Wheels on the bus, go round and round!

Nazarul Islam | Published: 00:00, Aug 25,2019


Demonstrators shout slogans during a protest against India in Karachi on August 22. — Agence France-Presse/Asif Hassan

PERHAPS South Asia has embarked into a crisis of grave proportions. As the flames rise up, so do the ominous, dark clouds of war in the region. For the second chance in the past six months, South Asia’s fate has hung on tenterhooks. Any thing could have happened.

Because of the fact that two adversaries are armed with nuclear weapons, the possibility of a nuclear confrontation must be taken very, very seriously. Three conventional military conflicts have already taken place in the past. Undisputedly, this has remained our planets nuclear flashpoint at the centre of a dispute that has kept India and Pakistan at loggerheads for well over 70 years.

This beautiful land could soon be on the brink of war. The simmering cauldron came to a boil about two weeks ago when Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, fresh after a landslide electoral victory, revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution which gave a special status of the disputed territory. As expected, public reaction has been strong. In a bid to control the situation, the government has imposed a curfew and a clampdown on communications, cutting off the Kashmiris from the outside world.

A war of words has begun. In his Independence Day message, while expressing solidarity with the people of the Indian-occupied Kashmir, Pakistan’s army chief Qamar Bajwa promised to stand by them to counter India’s ‘hegemonic ambitions’. He has repeatedly affirmed: ‘There can never be a compromise on Kashmir’.

The civilian leadership in Pakistan has joined in and public opinion is united behind the Kashmiris. But it is Bajwa’s voice that carries the weight because he alone has the ability to choose between war and peace.

This leads to a fundamental question: how did matters reach a head?

Observers believe that Donald Trump’s inept and maladroit demeanour provoked Modi or, rather, provided him with the trigger he was hoping for. American presidents from Eisenhower to Obama have followed a rule of thumb in their dealings with South Asia. They have maintained a steady balance in their relationship with India and Pakistan. The superpower has intervened in the affairs of the region only when invited by both countries to mediate or in times of crisis, when war appeared imminent, that is.

Another rule the US has observed is to resort to back channel dialogue — diplomacy on the quiet, when needed. This has enabled Washington to operate on its own terms in the region without upsetting the apple cart and retaining some measure of influence on the two regional powers.

In the past month, these rules were thrown to the wind. Trump with his extra large ego that has matched his mouth quite oblivious of history surmised and decided that ‘he knew best’. He likes to believe that he has tamed Pakistan, the devious ally in the region, on whose cooperation depends America’s troop pull-out from Afghanistan.

By cutting off aid to Islamabad in 2018 and getting the International Monetary Fund to dillydally on a much-needed bailout to Pakistan, Trump managed to have his way. The Pakistan army came on board to persuade the Taliban to enter into talks with Zalmay Khalilzad, the special US representative on Afghanistan. That was how the Doha talks were launched and have reached their critical eighth round.

These developments no doubt convinced Trump that his strategy will work. He advised the global media: ‘The problem was (that) Pakistan wasn’t doing anything for us. They were subversive. To be honest, I think we have a better relationship with Pakistan right now than when we were paying that money. That money can come back.’

Earlier, an India-Pakistan crisis in February brought the two countries to full blows. The crisis was defused only when Pakistan returned a captured Indian pilot as a ‘peace gesture’ after the US, along with Russia and the UK, intervened, calling for restraint. Confident of a diplomatic success, Trump, it seems, was primed for a meeting with Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan in July.

Really, what went gone wrong this time? It was smooth sailing with Imran Khan at the Oval Office. He received an aid package of $1.0 billion as well as a bonus at the press conference the next day — a positive response to Imran Khan’s request for mediation on Kashmir. Without realising it, Trump touched India’s sciatic nerve. Imran Khan, of course, was delighted, because that is what Islamabad has demanded for ages. For India even to suggest such a move amounts to a slap on its face as it is the pro-status quo party.

The Simla Agreement that India signed with Pakistan in 1972 after their third fully-fledged, conventional war clearly stated that the two countries would settle their differences by peaceful means through bilateral negotiations or by any other peaceful means mutually agreed upon between them. Being the smaller state and unable to badger its bigger adversary, Pakistan’s policy has been to internationalise the dispute.

