The US can’t solve the Kashmir dispute

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Engr. Omar Shahkar

On July 22, during a White House meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, US President Donald Trump made a surprise offer to mediate the long-running dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. “It is impossible to believe,” Trump said, “that two incredible countries that are very, very smart with very smart leadership can’t solve a problem like that. If you would want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do it.”Even more surprising, Trump claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sought his intervention in the matter. For informed observers, this claim was hard to believe. And indeed, within hours of Trump’s statement, India’s Foreign Minister strenuously denied that Modi had made any such suggestion. Trump’s offer, was hardly the first US attempt to intercede in Kashmir. Over the past seven decades, successive US administrations have tried to make headway on the dispute. Those efforts all failed—and Trump’s is unlikely to turn out differently.
India and Pakistan have both claimed Kashmir, a majority-Muslim region in the north of the Indian subcontinent, since the two countries’ emergence in 1947. India has de facto control over about 55% of the region and the majority of its population; Pakistan controls around 30% and China the remaining 15%. The dispute over the region has led to three wars and countless skirmishes and stands as a permanent threat to stability in South Asia—one that is especially dangerous, given that both India and Pakistan are nuclear armed. The United States first attempted to mediate the Kashmir dispute in 1962. China and India had just fought a border war, in which the Chinese People’s Liberation Army routed a poorly armed and ill-prepared Indian Army. New Delhi turned to Washington for military assistance. At the time, Pakistan was an important Cold War ally of the United States, and Pakistani President Ayub Khan, aware of India’s vulnerable position, convinced the Administration of US President John F. Kennedy to prod India into negotiations over Kashmir. In coordination with the British, Kennedy dispatched Averell Harriman, the noted diplomat and former Ambassador to the Soviet Union, to New Delhi. The Sino-Indian war had left Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru emotionally broken and politically weak. Dependent on diplomatic goodwill and defense supplies from both the United States and the United Kingdom, he allowed himself to be cajoled into talks over Kashmir. Between 1962 and 1963, India and Pakistan held six rounds of negotiations but these takes failed to yield any fruit, owing to India’s hardened stance.
After the third Indo-Pakistani war in 1971, India became fully committed to preventing external mediation. When the two sides met in 1972 to discuss the postwar settlement, negotiations were limited—at India’s insistence—to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, along with a handful of trusted aides. The resulting settlement, the Simla Agreement, stated that the two countries would “settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations.”
From New Delhi’s perspective, this agreement enshrined the principle that all future discussions about Kashmir must be conducted on a strictly bilateral basis. Since 1972, no Indian government has ever evinced the slightest willingness to allow any foreign power, especially the United States, to broker an understanding with Pakistan on Kashmir. India is convinced that it can extract better terms through bilateral negotiations, and it is suspicious that Washington is too close to Islamabad. Pakistan has resisted this particular interpretation of the Simla Agreement. Instead, recognizing its weakness vis-à-vis India, it has constantly sought to bring in the United States as a mediator. In 1999, for instance, as the fourth Indo-Pakistani war was drawing to a close, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif flew to Washington to seek American intercession. US President Bill Clinton met with Sharif, but—much to Sharif’s dismay—he unequivocally branded Pakistan the aggressor in the conflict. At Sharif’s insistence, Clinton nevertheless offered to look into the Kashmir dispute. Yet he never followed through, dropping the subject for the brief remainder of his presidency.

Trump (or some in his Administration) may believe that the dramatic growth in US-Indian engagement over the past two decades, combined with the President’s personal rapport with Modi, provides White House with an opportunity to succeed where all of its predecessors have failed. Certainly, Pakistan is trying to convince Trump that this is the case. Yet there are compelling reasons to think
India’s new Foreign Minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, is a career diplomat who shares the bureaucracy’s suspicions regarding foreign, and particularly American, mediation. No Indian government—and especially not one, like Modi’s, that has assumed a hawkish stance toward Pakistan—will yield any ground on this issue. Already the US State Department seems to have acknowledged reality, stating on July 22 that it believes the Kashmir dispute is a “bilateral” issue between India and Pakistan. Trump should heed his own State Department’s advice. Pushing New Delhi on Kashmir will get him nothing except a public failure and a damaged US-Indian partnership.