Donald Trump has offered himself as a mediator to one of the world’s thorniest strategic disputes – the conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
Speaking in the Oval Office with Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan, Mr Trump said he was confident Islamabad would help the US reach a peace deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Then, to the astonishment of watchers of South Asia, Mr Trump claimed he had been asked by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to mediate between the two South Asian nations over the disputed territory of Kashmir. India later denied his claim.
The Himalayan region, part of which is controlled by both countries and to which both seek to claim in its entirety, has been the trigger for three major conflicts and numerous skirmishes, most recently in February.
“I was with prime minister Modi two weeks ago and he actually said, ‘Would you like to be a mediator, or an arbitrator’. And I said where? And he said ‘Kashmir’,” Mr Trump told reporters. “If I can help, I would love to be a mediator.”
Mr Trump, who recently visited the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas where he met North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has likely placed Indian diplomats and the country’s prime minister, in a difficult position.
India and Kashmir have have had three major conflicts over Kashmir, since the two countries won their independence from Britain in 1947. The latest was the Kargil War of 1999, while much of the world believed they would come to even more serious blows during a 2001-2002 standoff when both nations massed troops at their borders.
Kashmir, which has been a target for attacks by Pakistan-based militants for decades, also is the location for skirmishes and cross border firings between the two countries, as happened in February, after 40 Indian paramilitaries were killed in bomb attack.
Pakistan has long sought third party intervention to address the status of Kashmir, something Mr Khan repeated on Monday at the White House.
“The “prayers of over a billion people will be with you if you can mediate and resolve the situation,” said the sportsman turned politician.
Yet, since the 1972 Simla Accord, that was signed in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war in which Pakistan was defeated and the new country of Bangladesh emerged, Delhi has insisted Kashmir can only be resolved by the two nations. It has repeatedly rejected the offer of third party intervention.
Some commenters suggested Mr Trump may have misunderstood a request from Mr Modi to help stop the cross-border militant attacks, but expressed doubt he had asked the US president to mediate a broader settlement.
India later denied that it asked the US president to get involved in the issue.
“We have seen @POTUS’s remarks to the press that he is ready to mediate, if requested by India and Pakistan, on [the] Kashmir issue. No such request has been made by PM @narendramodi to US president,” foreign ministry spokesman Raveesh Kumar said on Twitter.
“It has been India’s consistent position, that all outstanding issues with Pakistan are discussed only bilaterally.”
Omar Abdullah, a grandson of Sheikh Abdullah, Kashmir’s first political leader and former chief minister of Indian-controlled Kashmir, said on Twitter: “Personally I think @realDonaldTrump is talking out of his hat when he says @PMOIndia asked for US involvement in solving the Kashmir issue.”
Mr Trump also said in the Oval Office, the US could wipe Afghanistan “off the face of the Earth” in a matter of days.
“If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week,” he said. “I just don’t want to kill 10m people.”