Why America can’t escape its role in the conflict between India and Pakistan

Indian soldiers stand guard before the release of Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan, who was captured by Pakistan on Wednesday, at Wagah border, on the outskirts of the northern city of Amritsar, India, March 1, 2019. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui - RC18DC9844C0
Editor's note:

With perhaps the exception of the Korean peninsula, India and Pakistan represent the world’s most likely venue for nuclear conflict, writes Joshua White. This piece originally appeared in The Atlantic.

Here is what we know about the most serious India-Pakistan crisis in more than a decade. On February 14, the Pakistan-based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked a paramilitary convoy in Pulwama in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. India, on the cusp of a general election, retaliated against its neighbor in the early hours of February 26 with a deep air strike targeting a terrorist camp near the town of Balakot, squarely within Pakistani territory. The following day, Indian and Pakistani forces were involved in an air skirmish in which at least one Indian MiG-21 was shot down; its pilot was captured and subsequently released. Both nuclear-armed countries placed their military forces on alert, and sustained vigorous artillery barrages across the Line of Control that divides them.

Although it might be too early to reconstruct precisely what transpired, the crisis yields some important lessons for the United States. With perhaps the exception of the Korean peninsula, India and Pakistan represent the world’s most likely venue for nuclear conflict. And Washington remains deeply involved with both countries, viewing India as a long-term partner that can play a supporting role in blunting China’s rise, and Pakistan as a frustrating but indispensable player in the negotiations to conclude America’s 17-year war in Afghanistan.

One unpleasant lesson is that the United States cannot meaningfully inhibit the sort of Pakistani risk taking that might spark military escalation with its larger neighbor. Americans have tried for years to stop Pakistan from using proxy militants to frustrate India. They have attempted a dizzying array of strategies: Increase security assistance and decrease security assistance; broaden diplomatic dialogue and constrain diplomatic dialogue; pursue cooperative counterterrorism strikes and engage in unilateral counterterrorism strikes; encourage international engagement and press for international isolation; threaten, cajole, praise, plead, and ignore.

If anything, the past several weeks have served as a reminder that neither the United States nor India has the tools to fundamentally alter, in the near term, what has been a long-standing attribute of Pakistan’s foreign policy. Perhaps Pakistani leaders have made quiet efforts to rein in India-focused terrorists, but the outcomes speak for themselves, and damningly: Attacks on Indian territory have continued unabated. It is foolish to assume that some uniquely clever or marginally novel combination of entrées from Washington’s policy menu will change this fact.

The United States can, however, still reduce nuclear risk in South Asia, first by helping India become more resilient in the face of terrorist provocation. Largely under the radar, U.S.-India partnerships in law enforcement, counterterrorism, intelligence sharing, and border security have advanced considerably, but even more can be done. With India’s political resilience in mind, U.S. officials should also encourage their Indian counterparts to rethink their often heavy-handed management of Jammu and Kashmir, which gives unintended succor to terrorist groups and other enemies of the state.

Meanwhile, Washington can deliver a clearer public message to Islamabad. It should assert that Pakistan bears responsibility for these attacks—not because of any incontrovertible public evidence that shows directive control by the state over terrorist organizations, but because the flagrant openness with which supposedly “banned” groups operate within Pakistan suggests, at minimum, a policy of intentional state negligence. The United States and its partners should avoid the temptation to engage the sudden bouts of hyper-legalism that afflict Pakistani leaders following a terrorist attack in India, and focus instead on the uncomfortable truths that are already plainly in public view.

Moreover, together with its allies, the United States should continue to take steps to limit Pakistan’s access to global financial markets, and perhaps even the largesse of international financial institutions, until Pakistan demonstrates that it is meaningfully addressing the fundraising and operations of India-focused terrorist groups. This is best done matter-of-factly and without bluster, building on U.S. officials’ recent efforts in the Financial Action Task Force. Granted, Pakistan’s security elite are unlikely to fundamentally change course, and even Prime Minister Imran Khan—who has secured large loans from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to temporarily bolster Pakistan’s weak macroeconomic position—might feel like he does not need the wider financial backing that the United States can provide. Nonetheless, Pakistan’s economic self-isolation might, over a longer horizon, serve to clarify for the country’s elites the real choices they face.

Although some Pakistani officials admit in private that groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed are indeed a scourge of the state, they fret about “blowback” should the government act overwhelmingly against them. Americans might scoff at this argument. But ordinary Pakistanis have indeed suffered greatly from terrorism and fear poking a hornet’s nest. When I traveled to Pakistan in January, I was astonished at how dramatically the fear of terrorism had subsided; there was a palpable optimism about tourism and a return to normalcy.

The United States can and should find a way to acknowledge this concern while pointing out that Pakistan has already shown the world that it can deftly leverage all instruments of national power—law enforcement, media messaging, police and paramilitary forces, international partnerships, development assistance, and, of course, military operations—to degrade groups that it sees as a threat, such as the Pakistani Taliban. America’s message can be that uprooting India-focused terrorists is a decision that Pakistan itself has to make, one that speaks to its character and its desire to participate fully in the international community. Washington should signal that it will accept gradualism so long as Pakistan’s efforts are thorough and sustained.

There is a second important and unpleasant conclusion that American policy makers can already draw from these recent events: The decision not to inhibit Indian retaliation comes at some cost.

For many years after the 2001–02 crisis precipitated by a Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on the Indian Parliament, the political leadership in New Delhi sought to deflect Pakistani provocation, avoid escalation, and deny terrorist groups the satisfaction of disrupting India’s steady rise on the world stage. This strategy of restraint changed in September 2016, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded to a terrorist attack on an Indian army facility at Uri by conducting, and then publicly touting, so-called surgical strikes against terrorist infrastructure in Pakistani Kashmir. The strikes were of questionable tactical value. But what they lacked in producing deterrence they made up for in catharsis—Modi was widely hailed within India for his boldness. He was also lucky in that Pakistan chose to deny that the surgical strikes ever happened. As a result, many Indians felt confident that they had outmaneuvered their Pakistani rivals with a new template for action.

They also concluded that perhaps they had found a newly sympathetic ear in Washington. Some days after the attack at Uri, National Security Adviser Susan Rice telephoned her counterpart in New Delhi to offer American support; the readout of that call “reiterated [the U.S.] expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities.” Then, after India’s surgical strikes, a senior White House official struck a careful tone, but pointedly noted that “we do empathize with the Indians’ perception that they need to respond militarily.”

I served in the White House during this period, and remember well that Pakistani officials and media commentators were surprised and dismayed at these comments. They should not have been. Many of the most contentious negotiations in advance of the 2015 visit by the previous Pakistani prime minister—the last official White House visit by a Pakistani leader—revolved around what Pakistan would say and what its military would do regarding India-focused terrorists. Assurances had been given, and had not been kept.

If Uri was an inflection point, this latest crisis—with even more assertive Indian military actions accompanied by even stronger signals of American acquiescence to Indian retaliation—might be a watershed. After the terrorist attack on Pulwama, President Donald Trump hinted that “India is looking at something very strong,” and National Security Adviser John Bolton was quoted by the Indian government as being supportive of India’s right to self-defense against cross-border terrorism. Following India’s retaliatory strikes, however, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pivoted quickly, urging both sides to “exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost.”

India’s decisions since 2016 to retaliate against terrorist provocations are both politically explicable and emotionally satisfying. But they have also had the effect of raising the minimum, politically acceptable threshold of response in a way that makes future crises riskier. Over the past decade, I have observed or participated in more than a dozen war games that sought to model future India–Pakistan conflicts, and one lesson from those simulations is that neither party can reliably judge how or whether its retaliation will escalate the conflict closer to the nuclear threshold. Neither side can be assured that its move will be the final one.

For this reason, the recent crisis should prompt questions about the wisdom and sustainability of telegraphing that the United States will tacitly support a major act of Indian retaliation but will disapprove of further escalation by New Delhi even if Pakistan raises the stakes with a counterstrike.

One of the dirty little secrets of diplomacy is that exerting influence on friends is often harder than exerting influence on adversaries. The much-welcomed trend toward a deeper U.S.-India relationship has naturally raised each country’s expectation of support from the other in times of trouble. Perhaps American officials judge that counseling restraint of a close but independent-minded partner such as Prime Minister Modi in the face of sustained provocation would be pointless. Or that structural changes in the international system are making it harder for the United States to unilaterally influence the course of global emergencies. But at the very least, the February incidents should prompt U.S. planners to press New Delhi for more substantive U.S.-India conversations on crisis management; to find ways to publicly intimate that U.S. support for India during a crisis is in principle assured but in practice not unbounded; and to encourage their Indian counterparts to undertake realistic assessments of the value of military actions that generate more political fervor than actual deterrence.

The Trump administration is inundated with challenges around the world. But it should not duck the implications of the past few weeks. It needs to think carefully about how it deals with Pakistan’s risk taking, the implicit signals it sends to India about risk acceptance, and the still-inescapable American role in managing risk escalation in one of the world’s most unpredictable nuclear theaters.