- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 28, 2019

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The United States and the international community “must do more” to pressure India to end its militarized curfew over Kashmir, Pakistan’s top diplomat in Washington said Wednesday, claiming that India’s prime minister has turned a vast section of the disputed Muslim majority region into “practically a concentration camp.”

Pakistani Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan lamented during a wide-ranging interview that millions of people inside Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir have been on lockdown without access to medicine or electricity, let alone telephones and internet, for nearly a month since the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi revoked the area’s special constitutional status.

“Thousands are being put in prison,” he said. “The world needs to be aware.”

Mr. Khan, in an interview with reporters and editors at The Washington Times, also weighed in on the prospect of a breakthrough in U.S. peace talks with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan and on Islamabad’s delicate balancing act as a partner of both China and the United States.

But it was the Kashmir issue that dominated. The ambassador praised President Trump for not taking sides in the decades-old conflict over the territory, but he said more must be done. He said “no other country has the same clout or influence as the United States of America to basically urge India, to nudge India.”

Raja Farooq Haider Khan, the prime minister of the Pakistani-controlled side of Kashmir, sought to promote the same message on a visit to Washington this week. He said in an interview Tuesday that he wanted “to give a wake-up call to the United States that [it] should intervene immediately.”

“It has all the capabilities,” said the prime minister, who called on the Trump administration to demand a meeting between Indian and Pakistani leaders to stave off an escalating standoff between the two nuclear-armed South Asian nations.

Mr. Trump has appeared this week to back away from an early August offer to mediate between India and Pakistan.

The president met with Mr. Modi at the Group of Seven summit in France on Monday and said he has “good relations with both” India and Pakistan. But when asked whether his offer to mediate was still on the table, Mr. Trump said, “I think that they can do it themselves. They’ve been doing it for a long time.”

Outrage in Islamabad

The diplomat’s comments reflect mounting Pakistani frustration over the Modi government’s deployment in early August of nearly 200,000 Indian troops to a central section of Jammu and Kashmir along India’s northern border.

With reports that the Indian forces were arresting hundreds of local Kashmiri political figures and cutting telephone and internet service across the territory, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan warned that India was on the verge of carrying out a major “ethnic cleansing” against Muslims in the territory and replacing them with Hindus from other parts of India.

Indian officials reject the allegations. The Indian Embassy in Washington said Wednesday that electricity is functioning in Indian-controlled Kashmir, telephone lines are being restored and “there is no shortage of medicines.”

“The precautionary and preventative measures put in place for public safety and maintaining law and order have been largely lifted,” Indian Ambassador Harsh Vardhan Shringla told The Times in a statement. “With regard to the comments of the Pakistan ambassador, we are not sure where he is coming from. We believe he is referring to conditions in the part of Jammu and Kashmir occupied by Pakistan.”

Mr. Modi has justified his moves on grounds that the territory’s previous status — some political autonomy and a ban on outsiders buying land and taking public sector jobs — had fueled a movement for separatism and was unjust for Kashmiri women.

But critics say the Indian prime minister is a Hindu nationalist bent on ending Muslim control over Kashmir.

India has actually laid down the ground to influence the demography of the state,” Ambassador Khan said. “They want to alter the ethnic composition of the state.”

He took specific aim at Mr. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claiming the Indian prime minister is aligned with Hindu nationalists who see India as a historic Hindu homeland ruled for too long by invaders.

Mr. Khan pointed to Mr. Modi’s history as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002, when the state was rocked by violence between Hindus and Muslims. That history haunted Mr. Modi upon his rise to prime minister in 2014, when the State Department briefly banned him from entering the United States because of allegations that he played a role in fomenting the violence.

“Look back at his career. He was someone who was banned from coming into the United States because of what he had done in Gujarat in terms of killing thousands of Muslims,” said the ambassador, although disputes have long lingered over the number of people who died in the 2002 riots.

Most accounts put the number of deaths at roughly 1,000 Muslims and as many as 300 Hindus.

Mr. Khan said India’s recent moves in Kashmir are “not just about the dispute over land but the right of self-determination of the people, and I think what India has done is try to take away the identity of a people by reconstituting the territory, by redesignating areas.”

Two-front challenge

More broadly, Pakistanis argue that India’s escalation in Kashmir is meant to keep its rival on edge by creating what the ambassador called a “two-front situation.” Pakistani leaders are already dealing with security developments on the nation’s border with Afghanistan, as Trump administration officials near a much-anticipated deal with the Taliban to end the war there and clear the way for U.S. and foreign troops to draw down their forces.

Analysts have long accused Islamabad of tolerating instability in Afghanistan to suit its own strategic needs, but Mr. Khan expressed high hopes for a breakthrough in the Taliban talks. He said Pakistani leaders have “played our part” in trying to bring about a deal.

He was, however, cautious about specific aspects of the negotiations and whether Pakistan would support a small U.S. counterterrorism force in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future — something the Pentagon has said it wants despite Taliban resistance to such a force.

The ambassador also declined to say whether the Taliban should be required to recognize the legitimacy of the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

“What is important is for all Afghans to be able to reach a common understanding …,” he said. “We also believe that a sustainable peace agreement is the one that all Afghans are able to sign onto.”

Noting the positive tone of Pakistani Prime Minister Khan’s recent visit with Mr. Trump at the White House, the envoy said it showed the two leaders want to “see a peace agreement reached in Afghanistan.”

He also praised U.S.-Pakistani relations more broadly. Noting that more remittance money flows into Pakistan’s economy from the nearly 1 million Pakistani Americans than from any other nation, the ambassador expressed hope for expanded economic ties.

Pakistan’s perceived ambivalence to the U.S.-led war on terror in the region and the discovery that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was living in Pakistan for years after the 9/11 attacks added strain to the complicated bilateral relationship. Mr. Trump earlier in his presidency attacked Pakistan and its leaders harshly on Twitter and at one point suspended nearly all U.S. security aid.

The president more recently hinted at restoring the aid during his meeting in July with Prime Minister Khan, a onetime international cricket star who appeared to have a rare kind of personal chemistry with Mr. Trump.

On a separate front Wednesday, Ambassador Khan defended his nation’s growing economic relations with China. He said Islamabad seeks close ties with both Washington and Beijing, even if U.S. officials are critical of Pakistan’s expanding embrace of sizable Chinese government loans and infrastructure financing.

“We never see these two relationships as mutually exclusive,” he said, asserting that Islamabad is relying on Chinese investments in infrastructure to help boost Pakistan’s export potential, which in turn will help the country pay back loans to the Western-aligned International Monetary Fund.

China “came to us at a time when no one else was even looking at us,” said Mr. Khan, adding that he would be happy to facilitate greater U.S. public and private investment in Pakistan’s economy.

He pushed aside the notion that Pakistan, an overwhelmingly Muslim nation, has stayed quiet about the Chinese government’s actions against the Uighur Muslim population in northwestern China while Washington and international human rights groups have sharply criticized the crackdown.

“We don’t normally comment on the internal affairs of friendly states and how they treat their minorities,” said Mr. Khan. “We have a long history of not interfering with Chinese affairs.”

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