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International relations

Trump steps in to defuse India-Pakistan tensions over Kashmir

President's calls to Modi and Khan set stage for US-led cooling of tensions

ISLAMABAD -- U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to step into the fray of India-Pakistan relations brought the first ray of hope toward resolving recent frictions between the two South Asian nuclear-armed neighbors.

Trump said on his Twitter account on Monday evening that he had reached out by telephone to the leaders of the two countries, urging both sides to reduce tensions.

"A tough situation, but good conversations," he wrote in a tweet after speaking separately to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Western diplomats and analysts said that the U.S. leader's involvement in the fractious relationship between India and Pakistan at the very least will help prevent tensions from further escalating.

"This is a chronic dispute between India and Pakistan. It's hard to imagine how this could be resolved easily or quickly," a Western diplomat in Islamabad told the Nikkei Asian Review on condition of anonymity. "Their [India and Pakistan] positions are in sharp contrast. Bridging their differences will take time."

The move by Modi's government on Aug. 5 to end the special status for Kashmir prompted a wave of protests in the part of the divided mountainous region administered by India. Pakistan's leaders reacted to the decision by claiming that the withdrawal of Kashmir's special status would inevitably lead to the Indian government encouraging non-Muslims from other parts of India to resettle in Kashmir and reduce its Muslim majority to a minority.

Recent reports from Kashmir suggest that conditions remain tense across the main population centers of the Indian-administered region, where curfew-like conditions prevail. Schools in the area on Monday reported a virtual absence of students when Muslim children were due to return after last week's Eid al-Adha festival marking the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.

"The U.S. president's involvement in this matter is a very positive development," Abdul Basit, Pakistan's former ambassador to India, said in an interview with Nikkei. "I hope this will build up pressure on both sides" to reduce tensions. Basit added that it would be important to gauge exactly how the U.S., which has long-standing ties with both countries, will pursue further steps in order to defuse tensions.

The decadeslong dispute over the division of Kashmir -- a territory that remains split between the two countries, with a smaller geographical slice under Chinese control -- is rooted in the independence of India and Pakistan from British colonial rule in 1947. India and Pakistan have since fought three major wars and many skirmishes, notably along their temporary border in Kashmir, known as the Line of Control.

Since 1989, a popular defiance has raged in the area of Kashmir under India's control. Indian officials have repeatedly accused Pakistan of arming and sending militants from hard-line Islamic groups to fight against Indian army and paramilitary troops in Kashmir. Pakistan, however, has repeatedly said that the uprising has grown mainly because the people of Kashmir have become tired of remaining under Indian rule.

Global concerns over the India-Pakistan rivalry have mounted considerably since 1998, when Pakistan became a nuclear power. India became a nuclear power in 1974.

"The American interest is in preventing a war between Pakistan and India because both countries are armed with nuclear weapons," Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent Pakistani commentator on defense and security affairs, told Nikkei. "A war between India and Pakistan will definitely have implications for the wider international security environment."

In February, tensions between India and Pakistan mounted rapidly after a terrorist attack on Indian paramilitary soldiers in the region of Kashmir under Indian administration. The Modi government accused a Pakistan-based militant group for involvement in that attack, which was quickly followed by Indian airstrikes at a suspected militant training camp in Pakistan.

A day later, Pakistan retaliated with the shooting down of two Indian Air Force fighter jets and the capture of an Indian Air Force pilot.

"That attack [in February] was a wake-up call because it showed how quickly there was a military escalation between two nuclear powers," the Islamabad-based Western diplomat said.

Analysts said that U.S. involvement in India-Pakistan relations was likely driven by Trump's interest in securing a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Over the past 12 to 18 months, Pakistan has worked behind the scenes to press the Taliban, with whom it has long-standing contacts, to reach a peace agreement with the U.S.

An end to the war in Afghanistan would conclude Washington's longest-running war, which is now in its 18th year. "For President Trump, managing tensions between India and Pakistan is also vital for U.S. interests in Afghanistan," Basit said. "The U.S. doesn't want to allow an escalation [between India and Pakistan], because the risk is that Pakistan's attention will be diverted away" from helping the U.S. in Afghanistan.

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