The White House is standing by President Donald Trump’s assertion India’s prime minister asked him to mediate the longstanding dispute between New Delhi and Islamabad over the Kashmir region.
“The president doesn’t make things up,” replied National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow when asked on Tuesday if Trump lied, adding the reporter’s question was “very rude.”
Pakistan has long sought U.S. mediation in the Kashmir dispute and Trump’s offer to get involved, made the previous day in the Oval Office where the U.S. president was hosting Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, immediately handed the visitor a significant diplomatic reward.
Trump’s remark, however, created an instant storm of controversy in India.
“I’d like to categorically assure the house that no such request was made by the prime minister to the U.S. president,” Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told parliament Tuesday as infuriated Indian lawmakers demanded a clarification.
Opposition leaders there are calling for a personal statement from the prime minister, Narendra Modi, to confirm that there was no change in India’s policy of addressing the Kashmir dispute with Pakistan bilaterally.
Trump’s statement on Monday marks a significant change from the long existing stance in Washington that the Kashmir dispute must be solved bilaterally.
“As the president made clear, the United States stands ready to assist if requested by both India and Pakistan,” a senior Trump administration official told VOA late Monday, when asked to respond to India’s denial that Prime Minister Modi asked Trump to mediate the Kashmir issue.
The State Department also tried to clarify the president’s remarks.
“While Kashmir is a bilateral issue for both parties to discuss, the Trump administration welcomes Pakistan and India sitting down and the United States stands ready to assist,” tweeted Alice Wells, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia.
India has long drawn a red line over any suggestion that a third party could assist the two long-time rivals in solving the intractable dispute over Kashmir, the Himalayan region divided between India and Pakistan, and claimed by both nations.
“Trump not only blew past that red line, he threw masala on the wound by suggesting that Modi asked him to mediate, which is likely 1,000 percent a lie,” said Vipin Narang, associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “With U.S.-India relations already struggling and India’s S-400 missile purchase (from Russia), this just added fuel to the fire.”
The Pakistani prime minister, Tuesday on Twitter, took a swipe at India’s criticism of the American president, saying he was “surprised” by India’s reaction to Trump’s offer of mediation for an issue which, according to the Pakistani leader, has held the subcontinent hostage for 70 years.
Speaking later at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, Khan said the only solution to the territorial dispute is to let the people of Kashmir, which has a Muslim majority, decide their fate.
India has been demanding that Pakistan take steps to dismantle the infrastructure of Islamist militant groups based in Kashmir. Islamabad denies it supports such organizations.
Kashmir has been the cause of two of the three wars between India and Pakistan and continues to be a flashpoint between the nuclear-armed neighbors.
“It is easy to dismiss Trump’s ignorance on this issue as someone always keen to mediate and negotiate,” says Narang. “But the president opened a hornet’s nest and it may take a lot of working level effort – or maybe even a concession or two on trade – to assuage a rightly infuriate Indian government over this remark and to start righting the ship in the U.S.-India relationship.”
The U.S. editor of the Financial Times, Edward Luce, calls Trump’s Kashmir comment “among the most consequential mistakes he has made.”
Luce, author of ‘The Retreat of Western Liberalism,’ asserts the statement has caused “instant harm to Trump and America’s interests” by angering India, it’s natural ally as the best bulwark against a rising China and “pollutes whatever trust remained between him and Modi.”