Trump officials are working the phones, but “the U.S. position seems to be ‘You guys figure it out yourselves.’”
It isn’t clear if the United States can wield the same diplomatic authority to resolve this week’s crisis in Kashmir that it has used to help defuse previous disputes between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, former officials and regional experts say.
Nor, say some former officials, does it appear that the U.S. is trying.
For several days, India and Pakistan have stood at the brink of a crisis in Kashmir. The current state of tension started after a Feb. 14 suicide bombing killed at least 40 Indian soldiers. Pakistan categorically denied responsibility for the attack, blaming local extremists. India responded by sending aircraft across the Line of Control for the first time since the 1971 Indo-Pakistani War, dropping two payloads. Skirmishes have flared along the border and on Wednesday, Pakistan shot down two Indian aircraft during an aerial dogfight, leading to the capture of an Indian pilot.
The United States has intervened diplomatically in past crises. In 1999, a meeting between then-President Bill Clinton and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ended months of tense escalations that U.S. intelligence reports suggested might end in the unthinkable.
But in the current dispute, “I think U.S. leverage with Pakistan is waning and is seen as having moved towards India,” said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institute. “I think the U.S. does have a role to play, but I think it will have less influence than it used to traditionally.”
Under Trump, the United States has taken a harsher line on Pakistan. U.S. officials have all-but-publicly backed India in the conflict. National Security Advisor John Bolton said after the Feb. 14 attack that the United States supported “India’s right to self-defense.” The administration last year suspended $300 million in security assistance to Pakistan pending more “decisive action” against terrorist groups whose presence in Pakistan is widely believed to be tolerated, and in some cases supported, by Islamabad. The United States has no ambassador to Pakistan and no assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian Affairs.
“The U.S. position this time seems to be, ‘you know what, you start these things every few years, it always starts with a terror strike by Pakistan and it always ends with escalation and American has to defuse it. This time, you guys figure it out yourselves,’” former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Thursday.
Asad Majeed Khan, Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador, on Wednesday called for more “active involvement” from the United States to help defuse the crisis and argued that the failure of the U.S. government to condemn the Feb. 25 Indian airstrikes “has been construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position and that is what emboldened them.”
President Donald Trump told reporters in Hanoi that the United States has “been involved in trying to have them stop.”
“We’ve been in the middle trying to help both out to see if we can get some organization and peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening,” Trump said. The Pentagon said in a statement that Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was focused on “de-escalating tensions and urging both of the nations to avoid further military action,” while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged both nations in a statement to “prioritize direct communication.” Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford spoke to Pakistan Chief of Defense Gen. Zubair Mahmood Hayat, while Pompeo has spoken to his counterparts in both India and Pakistan.
Complicating the situation for the United States are the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban over the war in Afghanistan. After the Feb. 14 attack, the Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan issued what onlookers saw as a veiled threat to the United States: any retaliation by India on Pakistan would “affect the stability of the entire region and impact the momentum” of the Afghan peace effort, he said.
U.S. defense officials have said that Pakistan, whose government is believed to maintain relations with Taliban senior leadership based in Quetta, has recently begun to play a more constructive role in the talks.
“It’s always been understood that Pakistan is clearly in a position to play spoiler,” said Jason Campbell, who until September served as country director for Afghanistan at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy. “What is different this time is that they were so blatant in making that clear.”
The latest Kashmir crisis also highlighted international frustration with Pakistan’s tolerance and tacit support for militant groups. The European Union notably did not condemn India’s actions while calling for de-escalation. Even China, traditionally an ally of Islamabad, issued a relatively neutral statement urging restraint from both sides.
In a speech on Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country was willing to work with Indian forces on a investigation of the suicide bombing. “We did this because it’s not in Pakistan’s interest that our land is used for any sort of attacks anywhere in the world. Nor should anyone from outside use Pakistan’s soil,” he said.
It’s not clear what capability Islamabad has to control militant groups based within Pakistan’s borders. Campbell suggested that the threat from Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan “smacked to some degree of desperation.” Members of extremist groups in Pakistan, such as the Milli Muslim League, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, ran candidates for office in recent national elections. James Dobbins, formerly President Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Defense One that Islamabad has “influence but not control” over the groups. “They see some utility in maintaining the pressure these groups apply on India, but I don’t think we’ve generally assessed that they have day-to-day control or that they plan operations.” (He noted some exceptions where there has been plausible evidence of a greater degree of alleged direction from Pakistani intelligence, in particular the 2008 Mumbai attacks.)
Kahn, Pakistan’s ambassador to the U.S., on Wednesday argued that Pakistan has made progress in curbing extremist elements and defended Islamabad’s efforts. “The point really here is, there a judicial process, Khan said to reporters in Washington. “You have intelligence that may not be admissible in the court of law.” Therefore, he said, it was not fair “to attribute non-action on the part of the government when there are judicial constraints that we have in terms prosecuting these individuals.”
Could Pakistan really deliver on international demands to tighten their grip on groups like the one that launched the Feb. 14 attack?
“The answer is probably not,” Dobbins said. “They could do more to rein in groups, but their priorities are to suppress groups that are anti-Pakistani and they’re reluctant to extend their list of enemies. They could change that, but it would come at some risk to the stability of the country.”
Dobbins said that it may not become necessary for the U.S. to engage more fully in the situation. Most analysts — as well as senior officials in the Trump administration — believe that Prime Minister Khan and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are looking for off-ramps. Khan on Thursday announced that Pakistan would be releasing the captured airman as a “gesture for peace.” Domestic politics still may inflame the situation; Modi is up for reelection in a few months and has built support on a muscular and jingoistic national security stance. And misinformation and fake news also continues to circulate on social media, fanning public outrage on both sides.
“Both sides say they want de-escalation. It’s all a matter of national pride on both sides,” Haqqani told NPR.
“The international community is tending more towards India this time, which is something that Pakistan realizes, and that serves as a check on the prospect of escalation. Nobody wants to start a war when they don’t have many countries on their side.”
If third-party mediation does prove necessary, China, and perhaps Saudi Arabia, may play more constructive roles in the short term, Madan and Dobbins suggested. China in particular “cares about this more than they ever have,” Madan said. It could make a difference “if Saudi and China say, ‘you’re messing up regional stability and our plans and we will not back you if you go down this route further,’” she said.
But others were dismissive that the U.S. couldn’t muster the necessary authority to conduct shuttle diplomacy if needed.
“I think the Pakistanis still listen to what Washington says, they’re still keen to maintain links to Washington,” Dobbins said. “Influence may be slightly higher with India than it was a decade ago and slightly lower with Pakistan than it as a decade ago, but that’s really on the margins.”
Patrick Tucker contributed to this article.