis management. However, the situation changed drastically when, earlier this month, New Delhi, in utter disregard to all bilateral and multilateral frameworks for resolving the Kashmir issue, abrogated Article 370 that stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its autonomous status. Stalwarts and South Asia watchers believe that Trump’s mediation offer hastened the decision to do away with Article 370, a policy option that was part of BJP’s manifesto.
The decision to revoke Article 370 was greeted with censure by the Kashmiri political leaders that felt that India had betrayed them. They remain incarcerated along with the Kashmiris as the lockdown enters its third week. Protests have resulted in egregious human rights violations that have been widely reported in major media outlets.
Pakistan, being one of the parties to the decades-long conflict has not taken India’s unilateral act of annexation lying down. In tandem with downgrading diplomatic ties with India, Pakistan has launched a vociferous diplomatic offensive. PM Khan has vowed to take charge as the ‘Ambassador of Kashmir’ and fight against a fascist ideology that he likens to that of Nazi Germany.
One of the conduits that Khan has used to good effect has been the one he established with President Trump. It is noteworthy, that analysts had set personal ease of communication between the two as a major yardstick to measure the success of Khan’s DC trip. In a 20-minute long phone call on Friday, Khan broached the Kashmir issue and India’s efforts to bring about demographic changes in Kashmir. Khan called this phenomenon as one that had escalatory potential in an even otherwise volatile region. Given that India is constantly claiming that the revocation is an internal affair, a US President investing his time on Kashmir is something that translates into a tactical victory for Islamabad. This is not where it all stopped. On Monday, President Trump spoke with PM Modi and PM Khan for 30 and 35 minutes, respectively about the Kashmir issue, amongst other matters.
Trump’s announcement of his phone calls via Twitter was instructive. India has long demanded de-hyphenation from Pakistan, and rebuked discussing Kashmir with third parties. Trump termed PM Modi and PM Khan as his good friends, and said that he discussed Kashmir with them. While talking about Kashmir and its explosive situation on Tuesday, Trump said he will try his best to mediate and resolve a very dangerous conflict.
The latest comments came hours after the US urged India to lift restrictions and lines of communication in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Within a month of the Khan-Trump summit at the White House, Islamabad has achieved some important tactical milestones that have strategic implications. One, Kashmir as a disputed and simmering issue that needs to be resolved, is now well and truly part of US’ discourse. Also, it is not being linked to India’s ‘terrorism’ mantra. Two, Kashmir is in international limelight after a long hiatus. India had successfully obfuscated the issue in international fora and important foreign capitals, including those of P5 countries. Three, positive developments pertaining to the Afghan peace process are likely to permeate in overall Pak-US relations and those between Trump and Khan.
While it is unreasonable to expect, at this stage, that this renewed bonhomie between Washington and Islamabad will be decisive for Kashmir, it certainly is slated to increase pressure on India and exacerbate tensions in a not-so-seamless Indo-US strategic partnership. Given Islamabad’s current set of limitations, this window provides it with a good option to make India feel the heat of its illegal actions of 5th August. At the very least, the US will continue pushing India to enter into a dialogue with Pakistan over the Kashmir, something that is repugnant to New Delhi’s claim that anything pertaining to Kashmir is an internal matter.