Trump hints at denouement to Pulwama

(President Trump told reporters that it would be ‘wonderful’ if India & Pakistan ‘get along’)

The US president Donald Trump told the media at the White House on February 19 while replying to a question on the terrorist strike in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, and the ensuing India-Pakistan tensions: 

“I have watched. I have got a lot of reports on it. We will have a comment (on it) at an appropriate time. It would be wonderful if they (India and Pakistan) get along. That (the terrorist attack) was a horrible situation. We are getting reports. We will have a statement to put out.” 

This is an exceptionally important remark, since this is the first time Trump commented on the rising tensions in South Asia. He disclosed that a White House statement could be in the pipeline. But his remarks give tell-tale markers on what to expect. 

Most important, Trump said the US is “getting reports” regarding India-Pakistan tensions. He didn’t elaborate. But what is pertinent is that the US has the military-technical capability to monitor the India-Pakistan border minutely, accurately on  24X7 basis and Trump gets daily inputs. 

In the prevailing situation, the US would have stationed spy satellites to gauge the sensitive region even more closely. The point is, the supply lines for the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan run through Pakistani air space and the Western interests lie in ensuring that the traffic is in no way jeopardised. 

This is of course apart from the overarching geopolitical considerations that Pakistan’s full cooperation is vital for the US (and NATO) for the open-ended preservation of American military bases in Afghanistan. Bagram and Shindand air bases are the bare irreducible minimum where the Pentagon has exhaustively rebuilt the two Soviet-era bases costing billions of dollars. 

These two bases are worth their weight in gold in the US global strategies against Russia, China and Iran, but the catch is that Taliban must agree to the US retaining them under an Afghan settlement, for which Pakistan only can play the decisive role by pressuring the Taliban. Now, all indications today are that Pakistani military leadership is playing a most helpful role for the advancement of the US agenda on this front.  

Given the above backdrop, Trump’s remark that it will be “wonderful” if India and Pakistan “get along” can only be taken as a policy statement reflecting the American thinking in regard of the explosive situation developing in South Asia. Simply put, Washington will not allow an outbreak of military hostility between India and Pakistan. 

The US approach runs counter to the grain of the statements by PM Modi in the past week more than once hinting at a determination to use coercive power at the military level to punish Pakistan for perpetrating the dastardly crime in Pulwama. 

Indeed, Pakistan seems to have taken note of the strong possibility of some sort of military action by India, as evident from PM Imran Khan’s national address on Tuesday warning that Pakistan will retaliate and a big military conflagration may follow spinning out of control. (See my blog Imran Khan breaks silence on Pulwama.)

Now, Imran Khan’s national address and his open threat to India — especially, in comparing J&K with Afghanistan — would most certainly have been noted carefully by the White House. Trump’s remarks came several hours after Imran Khan’s address. 

All in all, we may expect that the US will be preparing to wade into the India-Pakistan tensions. In fact, all signs are that the initial discussions may even have begun already in the three capitals — Washington, Delhi and Islamabad — at the diplomatic level.

Thus, the nascent French move to table a resolution in the UN Security Council on Masood Azhar cannot but be on the basis of prior consultations between Paris and Washington. (It is a safe bet that Trump was aware of the three-day old French initiative.) To be sure, the UK, which has influence over Imran Khan, must also have been on board.

Significantly, Moscow which has placed itself on a grey zone of strategic ambiguity regarding Pulwama, can also be expected to play second fiddle to the Western move in the UN SC by helping to finesse, in coordination with Beijing, an agreeable outcome that is acceptable to both Delhi and Islamabad. 

The idea amongst the P5 — none of whom wants an outbreak of hostility between India and Pakistan at the present juncture of fluid regional politics — will be to evolve a face-saving formula whereby the UN Security Council censures Masood Azhar and seeks Pakistan to put certain curbs on his activities and the tensions with India can be defused. 

However, the big question is whether such a delicate tight-rope walking by the UN Security Council will be possible without touching on the festering Kashmir issue in some way. For Pakistan, it becomes a litmus test of sincerity on the part of the international community that it takes note of the J&K situation, while for India that must be a read line. 

The diplomatic signalling from various P5 capitals and Delhi and Islamabad suggests that hectic consultations are under way during the past 3-4 days.  

In such a denouement to the current crisis — and assuming that a compromise formula indeed emerges at the horseshoe table in the UN Hqs in the comings days or weeks — Pakistan can learn to live with the outcome, while Modi government can also blow the trumpet to claim success in having ‘isolated’ Pakistan. 

However, in the prevailing political situation in India, such an outcome will be tantamount to Modi bearing an albatross round his neck, as he hits the campaign trail. But then, what is the alternative in the current regional and international environment? Clearly, India’s “war lobby” is whistling in the dark. And the advocates of the “isolate Pakistan” campaign are fantasising. The harsh reality is that chickens have come home to roost. 

India has to pay a price for the Modi government’s utter failure of leadership through the past 5-year period in stubbornly refusing to open the track of a political dialogue within J&K and/or to engage Pakistan in some form on a parallel track with a view to keep the steadily rising tensions under check. 

At the very least, the ascendance of “Taliban Khan” at the helm of affairs in Islamabad, whose nickname harks back to a chequered past of hobnobbing with extremist Islamist groups, should have been a wake-up call for the Indian strategists on the imperative need to put rings of engagement around him. They didn’t really need an oracle to forewarn them that a first-rate crisis was building up.