Trump Doesn’t Want to Play Peacemaker
With the United States missing in action in the India-Pakistan crisis, others need to step up.
Pakistan’s return of the captive Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman to India on March 1, two days after his plane was shot down over Pakistani territory in a dogfight, has been welcomed as the potential beginning of the end of the latest violent flare-up between the two countries. But the crisis may not yet be over, and the sudden possibility of war between two nuclear powers has highlighted the risks posed by the Trump administration’s recusal from the United States’ past role as global leader and peacemaker.
Three elements of this crisis highlight the growing risks of conflict in the region—and the worrying absence of the United States.
First, the level of violence at each stage of the current crisis has exceeded previous flash points, including the 2001-2002 crisis following a terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The Pulwama suicide bombing that killed more than 40 Indian soldiers in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir was directed by the Pakistan-based terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM); the Indian airstrikes at Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the retaliatory Pakistani airstrikes that led to the downing of two Indian fighter jets upped the ante. Unless India and Pakistan can reach a broader understanding from this conflict, this escalation will continue into the next crisis.
Second, any miscalculation by these two nuclear powers could be cataclysmic. The announcement by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan that he would convene the National Command Authority, the military-civilian committee charged with governing the use of nuclear weapons, as part of the country’s response to India’s airstrikes against Balakot had the effect of highlighting the risks of continuing a violent cycle. But it also emphasized how short the slope from conventional to nuclear weapons has become in the conflict. This is especially worrying given the decentralized command and control structures of both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces. Given the growing differential between India’s conventional forces and their Pakistani peers, there is also a serious risk that Pakistani commanders could rush to the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis. These two large and nuclear-equipped forces operate in close proximity, and anytime tensions are high, the risk of a disastrous miscalculation grows.
Third, amid the discussion of strikes and counterstrikes, it remains true that terrorists based in Pakistan—and effectively tolerated, if not actively supported, by the army—started this crisis and could still make it worse. Pakistan’s denial of responsibility for the Pulwama attack was a denial of reality, accentuated further by Pakistan’s foreign minister appearing to acknowledge contacts between his government and JeM in an interview on March 1 with the BBC. Another terrorist attack in India would reignite the crisis, and given JeM’s success at Pulwama in spurring chaos in the region, a copycat effort seems plausible, even likely. So long as terrorist groups are permitted space to operate in Pakistan, and so long as Pakistan sees strategic benefit in maintaining a proxy militant capability against its neighbors, another attack is inevitable.
Amid these grim observations, the good news is that Pakistan’s return of the Indian pilot backs up Khan’s call to de-escalate the current conflict. But while the violent pique has diminished, the conflict continues. Heavy shelling continues along the contested Line of Control, which separates Pakistani- and Indian-controlled Kashmir, killing at least eight civilians in the last week. Forces on both sides remain on heightened alert. To prevent a resumption of the crisis, four meaningful steps are needed to restore order and address India’s legitimate terrorism concerns.
First, the 2003 cease-fire agreement brokered between the two sides that governed the types of defensive weapons that could be used along the disputed boundary should be reinstated. This is far from the first time the agreement has been breached, but it remains the best means of reducing the risk of civilian and military casualties from minor border disputes and maintaining a degree of normalcy on both sides of the Line of Control. Even before the current crisis, cease-fire violations along the Line of Control had steadily increased in recent years. In the two weeks since the Pulwama attack, heavy artillery has been used by both sides for the first time since the 1999 Kargil conflict. Earlier in 2018, the Indian and Pakistani armies reinstituted regular contact between their respective operational commanders via a hotline established under the cease-fire agreement; such contact, including at the tactical level between border units, is also important to prevent provocations from exploding into conflict.
Second, Pakistan must take steps to impose restrictions on India-focused terrorist groups operating in its territory, including JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and whose founder, Hafiz Saeed, was pictured sitting near the Khan government’s minister of religious affairs at an event last September. Pakistan took a small step in this direction following the Pulwama attack by raiding JeM’s publicly acknowledged headquarters in Bahawalpur, Punjab. But such steps are easily reversed, and the Khan government subsequently downplayed the raid. Asset seizures, arrests, and other law enforcement actions against JeM are likely the minimum threshold for action.
Third, China must end its long opposition to the imposition of U.N. sanctions against the JeM’s leader, Masood Azhar. France, Britain, and the United States co-sponsored the enforcement of sanctions last week in New York. Beijing should take the responsible step of publicly committing to support the sanctioning of Azhar in the interest of ending the current India-Pakistan crisis. Pakistan’s foreign minister told the BBC on Friday that Azhar was very sick—an excuse for declining to arrest him. Other press has indicated that he may be in renal failure and is being treated at a public hospital in Rawalpindi, near the Pakistani capital. But whether Azhar is alive or dead, it is long past time that sanctions be enforced against him and all of his known associates. After all, the U.N. terrorist sanctions regime also includes clear procedures for removing the names of deceased terrorists.
Finally, the first cross-border airstrikes in decades and the short-fuse nuclear weapons capabilities that exist mean that the international community should seek to introduce a new conflict-monitoring regime in the region. New, commercially available high-resolution imaging has been used to great effect in the North Korea context, to improve awareness of nuclear and missile technology developments. Introducing additional monitoring and surveillance tools, ideally through a cooperative framework between India and Pakistan, would reduce the risk of escalation in future crises and help reduce the saliency of facts produced from a viral flash mob of the type that occurred during last week’s crisis. The tools could be used to monitor for cease-fire violations along the static Line of Control or in other ways, such as verifying defensive positions declared under the cease-fire agreement, which could be a source of conflict in the future. A third party, whether the United States, Britain, the United Nations, or someone else mutually agreed on by the two sides, could oversee the arrangement.
De-escalating this crisis is more likely with outside mediation. The United States has historically led the effort to de-escalate disputes between India and Pakistan, including after the 1999 Kargil War, the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. These efforts were pursued in cooperation with allies such as the U.K., which in the current crisis has already engaged at the highest levels to deliver clear messages.
Thus far there is no sign that the Trump administration plans to engage in any meaningful way. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have not engaged either leader. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have made calls to express solidarity with India following the Pulwama attack and to urge calm after last week’s airstrikes, but beyond this rhetoric, no broader effort appears to be underway to reduce tensions in a systematic way. No official travel to the region has been announced.
The United States would not have to do it alone. Regional powers, particularly China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, could mediate a de-escalation. There are signs of engagement with each power. All three coming together to press Pakistan to implement sanctions would be a meaningful conciliation for India, given their past records of helping Pakistan avoid international censure. All three stand to benefit from greater stability in the subcontinent. They are all large investors in Pakistan and see India as a growing economic partner—for manufacturing and IT exports in China’s case and oil and finance in the case of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
It is too early to put a lid on the post-Pulwama crisis between India and Pakistan. While there appears to be a clear path out of the current dispute, there is also an open slope toward the nightmare of a nuclear exchange. There is still time for the Trump administration to show up, but if Washington will not show leadership at this moment, others can and should engage.