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Clinton to Obama to Trump: Why oversimplified US views on Indo-Pak ties can’t hold

The US offer of mediating on the Kashmir issue betrays an oversimplified understanding of the India-Pakistan relationship. It also understates the nature of the dispute, the wider span of hostility between the two countries, and how the India-Pakistan tussle is an issue that dominates domestic politics on both sides of the border.

analysis Updated: Apr 05, 2017 11:13 IST
Jayanth Jacob
Jayanth Jacob
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
United States,India,Pakistan
Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, answers questions during a press briefing at the UN headquarters in New York City recently. (AFP Photo)

It was on July 16, 2000, when US President Bill Clinton offered to help mediate between India and Pakistan.

“I think the United States should be more involved there, even though I think they’ll have to work out this business of Kashmir between themselves (India and Pakistan),” Clinton said. Two days later, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh conveyed his government’s unwillingness to allow “third-party mediation to resolve a bilateral dispute”.

Even before he assumed the presidency in 2008 Barack Obama made a similar offer. However, that did not win India’s approval either. Pakistan, on the other hand, has always rooted for American mediation on Kashmir because it believes internationalising the issue will work in its favour. The US, it believes, will be a helping partner.

The nuclear flashpoint in South Asia has always been a concern for successive American presidents. But what bothers them more is Pakistan’s argument that it expends much of its energy in dealing with the Indian threat, leaving little time and resources for its fight against terrorism – an issue close to Washington’s heart.

While both Clinton and Obama refrained from pressing the issue, eventually becoming closer than expected with India, it was former president George Bush’s policy that worked out best for India-US ties. Bush made it abundantly clear that his government would not mediate between the two countries.

“We are not a mediator, and it is up to India and Pakistan to maintain the momentum (in talks and solving the issues),” the Republican president had said.

Recent remarks made by American ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on a possible mediation between the two countries can be seen as a continuation of the same pattern. However, as President Donald Trump is still an unknown entity, one doesn’t know which way this would play out.

Nevertheless, such an offer betrays an oversimplified understanding of the India-Pakistan relationship. It also understates the nature of the Kashmir dispute, the wider span of hostility between the two countries, and how the India-Pakistan tussle is an issue that dominates domestic politics on both sides of the border.

India sees any offer of mediation as an indication that the US is weighing in for Pakistan. It raises expectations in Pakistan, and takes the focus off the core concern of terrorism. If the neighbouring country succeeds in securing US mediation, it would prove that Islamabad’s policy of resorting to terrorism as a state policy — as India often terms it — to highlight the Kashmir issue is a success. This would further embolden non-state actors, giving Pakistan little incentive to rein them in. With its Kabul ties deteriorating, Islamabad is worried about India getting a larger foothold in Afghanistan. This further negates any calculation of Pakistan adopting a saner Afghanistan policy.

The US and many other countries across the world regard South Asia as a nuclear flashpoint, with the Kashmir dispute at its very core. But it is more complex than that.

Pakistan’s ego is yet to recover from the military defeats it suffered at India’s hands in the past. This includes the 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh and struck at the very root of Pakistan founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s two-nation theory. A great deal of America’s eagerness to intervene in the India-Pakistan conflict is delusional. It stems from the fact that the US couldn’t get Pakistan to do what it wants in the region on a host of issues, ranging from addressing terrorism to stabilising Afghanistan. However, that failure should not result in the US oversimplifying the reality of the India-Pakistan relationship.

First Published: Apr 05, 2017 11:12 IST