It would be an understatement to say that the State Department of the United States Government is having a rollercoaster ride running foreign policy under President Donald Trump. There was a gap of exactly two hours between US Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands tweet welcoming Trump on his maiden visit to Copenhagen, and the president tweeting back ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ In the case of Kashmir, the diplomats at Foggy Bottom were at least fortunate enough to have a month to salvage the wreckage delivered by Trump when he offered mediation to indulge with his Pakistani guest Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House in July.
In calling Kashmir a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan during his joint statement with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the side lines of G-7 summit in Biarritz (France), Monday, Donald Trump acknowledged a reality that has been understood by American presidents from Harry S Truman onwards, and has become institutional memory since at least the Clinton administration.
Burdened with the execution of Marshal plan, and more occupied with Europe, the Truman administration let the Attlee government influence its policy in the region. London saw Pakistan through the nostalgic prism of the Raj and the Americans leaned on the British as a ready reckoner for their long experience in South Asia. Attlee’s vocally pro-Pakistan Foreign Secretary Philip Noel Baker had even wanted Kashmir to be declared a UN mandate to serve their strategic objectives in central Asia. It did not help that Jawahar Lal Nehru’s moralizing tone on international affairs unnerved the Americans.
Partition of India and the birth of Pakistan had coincided with another great divide in the global geopolitics with the world carving itself into cold war camps led by the United States of America (USA) and the Soviet Russia respectively. As Nehru courted with non-alignment and his romance with State socialism took him closer to USSR, cold warriors from John Foster Dulles to Henry Kissinger made sure that Pakistan fell in the western security bloc as Karachi (later Islamabad) projected itself at the vanguard of fight against Communism.
Every president through the decades of 1940s through 1960s attempted their hands at mediating in Kashmir with various degrees of failure. Truman proposed arbitration under UN framework, appointing Admiral Chester W. Nimitz as plebiscite administrator but only ended up making Nehru aloof from the United States. Eisenhower wanted his brother Milton Eisenhower to be the emissary between the two sides only to be told by Nehru that any mediation was out of question as it put the aggressor and the aggrieved on same footing irrespective of the good intentions of the mediator. President John F. Kennedy tried his hands with appointing then World Bank chief Eugene Black as an interlocutor to be firmly rejected by Nehru again. By the time the Lyndon B. Johnson administration toyed with the Talbot plan on Kashmir, the Americans had become so tired that they let the Russians play mediators between India and Pakistan post the 1965 war at Tashkent! Through the 1970s and 1980s Americans were much too happy with Pakistan playing matchmaker between them and China, India effectively falling off their radar.
The decade of 1990s in many ways marked the pinnacle of both engagement and disengagement of the United States with the issue of Kashmir. In 1993, Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Robin Raphel, called Kashmir a disputed territory, even questioning its accession in an off-record briefing in Washington. An old Islamabad hand, her comment in effect reflected her personal persuasion more than the views of the American establishment. But damage had been done and the period marked the nadir of Indo-US relations.
The Pokhran and Chagai nuclear tests and the Kargil war brought global attention firmly to the region. But thankfully the Americans had understood the limits of their influence by now. President Bill Clinton effectively de-hyphenated India from Pakistan, telling a hemmed in Nawaz Sharif in Washington that there would be no American brokered resolution of the Kashmir issue, and that it had to be resolved through a bilateral dialogue between the two nations. As Pakistan turned into sick man of South Asia post 9/11, Presidents Bush and Obama took the de-hyphenation to the next level never clubbing an India visit with Pakistan.
Clearly then, what Trump did in White House with Imran Khan by his side was not any change in Kashmir policy, but a dribble to get the Pakistanis to commit for a more supportive role on Afghanistan. He said it in so many words during the joint statement that America wanted to extricate itself from Afghanistan and Pakistan shall prevail upon the Taliban to make that happen. While this classifies as another case of failure of institutional memory on the part of Trump, at least in case of Kashmir, he got it back with Modi by his side at Biarritz.