President Trump in a first for U.S. presidents, accused Pakistan on national television with “harboring” terrorists, and openly discussed a role for India in Afghanistan in a major foreign policy speech Aug. 21 delivered in Fort Myer military base in Virginia.
Indian-Americans hailed the tough stance on Pakistan, and the public recognition of India’s positive role in Afghanistan as a successful culmination of their years of advocacy in every administration to recalibrate South Asia policy.
According to some Indian-Americans, Trump attached heft to his campaign promise that if elected India would have a “true” friend in the White House. He said Pakistan was providing terrorists a “safe haven” from where they could launch attacks on American soldiers in Afghanistan and on other countries. This, even as Washington doled out billions annually in aid over decades. The “billions” would stop flowing, Trump said, and outlined a sharp contrast toward India with which he said, Washington would strengthen the strategic partnership as a major pillar of South Asia and the Indo-Pacific policy.
“We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said (See Box). Pakistan, he said, has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists. “It is time for Pakistan to demonstrate a commitment to civilization, order and peace,” Trump said, adding that 20 organizations designated as terrorists by the U.S. operated in Afghanistan and Pakistan. “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence and terror,” and noted the threat was heightened when two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, lived side-by side.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear, said the president. “We must stop the re-emergence of safe-havens that enable terrorists to threaten America; and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us,” Trump said.
“It’s definitely a positive change — a clear, unquestionable, and open pivot to India,” said Krishna Srinivas, vice president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based bipartisan non-profit, US-India Security Council. “There are no ifs and buts about it,” said Srinivas, the past president of Indian American Forum for Political Education, who also served as co-chair, Asian Americans for Reagan-Bush, 1984. chair, Indian Americans for Bush-Quayle 1988, 1992.
Dr. Sudhir Parikh, publisher of News India Times and recipient of India’s Padma Shri, called Trump’s ‘pivot’ to India ‘most welcome news.”
“This is what we had been looking for .. to make the U.S realize Pakistan is not doing enough to quell terrorism, and is supporting terror groups in Kashmir,” Parikh said. He is among numerous Indian-Americans who have worked as part of the IAFPE since the 1980s to change what they saw as Cold War perceptions about India on Capitol Hill and in successive administrations.
“This is what Indian-Americans have been fighting for, for so many years. We need to build on this change of heart moving forward,” Parikh named several lawmakers who had come on board in India’s favor as a result of Indian-American advocacy , including Congressman Frank Pallone, D-NJ, former Republican Senator Larry Pressler from South Dakota, Daniel Patrick Moynihan of Massachusetts, former Reps. Gary Ackerman and Stephen Solarz, of New York, and Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, to name a few, who over the years help grow the Congressional Caucus for India and Indian Americans.
“This is a drastic 180-degree change,” in U.S. policy, opined Sampat Shivangi, a longtime Republican activist from Mississippi, and current president of IAFPE. “For decades, we have been fighting hard to have Washington lean toward India and see Pakistan for what it is,” Shivangi said. “U.S. administrations have always ultimately bowed down to Pakistan,” not so now, Shivangi said.
Even as some Indian-Americans lauded Trump’s statements on Pakistan and India as radical departures, for others it was more of the same.
In his analysis, Fareed Zakaria, an Indian-American talk-show host on CNN, contended Trump’s remarks on Pakistan were not a strong break from the previous administration.
“… people appear to have forgotten the unusually blunt testimony that Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave to Congress in 2011,” Zakaria noted. Mullen called the Haqqani network, “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency,” in that testimony. And then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus pressured Islamabad to end support for militant groups in Afghanistan during a 2011 visit to Islamabad. “That was one in a series of actions that outraged the Pakistanis, causing them to shut down supply routes to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan for seven months,” Zakaria reminds readers in his column in The Washington Post.
Two Democratic lawmakers who spoke to News India Times, cautioned against reading too much into the President’s promised changes in South Asia policy.
Pallone told News India Times, “I was very much opposed to the speech because he wants to accelerate and get more involved in Afghanistan,” a stand he opposes. On other pronouncements relating to Pakistan, Pallone was not confident about actual policy change following upon the President’s words.
“He did talk about India and its importance. If you think India is so important why don’t you have an ambassador to India yet,” Pallone questioned.
Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Illinois, viewed the speech through the national security lens, and how soon the U.S. would exit from Afghanistan. He saw little of that in the President’s speech.
However, Krishnamoorthi conceded, “The president made a strong pitch for assistance to Afghanistan and noted India has already contributed $3 billion in aid (to Kabul). It signals a very positive development. The two countries are going to grow closer.”
As for President Trump’s claim that Pakistan was aiding the Taliban, “He is privy to intelligence we have not seen,” said Krishnamoorthi, “and I will take that into account.”
As for speaking out about Pakistan harboring terrorists, or giving them safe haven, “The President wasn’t saying anything new,” Krishnamoorthi said. “The question is, what are we going to do going forward. No country can handle this alone. All countries in that region need to work on it together otherwise it’s going to blow up in our faces.”