Optimistic Tillerson

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) shakes hands with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Prime Minister's residence in New Delhi Oct. 25, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — In an effort that India is likely to snub once again, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has hinted that he is looking for a mediating role between India and Pakistan.

This would be the third foray by President Donald Trump and his administration into a touchy terrain from where three of his four immediate predecessors have beaten a retreat, and one, George W. Bush pragmatically stayed away from.

With Washington now promoting a larger global role for India as an anchor of stability in the Indo-Pacific region and as an emerging counterweight to China, the Trump administration could be looking for a way to lighten the drag of Pakistani problems on India.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva Oct. 26, Tillerson said that during his meeting with Pakistani leaders in Islamabad this week, "I made the observation to them, 'You have two very troubled borders. You have one in Afghanistan, you have one with India', and that we're willing to help on both of those borders, and we're not just here to talk about the situation on the Afghan border. We're also here to talk about how can we lower the tensions on the border with India."

He was not asked – and he did not say – if he had made a similar offer to Indian leaders.

His statement came despite a long history of New Delhi firmly rebuffing involvement by anyone in what it holds is a matter solely between the two neighbors.

New Delhi brandishes the 1972 Simla Agreement between then Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi of India and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto of Pakistan to strenuously oppose any third party involvement in disputes with Islamabad.

In the pact signed after the Bangladesh War, the neighbors agreed to settle disputes only by themselves, though Pakistan has since sought to involve others.

Tillerson said in Geneva that during his Islamabad visit Pakistanis mentioned their differences with India but did not talk much about U.S.-India ties.

Asked about Islamabad's reactions to Washington's plans to deepen relations with India, he said, "There was not a lot of discussion about that, other than they clearly have their differences with India, they have their concerns along their border with India."

In what may be a sop to Pakistan, he added, "There are legitimate concerns on both sides of that border as well."

During his campaign for the presidency, Trump had said, "I would love to be the mediator or arbitrator." But he carefully prefaced it with the caveat, "If they wanted me to."

"If we could get India and Pakistan getting along, I would be honored to do that," he said. "That would be a tremendous achievement."

In April, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Nikki Haley said about India-Pakistan tensions, "I would expect that the administration is going to be in talks and try and find its place to be a part of that (process) because it's concerned about the situation."

And heightening expectations, she added, "And also (I) wouldn't be surprised if the president participates as well."

India had swiftly rejected the offer, stating its position that any bilateral redressal of India-Pakistan issues can "only be held in an environment free of terror and violence."

For all the good intentions of U.S. presidents and U.N. secretary-generals, it is not just India's opposition to third party involvement that works against them, but Pakistan's powerful military syndicate buttressed by its history.

Kashmir, which India considers an integral and immutable part of India, is the core issue for which there can be no solution without Pakistan's military's agreement.

Keeping the Kashmir issue boiling – despite failing to get any active diplomatic support for its cause from anywhere in years – is the very source of the Pakistani military establishment's power. Dragging the U.S. or others into it is but Islamabad's ploy to try to weaken India's resolve – a ploy New Delhi understands.

The last – and perhaps the only – third party mediation was in 1966 when Soviet Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin brought Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri of India and Pakistani President Ayub Khan to Tashkent after the 1965 war.

They signed the Tashkent Declaration that was to be the framework for peace, undertaking to improve relations between the neighbors and not to interfere in each other's internal affairs. But it unraveled in five years.

Starting on a path strewn with hubris and failures, former President George H.W. Bush – the senior – tried to mediate between India and Pakistan in 1990 through his Deputy National Security Adviser Robert Gates to defuse mounting tensions as both countries massed troops along their border.

Gates is reported to have facilitated exchange of information between the two sides that de-escalated that particular tension – a claim India disputes.

However, Gates, who later became Defense Secretary under President Barack Obama, did not try to mediate the broader issues like Kashmir.

President Bill Clinton, who succeeded the senior Bush, suggested in 2006 that Washington seek a role in the neighbor's dispute. "I think the United States should be more involved there, even though I think they'll have to work out this business of Kashmir between themselves," he said.

But he was roundly rebuffed by Jaswant Singh, who was the external affairs minister.

George W. Bush, who followed him as president, however, was more attuned to New Delhi's sensitivities and took a realistic approach refusing to get involved in India-Pakistan disputes.

Condoleeza Rice, who was then his national security adviser, rejected in 2002 Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf's pleas for mediation. "The U.S.A. is always prepared to help in any way but we don't believe this is something that mediation or facilitation is going to help," said Rice, who later became the secretary of state.

Barack Obama backtracked and said after his 2008 election, "We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants."

But the idea was smothered by India's opposition – only for his successor's administration to release yet another trial balloon.

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in)

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