Presidential gaffes rocking the diplomatic boat have become a common feature of life in Washington, as foreign diplomats will tell you, though in a hush-hush voice, especially after the fate of the British Ambassador Sir Kim Darroch, whose confidential memo to the Foreign Office in London, calling U.S. President Donald Trump's administration "inept," was leaked to the media. An enraged Trump called Darroch a "pompous fool," and said the White House would no longer work with the veteran British diplomat. Darroch thereupon resigned.
The recent working visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Washington also had its share of gaffes.
Khan came here, primarily, to mend fences with the U.S. and also persuade Trump to restart the discontinued economic and military aid which Pakistan received in the past. Pakistan badly needs a huge infusion of money to resuscitate its near-bankrupt economy, even though Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar have offered aid worth billions of dollars.
China's loans to Pakistan, many fear, will lock it in China's "debt trap." Even the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) latest $6 billion bailout is not without caveats, requiring Pakistan to resort to strict austerity measures, drastically raise taxes and devalue the Pakistani rupee; the IMF will also not allow its loans to be used for repayment of borrowing from China.
Notwithstanding the warm welcome for Khan at the White House, Trump did not lose sight of his goal: He wants U.S. troops to return from Afghanistan and needs Pakistan to help cobble a settlement on Afghanistan with the Taliban, which Pakistan is in contact with. Khan, for his part, promised to help the U.S. by bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. But U.S. experts, including Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Wilson Center, in media comments have said that it was one thing for Pakistan to simply bring the Taliban to the table, but a very different thing for Pakistan to convince them to agree to a cease-fire and talks with Kabul, which it has consistently and categorically rejected to this point.
With Khan sitting beside him, Trump made some off-the-cuff comments to the media – Americans, accustomed to being fed a daily dose of provocative comments by President Trump, were equally surprised – and in the process smashed a lot of diplomatic fine crockery.
Take his comment on Kashmir over which India and Pakistan have fought three wars. Trump claimed that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him at the recent Osaka G20 summit to mediate on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.
India which for decades has fiercely opposed third party mediation on Kashmir, was taken by surprise; Trump's remarks unleashed a storm of outrage in India, with the opposition parties in parliament demanding clarification from Modi. "I'd like to categorically assure the house that no such request was made by the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) to the U.S. President," Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, a former Indian ambassador to the U.S., told angry Indian lawmakers in parliament, categorically denying Trump's claims.
To assuage tempers in India, which plays a pivotal role in the U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific region, a senior U.S. official said that President Trump had stated that the United States "stands ready to assist, if requested by both India and Pakistan;" this has also been the position of past U.S. administrations that have viewed Kashmir as a bilateral issue between India and Pakistan. Past U.S. administrations – the Trump administration has not changed this position despite the President's faux pas – were willing to offer mediation on Kashmir provided both India and Pakistan explicitly wanted it.
The State Department also moved swiftly in damage-control mode to douse the diplomatic conflagration that Trump's remarks could cause. "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. Top strategists and writers reacted with bewilderment at the comments, The U.S. editor of The Financial Times, Edward Luce, described Trump's Kashmir remarks as "among the most consequential mistakes he has made," that could cause "instant harm to Trump and America's interests" by angering India, its natural ally as the best bulwark against a rising China, and "pollutes whatever trust remained between him and Modi."
The Afghan comment
But then Trump made yet another bizarre comment: He could have Afghanistan "wiped off the face of the earth," but did not "want to kill 10 million people." He maintained "I could win that war in 10 days."
As expected, Afghans did not take kindly to this comment. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's government issued a sharply worded statement, emphasizing that Afghanistan expected its relationship with the United States to be "grounded on common interests and mutual respect."
Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai described Trump's remarks as insulting to all Afghans, and said the remarks confirmed the suspicions of many Afghans that the U.S. had made "secret deals" with Pakistan to undermine Afghanistan's sovereignty.
Prime Minister Khan also made some inaccurate remarks during an interview with Fox News, claiming that Pakistan's military intelligence agency ISI had secretly tipped off the CIA on the whereabouts of the world's most wanted terrorist Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.
Khan's claims are refuted by the behavior of the Obama administration which, in fact, kept its covert operation for bin Laden's capture a secret from the Pakistani government. Indeed, former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, said that he was "absolutely convinced" that Pakistan's intelligence agencies did not know bin Laden was in Pakistan. Petraeus' remarks repudiated Khan's claim that the ISI gave the CIA a lead that helped the U.S. track down and eliminate bin Laden in 2011 In the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad. Experts rejected Khan's claim as incongruous with past Pakistani leaders' insistence that they had no knowledge about bin Laden's hideout in Pakistan.
Petraeus added that the U.S. found out from its own sources in Pakistan that bin Laden was near the Pakistan Military Academy in Abbottabad. "I figured out later that I had probably flown right over his compound in a helicopter as I went to address the cadets at the Pakistan military academy one time," he said. Petraeus, arguably the best-known American general of the post-Vietnam era, who is credited with a sharp reduction of violence during the American presence in Iraq, made these remarks during a talk at the Indian Consulate General in New York about the Indo-Pacific even as Khan was still in Washington.
Trump and Khan did warm up to each other. But Khan, who charmed many of his American interlocutors in Washington, will now have to deliver on his promises so that Trump can bring back U.S. troops from Afghanistan and, with an eye on next year's elections, claim to have achieved the elusive "peace with honor" in Afghanistan. If Khan's much-touted Naya Pakistan ("New Pakistan") continued with its old ways of double-dealing, it could close all doors for Pakistan and hasten its international isolation.
* New York-based op-ed contributor, expert on foreign affairs and global economics