First, Trump boasted that he could win the 18-year-old war in Afghanistan “in a week,” a comment so absurd and ill-informed that it is unworthy of a rebuttal. Then he waded into the middle of a tenuous relationship between Delhi and Islamabad, governments that are only just emerging from the shadows of heightened tensions. He claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to play the role of mediator between the two countries and offered to get involved in a bid to resolve the long-standing dispute over the Kashmir issue.
These remarks caused an immediate political furor in India, as they upended India’s long-standing position: that there is no room for a third party in the Kashmir conversation between India and Pakistan.
Yes, the United States has been among global powers that have historically intervened to pull back India and Pakistan from the brink of escalated military conflict. This month, India marked the 20-year anniversary of the 1999 Kargil conflict, which was triggered by Pakistani soldiers occupying Indian territory. Back then, as the Indian military pushed back hard, Nawaz Sharif, then-prime minister of Pakistan, came to Washington knocking on President Bill Clinton’s doors. More recently, when India’s air force struck inside Pakistan in the aftermath of a terror strike in Kashmir and friction mounted at the border, Trump tweeted about the possibility of tensions subsiding.
Yet channeling influence to avert full-scale military conflict between two nuclear-armed nations is hardly the same as claiming India asked for an international negotiating role in Kashmir, which is seen across party lines as a strictly bilateral issue. Modi may have well asked Trump to prevail upon Pakistan to rein in terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, but it is unimaginable that he or any Indian prime minister would have offered the Americans a seat at the Kashmir dialogue table.
The Modi government, which claims nationalistic pride as its political calling card, will deny Trump’s claim. The first set of rebuttals is already out from the spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs. But it shall probably require denial from even higher levels, perhaps from Modi himself. India’s parliament is in session, and this will undoubtedly be a major issue of domestic debate.
The controversy will only add to the already spiraling trade tensions between the United States and India. Nor will the Modi government be happy at the renewed focus on India and Pakistan together. Successive Indian governments have worked hard at decoupling the India-Pakistan relationship in the Western imagination. In one meeting, Trump has set back the U.S. relationship with India without having gained anything concrete for his country’s endgame in Afghanistan.
But Trump’s ignorance about South Asia — and his administration’s lack of seriousness in actually cracking down on terror groups operating on Pakistani soil — was clear before Khan even landed in Washington.
Last week, Trump tweeted about Hafiz Saeed, the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, in which more than 160 people were killed, including six Americans. Trump wrote: “After a ten year search, the so-called mastermind of the Mumbai Terror attacks has been arrested in Pakistan. Great pressure has been exerted over the last two years to find him!”
The embarrassing statement might have been funny were it not so tragic. Saeed was not “found.” In fact, he has lived and operated with impunity near the city of Lahore. Far from hiding, Saeed launched his own political party in the same national election that voted Khan into office. Trump’s tone-deaf comment about Saeed being the “so-called” brain behind the Mumbai strikes also ruffled feathers — not least because David Headley, a U.S. citizen and co-conspirator in the attacks, has testified in court about Saeed. Saeed has been sanctioned by the United Nations and is on its list of banned terrorists, but has reportedly remained a strategic asset of the Pakistani “deep state” in its war against India. Nor was Trump’s administration the one to apply the “pressure” on Saeed: The United States has had a $10 million bounty for information that would lead to Saeed’s conviction since 2012.
Anyone who believed that Trump’s Pakistan policy would be a bold break from the past needs to admit they were deluded. In 2017, Trump did make a blistering attack on Pakistan and said that Pakistan must “demonstrate its commitment to civilization, order, and to peace.” Speaking at the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va., that same year, Trump also pointed out that 20 U.S-designated terror groups were operational in Pakistan and Afghanistan, calling out Pakistan’s schizophrenic policy on terrorism. He even talked of rolling back military aid to Pakistan until it shut down terrorist organizations.
But his recent comments on Saeed — and subsequent gratuitous remarks on Kashmir — have exposed his bluster as a sham. On Monday, he said he is holding out the possibility of revoking the aid cuts. The entire episode reflects his ignorance, lack of focus and lack of consistency. And clearly, either he isn’t briefed well — or simply doesn’t bother to follow the briefing.
While all nations act from self-interest, Trump has shown not just a shortage of conviction and courage, but also a shortage of cogency in his remarks on India. It’s just one more reminder of how lacking in subtlety and stability the world’s most powerful man is.