UPDATE: U.S. walks back Trump claim that Modi invited him to mediate Kashmir

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After India bristled and roundly refuted President Donald Trump’s claim that India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested him to mediate the Kashmir dispute, Washington tried to simultenously save face and clear the air essentially walking back the President’s comments.

President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi stride down corridor with entourage during the bilateral meeting at Osaka on thesidelines of the G-20 Summit, June 27. (Photo: courtesy Narendra Modi Twitter)

At a press conference held in the White House July 22,  with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan by his side, President Trump may have committed a diplomatic faux pas reversing decades of U.S. policy of non-interference on Jammu & Kashmir.

During the 40-minute press conference before the bilateral discussions began, the discussion  centered mostly on Afghanistan and billions in U.S. aid to Pakistan, as well as Iran and other domestic U.S. issues.

However, in response to a reporter’s question directed to both Trump and Khan, about whether the American President would intervene to settle issues between India and Pakistan relating to Kashmir, Khan said he would be asking President Trump about that during the bilateral.

But President Trump said, “So I was with — I was with Prime Minister Modi two weeks ago, 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.”  Because this has been going on for many, many years…. I was surprised at how long….”

Trump went on to say, “And I think they’d like to see it resolved.  And I think you’d (Khan) like to see it resolved.  And if I can help, I would love to be a mediator.  It shouldn’t be — I mean, it’s impossible to believe two incredible countries that are very, very smart, with very smart leadership, can’t solve a problem like that.  But if you want me to mediate or arbitrate, I would be willing to do that.” Khan said millions in the Subcontinent would thank Trump if that happened.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs sent out a rebuttal almost immediately, denying President Trump’s claim that Prime Minister Modi had approached him to intercede on Kashmir.

“We have seen President Trump’s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India and Pakistan, on the Kashmir issue,” MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said, also posting the statement on Twitter.

No such request has been made by Prime Minister to the US President. It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally,” the MEA said.

“Any engagement with Pakistan would require an end to cross border terrorism. The Shimla Agreement and the Lahore Declaration provide the basis to resolve all issues between India and Pakistan bilaterally,” the statement asserted.

India’s Ambassador to the United States Harsh V. Shringla, indicated to News India Times in an interview that Washington has never held the position articulated by President Trump.

“The U.S. position on Jammu & Kashmir has been that this has to be resolved bilaterally between India and Pakistan, and that there is no role for international mediators,” Ambassador Shringla said.

India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, repeated the denials in the Indian Parliament, saying he could “categorically assure the house” that “no such request” for mediation was made by Modi to Trump. Jaishankar was present at the G20 meeting Trump referred to.

The State Department, in a tweet shortly after the Trump snafu, said, “While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist,” making no mention of an alleged Modi request for mediation, and in effect withdrawing President Trump’s claim during the press conference,

Influential lawmakers stepped in to calm the waters with the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, telling India’s envoy in Washington that there was no change in the traditional American position and that Pakistan must rid its territory of terrorists.

“Chairman Engel reiterated his support for the longstanding U.S. position on the Kashmir dispute, saying he supported dialogue between India and Pakistan, but reaffirmed that the dialogue’s pace and scope can only be determined by India and Pakistan.  He reaffirmed that in order for dialogue to be meaningful, Pakistan must first take concrete and irreversible steps to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure on Pakistan’s soil.He also said that Pakistan must “dismantle the terrorist infrastructure” for any meaningful dialogue with India,” said the statement on the Foreign Affairs Committee website. It was also tweeted..

Congressman Brad Sherman, D-California, in a tweet, noted, “Everyone who knows anything about foreign policy in South ASia knows that #India consistently opposes third-party mediation re #Kashmir. Everyone knows PM Modi would never suggest such a thing. Trump’s statement is amateurish and delusional. And embarrassing.”

Rep. Sherman also said, “I just apologized to Indian Ambassador @HarshShringla for Trump’\s amateurish and embarassing mistake.”

Storm In A Teacup?

Foreign Policy magazine had an apt headline – “Trump Does an About-Face on Pakistan — adn Blunders Into the Kashmir Dispute,” and in effect giving Trump a pass for reasons of realpolitik, contending that “The U.S. President is desperate to salvage peace talks with the Taliban, even if it means cozying up to Pakistan at the expense of America’s newest partner in the Indo-Pacific.” It called the overture to Pakistan and the downturn for India as Trump’s “trademark mix of ignorance and bluster.”

India expert Christine Fair, associate professor at the Security Studies Program in Georgetown University said “decades of bipartisan work in India and the US” had been undermined by the Trump comments.

President Trump repeated more than once during the press conference that Prime Minister Modi had asked him to intervene. “It should be resolved.  So it — but he (Modi) asked me the same, so I think there’s something.  So maybe we’ll speak to him or I’ll speak to him, and we’ll see if we can do something because I’ve heard so much about Kashmir.  Such a beautiful name.  It’s supposed to be such a beautiful part of the world.  But right now there’s just bombs all over the place.  They say everywhere you go, you have bombs and it’s a terrible situation.  Been going on for many years.  If I can do anything to help that, let me know,” Trump said.

India expert and former State Department official Alyssa Ayres, who is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, titled her blog post, “Trouble With the Facts When Trump Meets Imran Khan.”

Ayres noted that President Trump’s tweet a week  before meeting Khan, on terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terror attack, had been found after a “ten year search” would have been a warning on how much the President knew about goings on in South Asia.

Trump’s claim about a request from Modi, “struck experts on South Asia as strange” for the Indian leader. “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?” Ayres cogitated.

“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,” Ayres concluded.

In the final readout on the bilateral, the White House made no mention of Kashmir, and saying the meeting discussed how U.S. and Pakistan could work together to bring peace, stability, and economic prosperity to South Asia.

“The President and Prime Minister discussed the threat that terrorism presents to regional stability and discussed ways in which Pakistan can support a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan,” the White House statement said. President Trump, “… also affirmed Prime Minister Khan’s stated commitment to take action against militants and terrorists.”

During the earlier press conference, one Pakistani reporter asked President Trump if he could play “a role in stopping India to, you know, destabilizing the region (sic)?”

President Trump replied, “I think I can very well.  I have a very good relationship with Prime Minister Modi.  And I think we’re going to have a phenomenal relationship with the Prime Minister of Pakistan.  I do think that it’s a two-way street.  You know, you say India is coming in and destabilizing Pakistan, but India is saying that Pakistan is coming in and destabilizing.  So there’s a lot of room right there where we can meet.  I think we can meet.”

Meanwhile, prior to Khan’s arrival, the White House put out a backgrounder spelling out U.S. goals in relation to Pakistan.

“President Donald J. Trump is “working to strengthen cooperation with Pakistn on issues that are vital to the peace, stability, and prosperity of the South Asia region”

The statement which focused more on Afghanistan and two-way trade with Pakistan said Islamabad “has taken some steps against terrorist groups operating in Pakistan,” but went on to add, “It is vital that Pakistan take action to shut down all groups once and for all.”

The Khan visit to Pakistan was preceded by the arrest of Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the Mumbai terror attack that killed 106 people including 6 Americans, seen as an attempt to meet some conditions to convince skeptics about Islamabad’s commitment to counter terrorism within its borders.

On his return to Islamabad from Washington, Khan said he felt like he did when he came home from winning the World Cup in cricket.

(Updated version of http://www.newsindiatimes.com/india-refutes-trumps-claim-that-modi-asked-him-to-intercede-on-kashmir/ – with more reactions from lawmakers, experts, State Dept.)

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