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Trump just cranked up the rivalry between two nuclear giants

  • President Donald Trump's Monday night comments on Pakistan and India could worsen ties between the two rivals
  • The leader should be seeking to unite the South Asian giants, not encouraging divides, experts said

President Donald Trump blasted Pakistan for being a terrorist hotbed on Monday and stressed the need for stronger ties with India in remarks likely to worsen ties between the two nuclear-armed rivals.

During a speech focused on U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan, Trump accused Islamabad of harboring militants and warned of consequences if the government didn't crack down on sweeping fundamentalism.

"The U.S. can no longer be silent about Pakistan's safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban and others, that pose a threat to the region and beyond ... No partnership can survive a country's harboring of militants," he said.

A few sentences later, the leader brought India into the equation.

"The U.S. will further develop its strategic partnership with India," Trump said, referring to the realm of counter-terrorism. Washington wants New Delhi to help more with Afghanistan in areas of economic assistance and development, he added.

'Playing sides'

While previous U.S. administrations have long echoed similar views, siding with India immediately after criticizing Pakistan is a risky gambit, according to strategists.

Trump's comments are polarizing a deeply divided region, said Jan Zalewski, a senior South Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft. Islamabad views New Delhi as a key national security threat, so the U.S. praising India while chiding Pakistan isn't likely to go down well, he explained.

President Donald Trump speaks during his address to the nation from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21, 2017.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump speaks during his address to the nation from Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21, 2017.

Both South Asian giants, who are historical arch-enemies, face numerous threats from international and regional terror groups, including the Islamic State, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, Lashkar e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

Pakistan witnessed 734 terrorist attacks in 2016, according to recent figures by the U.S. State Department, compared to India's 927 incidents and Afghanistan's 1,340 figure.

"The fact that Trump is taking sides could hurt counter-terror initiatives between India and Pakistan," said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

"He shouldn't be playing favorites. The ideal U.S. strategy should be uniting India and Pakistan because both these countries are victims of regional terror groups," he added.

In the past, New Delhi and Islamabad have attempted to strengthen joint counter terrorism operations, but territorial clashes, particularly concerning the disputed region of Kashmir, emerge as regular obstacles.

Domestic groups executing attacks against Pakistan's civilian and government targets include the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban and its affiliated Haqqani Network. India's homegrown threats, meanwhile, range from armed Christian separatists in Assam to Maoist rebels.

Worrying outcomes

Trump's comments could enable hardliners in Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's administration to take a stronger stance against Islamabad, warned Alexander Capri, visiting senior fellow at the National University of Singapore.

"Look at what happened with Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Qatar after Trump's first trip overseas, where he emboldened Sunni Gulf countries to take action against Iran and its Shia stakeholders." The same kind of dynamic could unfold with India and Pakistan, Capri continued.

In fact, Trump's remarks could even increase terrorist activities.

"Many terrorist groups in Pakistan maintain an overtly anti-Indian agenda, [so] a significantly increased Indian role in Afghanistan would likely increase terrorism risks against Indian targets in Afghanistan and in India itself," warned Zalewski.

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