Given his aversion to history, Trump would not have known about these sensitivities or, for that matter, the fact that Kashmir is a historical legacy of the hasty and clumsy partition of India by the ruling British in 1947. It has been on the UN Assembly’s list of unresolved disputes since 1949.

A Muslim-majority princely state, it was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja who invited the Indian army to facilitate the accession to New Delhi in 1947. Initially both parties agreed to the UN Security Council’s resolution suggesting that a plebiscite should be held in the state to allow the Kashmiris to decide their future. This never took place. For the past 20 odd years, an insurgency in the Kashmir Valley had become a major security headache for New Delhi which has accused Islamabad of infiltrating militant groups into the territory under Indian control in order to destabilise it.

Pakistan is known to have used non-state actors as strategic assets but this does not detract from the fact that the Kashmiris — even many who once accepted Indian suzerainty over them — are now angry and in revolt. As a result, they have suffered brutality and human rights violations at the hands of the Kashmiri police and the Indian army.

What is surprising is that Trump claimed that Modi requested him to be a mediator/arbitrator in Kashmir. India denied this, immediately, forcefully and categorically.

The not-to-be-deterred arbiter President Trump, only 10 days later, on August 2, repeated his mediation offer. This was another insult to Modi. Perhaps, he could just not take this any more. His message to the American president had to be driven home fast. Trump had to be told in no uncertain terms to keep his hands off the disputed territory that India has claimed as its own. A Hindu nationalist who shrugged off a massacre that took more than 2,000 lives in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002 under his stewardship, Modi could not be expected to care for Kashmiri lives.

One can assume that to Modi’s mind what could create a better impact than a scheme he had been planning for years but never got down to implementing? Get rid of Article 370 and integrate Kashmir fully into India.

This really has worked. A week later, the Indian ambassador in Washington announced that Trump had declared that mediation offer was no longer on the table and that he had reverted to the longstanding policy of treating Kashmir as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan.

In the aftermath, an ugly situation surfaced in South Asia. On one hand, Pakistan, which is emotionally and strategically tied to Kashmir, has once again demonstrated its helplessness in winning justice for the Kashmiris, whose cause it has championed for so long.

Prime minister Imran Khan’s statement in this regard: ‘questioning once again the international community’s silence on Indian-occupied Kashmir’ reflects his disappointment. Narendra Modi, on the other hand, is gloating about his move and has described it as an act that ‘would restore the region to its past glory’ and said Kashmir will play an ‘important role’ in India’s development.

In a tit-for-tat firing across the line of control in Kashmir, eight soldiers — three Pakistani and five Indian — have already been killed in a day.

With all attention focused on Kashmir, the Qatar talks on Afghanistan have slipped from public memory. The eighth round of the Doha talks has been adjourned without any clear announcement being made.

The reports are conflicting. Some say the interlocuters are consulting with their bosses. Others say they are deadlocked on the two ticklish items on the agenda: the ceasefire and withdrawal schedule and the intra-Afghan talks that will determine the future political structure of the country.

So far, the Taliban have been adamant in their refusal to meet Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani, dubbing him an American stooge. Without an agreement on these issues, Afghanistan’s future is uncertain, as the Taliban would likely seize control as soon as US forces withdraw. The 2,400 American lives lost in 18 years of fighting and the $900 billion spent would all be in vain.

Can Pakistan step back from helping any further? One cannot say that with accuracy. With Kashmir in a real mess, would Pakistan desire to push the Taliban any further? Does Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence agency really have a hold on the Taliban any more?

Remember that the Frankensteins created by such agencies have more often got out of control. In that case, is it likely that Trump would win the election next year?

All this and all the other questions about world peace can well be asked just because Trump really did not have a clue.

And so, the moral of this write-up needs to be reconfigured. My year old grandson Arhaan, keeps singing all day, his favourite tune:

Wheels of the Bush, go lound and lound

All they long, all they long

The doors of the Bush go open and shut

All they long, all they long!

The lyrics depict exactly what is going on behind the doors.


Nazarul Islam is a former educator based in Chicago.

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