Let’s get one thing straight: the US doesn’t care two hoots about Kashmir.
Nor is it bothered much about relations between Pakistan and India. Since 1948, Kashmir has been an issue for global powers to gain leverage over both. That priority will continue as long as the two countries remain high-spend buyers of arms.
But even that objective is secondary for the moment. The current US administration – which is to say Jared Kushner and his friends – see south Asia as an adjunct to west Asia, and see the entire region through the prism of Iran.
Donald Trump is only using Kashmir as leverage to gain Pakistan’s cooperation with regard to Iran.
Unfortunately, India’s navel-gazing policymakers don’t seem to see the big picture. Brimming with moral righteousness, they don’t seem to realise that international relations is a poker game within a chess game within a game of monopoly: full of feints, trade-offs, and surprise moves.
It is ironic that an establishment that never tires of dissing Nehru for his moral and statesmanly (not always pragmatic) foreign policy finds itself stuck in a cleft stick over Kashmir.
The government was evidently flummoxed by President Trump’s public statement on Monday that Prime Minister Modi recently asked him to arbitrate or mediate between India and Pakistan on Kashmir.
Trump, who has taken post-truth to bizarre levels, is evidently trying to blindside India. The country should have expected trouble, even if its intelligence agencies failed – once more – to discover what was afoot.
In fact, policymakers appear to have been oblivious to a series of recent danger signals: the rise and rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the tactical space the US’s recent moves against Iran give Pakistan, CPEC, and reports on human rights abuses in Kashmir from two UN bodies. Something was brewing. That should have been obvious.
For all his apparent bumbling, and his oddball comments, Trump knows what he wants, and he goes unashamedly for it. He is a shrewd operator, good at that game of poker within chess within monopoly –of course, that real estate game!
Given its duplicity over the past couple of decades, US policymakers would actually be quite happy for Pakistan to go to hell. But they need Pakistan again, just as they needed the land route through Pakistan when they invaded Afghanistan in 2002.
This time, Trump’s priority is to contain Iran. Israel has for decades been paranoid over Iranian rhetoric about wiping Israel off the face of the Earth. That fixation increased manifold when the US opened a clear land route from Iran to Israel. Pared to the bone, the strategic bottom-line of what the US’s failed 2003 invasion of Iraq achieved was to open that land route. A pro-Tehran government took power in Baghdad while pro-Tehran forces already held sway in Damascus and Beirut.
For Israel, that open land route was a nightmare.
It so happened that anti-Shia Wahabism spread widely over the past 15 years, and became the driving force of hugely successful terror groups.
If the most vital strategic outcome of the Iraq invasion was to increase Iran’s influence over Iraq, the US is absolutely determined to ensure that Iran does not gain any strategic elbow-room in Pakistan to its east or in Afghanistan to its northeast.
While George W. Bush was still in office, it was already clear that the US would re-instal the Taliban in Afghanistan. The objective was to ensure that there was no chance that Kabul might be well-disposed toward Iran.
The US was too weak in Afghanistan to be able to shape a new anti-Shia force. So, since the Taliban was gaining ground in any case, the US negotiated with it through Doha-based interlocutors. That’s been happening for a decade now. It was in a slow lane under Obama. With Trump, it’s on the fast track.
Now that the Taliban is rapidly regaining ground-level power in Afghanistan, the Trump administration has gone hell for leather against Iran.
His effort is not just to stop Iran’s nuclear programme, which Obama and other world leaders had managed, but to crush Iran as a power in the region.
For that to work, the US must ensure that Iran is blockaded. That’s where Pakistan comes in.
Key Iran-Pak border
One of the most significant things Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said during his Washington visit (in a speech to the US Institute of Peace) was that Pakistan has a decent relationship with Iran. “Not warm,” he added, “but a decent relationship.” He said Pakistan would love to help with transit. It was a sheathed warning.
In fact, whenever he was asked a question about Iran in Washington DC, Khan visibly tensed and pulled himself together. He argued strongly against a US-Iran war.
Pakistan’s generals have talked so much and so long of wanting ‘strategic depth’ against India through influence over Afghanistan that we tend to ignore the fact that Pakistan has long borders with not just India and Afghanistan, but with Iran too. Pakistan could well give Iran strategic depth.
On the other hand, getting Pakistan to play its strategic chess game in the region would be a two-in-one for the US’s efforts in the region – blocking putative covert Pakistani assistance to Iran and, through Pakistan, control over important Taliban factions in Afghanistan.
If Pakistan’s quid pro quo for that is Kashmir, it’s a price the US’s actual policymakers would happily negotiate.
David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir.