US President Donald Trump has claimed such involvement. He announced Thursday that the US was engaged in trying to help reduce tensions between India and Pakistan. “We have been involved in trying to help them (India and Pakistan) stop and we have some reasonably decent news,” Trump told reporters during a media briefing after his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam. He gave no details of precisely what role the US played. And Indian officials dismissed that the Trump administration was playing any role behind the scenes.
On the same evening that Trump made his prediction, after two days of strikes and counter-strikes, came Pakistan’s decision to release Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, captured in PoK, opening a path to de-escalation. The details of the behind-the-scenes diplomacy will become clearer only in the coming days, but there has been a long history of US engagement to defuse crises between the two neighbours, especially in the years after both countries went nuclear in 1998.
India has always insisted there is no room for a third party in its bilateral “issues” with Pakistan. It has resisted Pakistan’s attempts at internationalising the Kashmir problem, and mostly succeeded in making it clear to the world that it will not brook mediation over this.
But after 9/11, which ushered in a UNSC-backed international architecture against terrorism, India has looked increasingly to the global community for help with Pakistan on one issue: an end to the terrorist groups that flourish on Pakistani territory, to put pressure on the Pakistan Army and political leadership to desist from permitting anti-India terrorist activity on its territory, and to censure it when such attacks take place. In this, India has counted on its own growing economic and strategic clout.
The nuclearisation of India and Pakistan, and the 17-year-long US involvement against AfPak-based terrorism, has also drawn different US administrations, and other western countries, into the ever dysfunctional India-Pakistan relationship, but from the point of view of their own interests in the region.
China’s growing interest in South Asia, its “deeper than the sea, higher than the mountains” relationship with Pakistan, and Delhi’s influence with the OIC powers such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have added new dimensions to India-Pakistan crises and diplomatic efforts to resolve them.
Most notably, it was US intervention that brought the 1999 Kargil crisis to an end. The Vajpayee government had been in touch with the Clinton administration to get the Sharif government to call off the intrusion in Kargil even as it fought Pakistani forces. Security expert Bruce Reidel has written about how Nawaz Sharif arrived on July 3 in Washington seeking Bill Clinton’s help for a face-saving ceasefire with India that would include a settlement on Kashmir.
Others have written that it was then Pakistan Army chief General Pervez Musharraf who prodded Sharif to ask the US for help to end his misadventure. Ultimately, Sharif had no choice but to agree to an unconditional withdrawal of Pakistani forces from Kargil back to the Line of Control. Clinton reaffirmed the US commitment to the bilateral Lahore Declaration signed earlier that year as the best way forward for India and Pakistan to resolve Kashmir and other issues.
In 2002, the US dissuaded Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee from military retaliation against Pakistan after the December 2001 Jaish-e-Mohammed attack on Parliament. India had already mobilised over 500,000 troops to the border, and deployed missiles and other weaponry. Pakistan too had mobilised its army.
Apprehensive that a confrontation would take Pakistan’s attention off Afghanistan and trigger a nuclear war, and distract from the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda, the Bush administration rushed in to counsel restraint. Secretary of State Colin Powell, US Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill, and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage engaged in frantic diplomacy with the Vajpayee government.
Under US pressure, Musharraf, who had by then taken power in a coup, made a national address on January 12, 2002, in which he described the attack on Indian Parliament as a “terrorist” attack, equated it with 9/11, and announced a ban on Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish. Five months later, in May 2002, when terrorists killed 35 people in the Kaluchak Army camp in Jammu, India once again readied to strike. On Armitage’s word that Musharraf was sincere about reining in jihadi groups, Vajpayee was eventually persuaded to call off a military response.
Amid international shock, as India considered its options, the US worked the phones again to both countries, and asked the Manmohan Singh government to exercise restraint. In one episode, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had to travel to Delhi and Islamabad to counsel calm after a hoax caller pretending to be India’s then External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee called Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and threatened to attack Pakistan. The hoax call was later found to have been made by Omar Shaikh, the mastermind of the Daniel Pearl killing, from prison in Karachi.
Pakistani politician Khurshid Mohammed Kasuri, who was not in government at the time, has written about how Senator John McCain, who visited Pakistan on his way back from India, met him in Lahore and indicated to him that India was considering an airstrike against the Muridke headquarters of Lashkar. Pakistan had by then already started moving troops to its eastern order, once again making the US nervous about the Pakistan Army’s continuing focus on US enemies within Pakistan’s borders and in Afghanistan. But the US also worked to get Lashkar and its leader Hafiz Saeed designated under UNSC 1267, sending out tough messages.
At this time, the US is negotiating an exit from Afghanistan through a peace deal with the Taliban. Pakistan is heavily involved in this — the Taliban are an ISI proxy, though in recent years there has been some factionalism. The last thing the Trump administration wants is an India-Pakistan conflagration. The latest escalation also comes at a time when there are few experienced South Asia veterans in the Trump administration.
Reflecting that, there seemed to be hardly any interest in Washington in how the situation was unfolding in India and Pakistan post Pulwama, which is why this time there was no consistent diplomatic effort to prevent escalation, after the call between the Indian and US National Security Advisers. Only South Asia experts in Washington’s many think-tanks appeared concerned and they said as much. The alarm bells started to ring only after India struck terror camps inside Pakistan Tuesday. How engaged the US has been in trying to defuse this crisis will become known only gradually.
There are other actors too. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has increased China’s stakes in peace in the region. India and Pakistan have both taken their respective cases to the world in the last two days, including to China and OIC, another influential player. It is quite possible that both have engaged in back-channel diplomacy to defuse the situation.