ROBINDER NATH SACHDEV
There can be a golden lining to the clouds, for India. It is stating the obvious to say that India has been dismayed at the outcome of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan meeting with US President Donald Trump in the White House.
Commentaries, by the reams, and by countless hours on television shows, in India, and also in the US, are searching answers to questions like – Why did Trump say what he said at the joint press gaggle with Imran Khan? How did Imran Khan wangle a meeting with Trump? Was India caught napping, or did it falter, in shepherding its strategic interests and relations with the United States? What now, what should India do to consolidate its relationship with the US? How about Pakistan, when will the rogue elements in India’s neighbourhood stop nicking India?
The answer to all above is complex, and this single column cannot do justice to the nuances. But yes, there is slog work ahead, and a golden lining to the clouds for India at the horizon in about two years – and, of course it will take more hard work by India, and time of about next two years.
First things first. How to understand America, and how to understand Trump. The world must realise that Trump is the most unconventional ever US President in history, and it is he alone who makes foreign policy in the United States, and no one else. Much like his working style in domestic politics, where too he has exercised his Presidential and governmental powers to the micro-levels with a hammer, even if losing some battles, Trump is similarly the sole thinker and decider of US foreign policy. Today, Trump is America. And, America is Trump. He may decide to make U-turns, threats, and actions on any aspect of policy, with any country, and his decisions and tweets have clear impact. Some of his statements or tweets may get lost in maelstroms of controversy, but most decisions by Trump, i.e. America, do have big global impact.
Above said, there is no doubt that Trump can also be influenced. After all, he also has a circle of friends, reads or watches TV, is active on social media, and he has his chosen and appointed officials and brains in government, whose job is to advise him. No leader lives in a vacuum – any leader uses his time judiciously and absorbs information that comes to him from his chosen channels of communications. So with Trump.
In the case of Pakistan, it seems Trump was largely influenced by Senator Lindsay Graham, who very recently visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also speculated that the Pakistan Ambassador in the US is old pals with Jared Kushner. He worked the phones, and voila the White House meeting happened. There are also reports that say that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was the principal interlocutor for this meeting, which sounds low on probability, and even reports that are convinced that a “Wahabi” lobby in Washington, DC was the instrumental agency.
Graham has little or nil experience of Pakistan. It is certainly possible that Pakistan treated him well, praised him, and sold him a story and logic, as below, during his mission to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In domestic politics, Graham has been getting close to Trump, especially after the passing of John McCain. Graham wants to get re-elected from South Carolina and needs support of Trump to win the election. While Trump needs Graham’s support since Graham is the Chair of Senate Judiciary Committee. So, a Graham-Trump communication channel that facilitated the Trump-Imran meeting at White House sounds most plausible.
Whatever the channels that reached Trump, the message that they succeeded in selling to Trump was – “Pakistan is Ready, Willing and Able to help the US in Afghanistan, and will also curb the terrorism emanating from inside Pakistan, if only our Eastern Borders with India are secure and peaceful from the Kashmir issue. If Kashmir, our Eastern Border is peaceful, then we can fully apply all our military forces to solve and manage the challenges on our Western orders, and help you, the US in Afghanistan with our full abilities.”
Trump has liked and approved of the idea, and it may not be far to suggest that the idea of bringing peace to the Kashmir region appealed to Jared Kushner too. After all Kushner is also trying to bring peace in global hot-spots – like the Middle East.
Though India may be unhappy at this point of time, no purpose will be served by an emotional, or petulant response. There is a golden lining to the clouds but only and only if the following two things can be achieved in the next two years. One, the continuing pressure of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on Pakistan to improve its record on curbing terror financing, money laundering, and effectively and transparently sealing operations of terror groups inside Pakistan. Two, a genuine effort by Pakistan to adhere to the “good behaviour” promises made by Imran Khan to Trump. There is a window of opportunity of less than two years when Pakistan will try to showcase its best behaviour to the US, till the US withdraws from Afghanistan, and a few months more. India must focus to maximise the outcomes of both the above within this window of less than two years.
There is no doubt that right now is the time when Pakistan is at its weakest and amenable to change and reform of its ways, because of pressures like economy, FATF, exposure to terrorism, and making promises to the US. If this window of opportunity of next less than two years is not exploited to the fullest by India, including in partnership with the US, then Pakistan may go back to its old ways against India, with a vengeance.
India must also remember that Trump was insisting that Pakistan must get rid of all domestic and foreign terrorists from Pakistan’s soil responsible for the attacks in Mumbai and on the Indian Parliament. We must remember that when India decided to use its air force to strike inside Pakistan at Balakot recently, Trump gave his vehement support to India. Trump also played a role in asking Imran Khan to release the captured Indian pilot Abhinandan.
It is important to understand and appreciate how President Trump operates and makes policy. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done well by not entangling himself with President Trump’s statements. Nothing has changed officially between the two. In foreign affairs, Trump has always relied on close personal relations and diplomacy. He has always made sure that only he alone could control such personal diplomacy and rapport with the foreign leaders. He alone initiated and decided his meetings and agenda with the North Korean leader, three times. It is important to understand that Trump operates exclusively and independently. Trump surprises even his own cabinet and senior advisors. In all probability, and it must have happened by now, PM Modi should have called up President Trump, and side-stepping the Imran Khan visit, talked of other important topics, including an invitation for Trump to visit India at the earliest – perhaps to join Diwali festival in October. A Trump visit to India within this year is important, because from January 2020 onwards his foreign travel will be very limited, since his re-election campaign plans to hold one Trump rally every weekend till the elections in November. If not in 2019, then a visit may not happen till late 2021.