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India-Pakistan Conflict & the U.S. Strategy for South Asia

Indian and Pakistani forces have been engaged in cross-border clashes since Feb 26 after New Delhi’s unprecedented airstrikes in Pakistan targeting a facility of the Islamist militant group, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), which killed 44 Indian paramilitary personnel in a Feb 14 suicide bombing. The fact that India has now abandoned its decades-old policy of restraint in the face of cross-border terrorism means that the risk of long-term conflict in South Asia has greatly increased. Such an outcome is a major threat to U.S. interests in the region and at a time when the Trump Administration is trying to find an exit from neighboring Afghanistan. Therefore, Washington needs to exercise diplomatic leadership to steer the two nuclear rivals towards de-escalation, but more importantly, mediate a new bilateral security arrangement.  

In a Feb 28 military press conference, a senior Indian Air Force commander, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor expressed happiness at Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan’s decision to release Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman. The Indian aviator was captured Feb 27 after his plane was shot down in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. His MiG-21 was engaged in a dogfight with Pakistani F-16s that crossed the border and struck military positions in Indian-administered Kashmir. Islamabad’s warplanes were retaliating against New Delhi’s Feb 26 air raid on a JeM facility in the town of Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Domestic Politics

The escalation of the conflict is rooted in domestic politics and the dispute over the Kashmir region, which dates back to when both countries became sovereign states in 1947. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has been in office for only six months and won the elections based on the promise of a Naya (New) Pakistan. He promised a transparent government that will fight corruption, develop the neglected infrastructure, and focus on an economy that will create jobs and investment opportunities. However, facing massive debt and a decrepit economy, Khan turned to Pakistan’s allies — China, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Turkey — to invest in his domestic agenda. Opposition parties criticized Khan for forcing the nation to make unrealistic commitments to allies, while far-right religious groups like Khadim Hussain Rizvi’s Tehreek-e-Labbaik Party ratcheted up criticisms against Khan regarding blasphemy and religious minority rights.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is up for re-election in polls scheduled for April and May. Modi is facing fierce opposition over what critics say is his poor governance, his inability to deliver economic opportunities, and his failure to project India’s power on the world stage. From Modi’s point of view, the Feb 14 attack comes as an opportunity to mobilize public opinion ahead of the parliamentary vote. He criticized his predecessor Manmohan Singh for not having the “courage” to conduct punitive action after the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai. At a rally in New Delhi, Modi promised, “We will take revenge for each and every drop of bloodshed” in the attack. Amit Shah, the head of Modi’s right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), said that India will not spare any acts of terror, and “India will carry more preemptive air strikes against [JeM].”

Meanwhile, across the border in Pakistan, there are militant groups, which Islamabad has historically used as proxy groups in the realms of national security and foreign policy. This decades-long policy of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment, unfortunately, has not yielded the strategic depth it has sought and instead has backfired to where Pakistan itself is a bigger victim of Islamist militancy and religious extremism. The Pakistanis have succeeded in suppressing a vicious insurgency that claimed some 80,000 lives since the U.S. launched its war in Afghanistan 18 years ago. However, they are unable and/or unwilling to rein in groups that launch attacks in not just India but also Afghanistan and Iran.

Even after the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attacks, a U.S.-led mediation process intensely pressured Pakistan to crack down on anti-India militant outfits like JeM, Lashkar-i-Tayyiba (LeT) and others; however, Islamabad has failed to do so. But as this latest escalation underscores, it is time for Pakistan to eliminate groups like JeM, which threaten not just the country’s national defense but also its political economy, which is already in meltdown mode. At the same time, New Delhi needs to find a negotiated settlement to the Kashmiri separatist struggle, which will not go away even if Pakistan-based militant activity was neutralized. India must also abandon inciting, supporting, and funding separatist movements in Pakistan’s Balochistan and Sindh provinces, and using Afghanistan’s intelligence service as a medium to advance dissent in Pakistan by amplifying Pashtun nationalism.

Regional Quandaries

Since September 2018, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad has been jetting around the world to set the table for peace talks with the Taliban and the Afghan government. He is relying heavily on Islamabad’s cooperation for any sort of success. Khalilzad’s repeated trips to Central Asian countries, the Gulf States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan reflect a foreign policy priority for the Trump administration to achieve before banking on any sizeable troop withdrawal. After six months of meeting various stakeholders, Khalilzad had a Pakistan-arranged meeting with one of the founding members of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Doha.

The dynamic between Washington and Islamabad concerning the Taliban talks means that Washington is under powerful pressure to use diplomatic leverage in Pakistan and India to bring immediate confidence-building measures and ease tensions. This will require Washington to reassess its transactional relationship with Pakistan.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called on Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to “avoid escalation at any cost” and to “exercise restraint” in the midst of the Kashmir crisis. Diplomatic words are powerful but have limited usage. Washington has a momentous opening with Islamabad to use diplomatic actions to end the crisis peacefully. It is an opportunity for Washington to demonstrate to Pakistan that bilateral relations go beyond a simple focus on security in the region and that there are essential vital economic and political interests at stake.

Diplomacy in Action

If the Trump Administration is to succeed diplomatically in South Asia, it must engage in a series of steps.

First, it is important for U.S. policymakers to realize the broader strategic goals and opportunities that exist in the current India-Pakistan crisis. Performing only immediate crisis management could lead both India and Pakistan to assert more military muscle and tolerate more risks. A sluggish economy in Pakistan and a lackluster financial market in India may boost emotional nationalism, but both markets will feel the blows of conflict.

Second, carefully managing bilateral U.S.-Pakistan relations could directly alter perspectives in Islamabad that see the United States as antagonistic, pro-Indian, and disinterested in Pakistan. President Donald Trump’s 2018 tweet boldly asserted that Pakistan “lies, deceit, and gives safe havens to terrorists” and publicly declared Pakistan as untrusted ally causing geopolitical challenges while aligning with a rival superpower, namely China.

Third, it is crucial that the White House correctly interpret the internal dynamics in both Islamabad and New Delhi, and not get locked into established policy frameworks. The India-Pakistan crisis has resurfaced and should not be relegated to a “global war on terror” framework or “state-sponsored terrorism.” The tensions between India and Pakistan could lead to poor calibration in their responses, resulting in inadvertent escalation.

If the United States fails to assert diplomatic clout to mitigate the India- Pakistan crisis, other major powers like China and Russia will surmise that the U.S. lacks the will or capability. Thus, these powers will fill the vacuum in South Asia. This will undermine Washington’s credibility as a reliable partner and cast doubt on the Afghan peace talks, broader stability issues, and economic interests in the region.

Dr. Qamar-ul Huda is Director of the Conflict, Stabilization and Development program at the Center for Global Policy (CGP). Prior to joining CGP, Dr. Huda was a Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Department of State Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs. He tweets at @qbhuda. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.