28 July 2019

Trouble With the Facts When Trump Meets Imran Khan

by Alyssa Ayres

In retrospect, the president’s tweet last Thursday heralding the arrest in Pakistan of U.S.- and UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed should have been the first clue. Donald J. Trump proclaimed that the “‘mastermind’ of the Mumbai Terror attacks” [sic] had been found after “a ten-year search.” 

Pakistan’s Punjab police had indeed arrested Saeed, but his location was never in question, as he had been free and visibly public in Pakistan for some years. Those who follow South Asia wondered why the president tweeted this about Saeed, since it bore no resemblance to the facts, and no news report or briefing would have suggested that anyone needed a ten-year search to find him. 

More trouble with the facts emerged when Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited the White House to meet Trump today. In their joint press availability, Trump offered up on the topic of Afghanistan that, if he wanted to, “I could win that war in like a week…I just don’t want to kill ten million people.” This statement appeared disconnected from any of the serious strategic debates underway for eighteen years about troop numbers, counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency, and the use of drones. What did he mean? No further explanation has emerged. 

When the president turned to India-Pakistan tensions, things became even more free-form. In response to a question from the press about whether Khan would ask Trump for help on Kashmir, Khan said that only the “most powerful state” could bring the two countries, India and Pakistan, together. Trump then said, “I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago [at the G20], and we talked about this subject, and he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator or arbitrator?’ I said, ‘Where?’ He said, ‘Kashmir.’…I think they’d like to see it resolved, and you’d like to see it resolved, and if I can help, I’d love to be a mediator…” 

Pakistan has long welcomed, and sought, outside mediation on this question. But India has maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral dispute that must be resolved by the two countries between themselves, without a third party. So it struck experts on South Asia as strange that Indian Prime Minister Modi had personally requested U.S. mediation on Kashmir. 

Not surprisingly, the Indian government responded promptly with a blunt repudiation of this claim. The official spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs tweeted: “No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US President [sic]. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally. Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism…” 

So it seems that Trump misinterpreted whatever he and Modi might have discussed, if indeed they did discuss Kashmir. Or does the president think he alone can broker a “deal” on this notoriously tough dispute? 

Successive U.S. administrations have taken pains to understand this issue and have framed U.S. statements carefully, usually with some phrase encouraging dialogue between India and Pakistan, but noting that the “pace, scope, and character” is for both sides to determine. 

Tough issues in diplomacy can’t be solved on the fly, and require careful attention to the facts and to history. Unfortunately, today’s press availability showed something quite to the contrary.

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