News analysis: Is Donald Trump soft on Pakistan?

It's interesting that Mr. Trump chose to reaffirm U.S.’s improving ties with Pakistan at a meeting in Ahmedabad with Modi

February 24, 2020 05:30 pm | Updated 07:36 pm IST

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the audience during the ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Ahmedabad on February 24, 2020.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the audience during the ‘Namaste Trump’ event in Ahmedabad on February 24, 2020.

Addressing a huge crowd at Ahmedabad’s newly-constructed Motera Stadium on Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump minced no words in praising India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Trump lauded India’s democratic traditions and values, promised to provide India with the “best and most feared military equipment”, and reaffirmed a commitment to fight terror together. The President also referred to Washington’s relationship with Pakistan, which he described as “a very good one”. “... [W]e are beginning to see signs of big progress with Pakistan,” he added.

It’s interesting that Mr. Trump chose to reaffirm the U.S.’s improving ties with Pakistan at a public meeting in Ahmedabad with Prime Minister Modi . It may not be an accidental reference. Both the Trump administration and Islamabad have taken sustained efforts in recent months to improve bilateral ties, despite India’s earnest attempts to isolate Pakistan over its support for terrorist groups operating from its soil. While both sides sit together for bilaterals on Tuesday, the Pakistan factor may continue to be an irritant in the larger scheme of the strategic partnership.

Peace with Taliban

Mr. Trump’s visit to India happens at a time when the U.S. and the Taliban are observing a seven-day period of violence-reduction in Afghanistan. If the test period passes without any major violent incident, both sides are expected to sign a peace agreement under which the U.S. would pull out its troops from the war-torn country .

Pakistan, which hosts the leadership of the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani Network which is a key constituent of the Taliban, had played a critical role in facilitating direct talks between the insurgents and the Americans. And if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will directly strengthen the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, which means Pakistan’s profile in Afghanistan will be lifted. This would leave the U.S. overly dependent on Pakistan to shape Afghan politics in the future.

Reset with Pakistan

While this has been the larger context of the reset in U.S.-Pakistan ties, there were specifics that can’t be ignored. After the February 2019 Pulwama attack and the subsequent dogfight between India and Pakistan, Islamabad has taken efforts to charm the Trump administration. When Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Washington in July 2019, Mr. Trump offered mediation between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir crisis — in so doing, he practically endorsed the Pakistani position as India has always maintained that Kashmir is a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

Mr. Khan’s visit also had military dimensions. A few days prior to the visit, General Mark Milley, the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military, had said U.S. “interests are better served if the country maintains strong military ties with Pakistan”. In December 2019, in a move that endorsed Gen. Milley’s views, the U.S. decided to resume a military training programme for Pakistan. The International Military Education and Training Programme (IMET) had been a central pillar of the U.S.-Pakistan military cooperation for years. President Trump suspended the $2-billion programme in 2018 to force Pakistan to crack down on terrorist groups. The Pulwama attack happened after Mr. Trump’s decision. Barring the court cases against Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed and his associates over money laundering and terror financing, Pakistan hasn’t taken any major hard measures against terror infrastructure on its soil. But by mid-2019, the U.S. had already started changing its approach.

No blacklisting

In the most recent example of the U.S.’s soft policy towards Pakistan, Washington and its allies along with China raised no adverse remark on Pakistan in the review meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) , an inter-governmental organisation combating money laundering, earlier this month. Pakistan has already been put on the FATF “grey list” with warnings to do more to combat terror financing. India has been pushing to blacklist Pakistan, which would invite sanctions to its financial system. But the Beijing review meeting decided against the blacklisting.

So the Trump administration’s policy is to stay engaged with Pakistan with offers for limited protection, while seeking to strengthen trade, defence and strategic ties with India. A State Department official had already said before Mr. Trump’s visit, as reported in The Hindu, that Mr. Trump might take up the Kashmir issue in bilateral talks. The U.S. President has repeatedly offered to mediate between the two countries despite India’s known protests. The biggest challenge before the Indian side, while pushing to deepen ties with Washington, is to reconcile with the Pakistan factor or find ways to skirt or address it.

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