[This must have come as a pretty rude shock to the Indian
Trump-bhakts, who must be, by and large, Modi-bhakts as well.
The following is a somewhat restrained, and articulate, expression of
such deep dismay, though the author's precise political location is
Did Donald Trump Just Raise the Odds of War Between India and Pakistan
With One Phone Call?
Let’s talk about Donald Trump’s first phone call with Pakistan’s prime minister.
By Ankit Panda
December 01, 2016
U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s first phone call with Pakistani
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — three weeks into the presidential
transition in the United States — gives South Asia watchers cause for
concern. As a Pakistani readout of the call shows, if there’s anywhere
Trump would be better off speaking to world leaders with a State
Department briefing in hand, it would be in the Indian subcontinent.
Here’s the full text of the Pakistani Press Information Department’s
Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called President-elect USA Donald
Trump and felicitated him on his victory. President Trump said Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a
terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every
way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you
Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long.
Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are
one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any
role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the
outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it.
Feel free to call me any time even before 20th January that is before
I assume my office.
On being invited to visit Pakistan by the Prime Minister, Mr. Trump
said that he would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic
place of fantastic people. Please convey to the Pakistani people that
they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional
people, said Mr. Donald Trump.
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It’s easy to get pulled into the absurdity of the typically
over-the-top Trumpian language at play here, but these two short
paragraphs could easily have the effect of snowballing into an early
diplomatic crisis in South Asia for the Trump administration. First,
for Pakistan, after more than a decade without a U.S. presidential
visit (George W. Bush visited President Pervez Musharraf in 2006),
here you have a U.S. president-elect accepting an invitation to visit.
Second, Trump’s declaration that he is “ready and willing to play any
role that you want me to play” will give cause for celebration in
Islamabad and cause for concern in New Delhi.
India’s reaction to this statement will be as important as Pakistan’s.
Though it hasn’t dominated headlines in the United States, tensions
between India and Pakistan across the Line of Control in Kashmir have
been consistently high since a September attack on an Indian Army camp
by militants killed 19 Indian soldiers, the highest casualty attack
against the Indian Army in more than a decade. Moreover, days before
Trump and Sharif spoke, seven more Indian soldiers were killed by
militants in Nagrota in Kashmir. Though neither side has directly
escalated since India claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes”
across the Line of Control, the possibility of a conflagration between
the two nuclear-armed neighbors remains very real. (India and Pakistan
last fought a conventional war as armed nuclear states in 1999.)
For India, despite Trump’s well-known tendency to reverse course on
issues, there is no option but to take the Pakistani readout of the
Trump-Sharif call as a literal suggestion of what Trump plans to do.
Betting on the alternative — that Trump was simply trying to satisfy
another interlocutor by saying what he thought Sharif wanted to hear —
cannot become a basis for national-level policymaking.
Based on the call, India has to be ready for the possibility that the
next U.S. administration will not only stay away from directly
condemning Pakistan for deploying militant proxies on the Indian side
of Kashmir, but that Trump may be gearing up for a return to treating
Pakistan like any other U.S. major non-NATO ally. The trend line in
the Obama year suggested gradual distancing from Pakistan and
rapprochement with India, with New Delhi potentially having factored
in continuity in U.S. policy post-2016. Indeed, India would have
preferred if Trump had stuck with his thoughts on Pakistan in 2012,
when he tweeted the following:
When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to
Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some ‘ally.’
Vipin Narang, a nuclear weapons and security studies expert and
professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the The
Diplomat that “the one thing that would give [the Government of India]
an aneurysm is any US effort to ‘mediate’ Kashmir, which is, it sounds
like, what Trump was offering–or at least it was vague enough that
India could interpret it that way.” Narang’s right that a U.S. offer
to mediate between India and Pakistan is the last thing that would
interest New Delhi given repeated incidents of militant violence in
Kashmir since September. “On the heels of Uri and Nagrota, this is
probably the last thing India wanted to hear. Phone calls like this
where [the president-elect of the United States] goes off-script can
create problems for US policy and global security — in a volatile
nuclear-armed region — where one previously did not exist.”
“This could literally start a nuclear war,” Narang added.
Of course, Trump, once he’s adequately briefed on the situation in
South Asia and on the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship
since 2011, may come to realize that the promises he laid out in his
call with Sharif are probably untenable. That realization won’t in
itself be a positive development, since any move to pull back will
unnecessarily strain ties with Pakistan. Even if the civilian
leadership in Pakistan understands that Trump’s effusiveness on the
call was his characteristic brand of insincere exaggeration, public
opinion and even the Pakistani military’s view of the new U.S.
president may force the relationship downwards.
Is there a way to fix the damage that may have been done as a result
of this call? Trump could attempt to walk-back his ad hoc signaling by
delivering a teleprompter-based policy speech crafted by knowledgeable
staff on South Asia, but even then, the commitments laid out to the
Pakistani prime minister here are now an on-the-record fact of what
the next U.S. president has said he intends to do. That, regardless of
what comes next, will play a part in determining outcomes in U.S.
diplomacy with India and Pakistan.
Trump must understand that the stakes are exceptionally high in South
Asia given the persistent and real threat of nuclear exchange. And
while the United States’ position doesn’t directly affect tactical
decision-making by Indian and Pakistani leaders on when and if to
escalate, both sides do consider the likely U.S. reaction to
escalation in their evaluation of the available options.
Since the immediate aftermath of the Uri attack, South Asia watchers
have wrangled with the question of whether it’s likely that India and
Pakistan will once again go to war over Kashmir. Trump’s phone call to
Sharif suggests that this debate won’t end anytime soon and may indeed
persist through the next four years.
Update: Later Wednesday evening, the Trump transition team released
its own, less-detailed read-out of the call:
President-elect Trump and the Prime Minister of Pakistan Muhammad
Nawaz Sharif spoke today and had a productive conversation about how
the United States and Pakistan will have a strong working relationship
in the future. President-elect Trump also noted that he is looking
forward to a lasting and strong personal relationship with Prime
Peace Is Doable
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