Managing Crisis in South Asia: Avoiding Armageddon Again

Every American President has dealt with tensions between India and Pakistan since the two countries gained their independence in 1947. Some U.S. leaders helped stop wars, while others kept conventional wars or crises from escalating to nuclear war. At present, tensions between India and Pakistan are heating up again. Clashes in Kashmir along the Line of Control have been more frequent and intense this year than they have been over the past several years. As India prepares for a national election next year, political rhetoric is growing more alarmist and threatening about Pakistan, especially as its government continues to harbor and protect the terrorist masterminds that planned and executed the bloody attack on Mumbai in 2008. Should another crisis erupt between India and Pakistan in the next year, the U.S. government is unprepared to manage a conflict that threatens to destabilize the region and poses the risk of nuclear war.

American presidents have a long record of conflict management and engagement to avoid disaster in South Asia. It is no simple task; much depends on how strong America’s bilateral ties are with the two nuclear weapons states before tensions build. Dwight Eisenhower was the first American president in office to travel to India and Pakistan, and he had modest success in encouraging confidence-building measures between the two countries. President John F. Kennedy had to deal with the Chinese invasion of India in October 1962 at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, and he successfully prevented Pakistan from invading India and opening a second front during the war. President Lyndon B. Johnson managed the second Indo-Pakistan war in 1965 and cut aid to both countries to force a cease-fire.

By contrast, President Harry Truman’s terrible relationship with Prime Minister Nehru doomed his plan to persuade India to let an American war hero, Chester Nimitz, mediate the first Indo-Pakistan war fought over Kashmir. President Richard Nixon had an even worse relationship with India and its Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and he failed to prevent the third Indo-Pakistan war in 1971. President Gerald Ford’s administration also suffered from strained ties with India’s leaders by failing to head off India’s first nuclear test in 1974. These examples prove how U.S. involvement (or the lack of it) can significantly affect the trajectory of conflicts in the region.

At the moment, the Obama administration is facing an uphill task. America’s relationship with Pakistan is dysfunctional. Despite providing more than $25 billion in military and economic aid since the events of September 11 to fight al Qaeda, there is virtually no trust between Washington and Islamabad. Each backs opposite sides in the conflict in Afghanistan, creating a proxy war between their respective Afghan clients. Additionally, U.S. drones have carried out almost 400 lethal strikes inside Pakistan since 2004, and because the attacks are so unpopular within the country, Pakistan’s newly-elected Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, recently asked President Obama to cease U.S. drone operations in the region.

On November 1, a drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who claimed credit for killing seven CIA officers and planting a car bomb in Times Square. Unfortunately, Mehsud was also being pursued by Prime Minister Sharif to negotiate a peace settlement to resolve Pakistan’s domestic terrorism issues. This led some politicians in Pakistan to call for revenge, including cutting off the supply line for NATO forces in Afghanistan, which would jeopardize the withdrawal of troops scheduled for next year. Clearly, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad is in deep trouble and unlikely to improve in the near future.

America’s relationship with India’s current government is much healthier; Obama had a useful summit with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the early fall, and while no major initiatives were announced, bilateral ties are strong and vibrant.

However, the leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate for next year’s election, Narendra Modi, is not welcome in America, as his visa application in 2005 was denied and his previous visa was annulled. Though Mr. Modi is a controversial figure, the U.S. government needs to bring him to the table as a potential player if it is serious about maintaining stability in South Asia. If the U.S. government can grant a visa to Pervez Musharraf (who overthrew a democratically elected Prime Minister in 1999 and stands accused of complicity in the murder of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto), it can certainly talk to Mr. Modi as well. President Clinton had a productive visit to India while the BJP was in power, and the State Department should reach out to the party leadership now, instead of waiting for a crisis or for Mr. Modi to win the election.

We can all hope that India and Pakistan will not face off in another crisis within the next few years, but history and the current state of affairs in the region suggests it is all too likely. As such, U.S. leaders should focus on strengthening their relationships with key political figures in India and Pakistan to better prepare for managing another conflagration between the nuclear-armed neighbors.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by the Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.