Trump Does an About-Face on Pakistan—and Blunders Into the Kashmir Dispute

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.

By Elias Groll and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on July 22.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to the media during a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington on July 22. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s trademark mix of ignorance and bluster was again on display Monday in a meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, where the U.S. president courted Pakistani help in Afghanistan, waded into a decades-old dispute over Kashmir, and angered India, the linchpin of Washington’s newfound Indo-Pacific strategy.

Trump coddled Khan in a bid to enlist Pakistani support for ongoing peace talks with the Taliban and floated a vague offer to restart billions of dollars in security aid in exchange for Islamabad’s help with the diplomatic initiative. Trump then went on to offer to mediate the conflict between Pakistan and India over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir—insisting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to mediate the conflict.

The Indian government immediately shot down the claim, which is at odds with decades of Indian foreign policy.

“No such request has been made by Prime Minister to the U.S. President,” said Indian government spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in a statement. “It has been India’s consistent position that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.”

U.S. officials have made feeble attempts to mediate the conflict in the last two decades, recognizing that the persistent rivalry between India and Pakistan over the territory since partition in 1947 has undermined efforts to end the war in Afghanistan, in addition to risking a nuclear war in South Asia. The Pakistani military maintains that it must support the Taliban in Afghanistan in order to counter Indian influence there.

Diplomats and regional experts have long argued that easing tensions between India and Pakistan, especially over Kashmir, could be key to ending decades of civil war in Afghanistan and severing Pakistani support for the Taliban and other militant groups that target India. But India has never sought to internationalize the dispute—and offering to do so only plays to Pakistan’s agenda.

“It’s an embarrassment to have a foreign government have to publicly fact-check the U.S. president within the span of [about] an hour,” said Alyssa Ayres, a former U.S. diplomat and scholar on India and Pakistan at the Council on Foreign Relations. (Rep. Brad Sherman, the California Democrat, wrote on Twitter that he had attempted to clean up the mess made by Trump by apologizing to India’s ambassador to the United States.)

“At no point is it a helpful thing to suggest that the United States can mediate between India and Pakistan,” Ayres said. “One country always asks for mediation—Pakistan—[and] the other country avowedly rejects it.”

Khan’s visit to the White House on Monday focused on Pakistan’s role in the ongoing negotiations with the Taliban. Trump wooed Khan by floating the possibility of restoring security aid to the country, which the United States ended last year after Trump said Pakistan continued to shelter terrorist groups, such as the Haqqani network, as well as maintaining its lingering ties to the Taliban. In a tweet at the time, Trump wrote that Pakistan had “given us nothing but lies & deceit.”

On Monday, Trump sang a different tune, saying “Pakistan never lies” and raising the possibility of restoring billions of dollars in security aid. “All of that can come back, depending on what we work out,” Trump said.

Trump’s attempt to mend ties with Pakistan comes as he struggles to end the longest war in U.S. history and reach a peace agreement with the Taliban. U.S. negotiators have in recent months made progress in talks with the militant group, but the White House would still like to secure the support of Pakistan, which has for decades provided covert support and shelter to the Taliban.

In the meeting, Trump suggested successful peace talks would be the best solution for a conflict that could be won “in a week,” except he said he doesn’t “want to kill 10 million people,” a bewildering reference to an overwhelming—perhaps nuclear—U.S. attack inside Afghanistan that befuddled many in the U.S. Defense Department. Afghanistan is a partner country in Washington’s fight against the terrorist group that hosted al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden when he carried out 9/11.

Khan arrived in Washington with his top military officer and the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, which has long managed Islamabad’s relationship with militant and terrorist groups.

The U.S. peace initiative has been fraught with difficulty. Officially, the Taliban does not recognize the legitimacy of the Afghan government and views it as a foreign puppet. It has refused to hold official talks with the government, and Kabul has complained about being excluded from the talks.

U.S. officials hope Pakistan might be able to help bridge some of these divides and publicly Khan offered support for Trump’s initiative.

“This is the closest we’ve been to a peace deal in Afghanistan,” Khan said at the White House. “We hope that in the coming days we will be able to urge the Taliban to speak to the Afghan government and come to a settlement—a political solution.”

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, is continuing to move forward with talks and will be in Afghanistan and Qatar in the next week. In Qatar, he will resume talks with the Taliban, and in Afghanistan he will be focusing on identifying a delegation of Afghans who could serve as participants in talks with the militant group, according to a statement from his office.

But after nearly two decades of conflict, some experts are skeptical of whether Pakistan can help broker a meaningful peace deal. Elements of Pakistan’s government, including its intelligence services, have long funneled arms to the group and used it as a way to exert influence beyond its borders in Afghanistan. Many in the Pakistani military see greater influence in Afghanistan, earned by decades of support for armed militants, as a way to gain strategic depth in their rivalry with the much larger India.

“How important and how uniquely helpful Pakistan can be, it’s hard to know,” Ayres said. “We’re at that point [in negotiations] where you want to try to marshal all elements of help and support that you can” in the peace deal, she said.

“But should we be cynical, and should we be skeptical? You bet.”

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer