The Trump administration has come to the conclusion that easing of heightened India-Pakistan tension, including talks to renew official dialogue, will “probably hinge” in 2017 on a “sharp and sustained reduction” of cross-border terrorism and “progress in the Pathankot investigation”.
It has also concluded that New Delhi is “considering punitive options” to raise the cost to Islamabad for its alleged support to cross-border terrorism.
These are statements made by two senior US administration officials, one of them appointed by President Donald Trump in March this year, to the US Senate Committee on Armed Services on Tuesday as part of their Worldwide Threats Assessment of the US intelligence community.
While the Trump administration is conducting a broad policy review of the South Asian region, the testimony by the two top officials give a sneak peek into the new administration’s thinking on India and Pakistan after just four months in office.
Daniel R Coats, Director Of National Intelligence, told the committee Tuesday: “Relations between India and Pakistan remain tense following two major terrorist attacks in 2016 by militants crossing into India from Pakistan. They might deteriorate further in 2017, especially in the event of another high-profile terrorist attack in India that New Delhi attributes to originating in or receiving assistance from Pakistan. Islamabad’s failure to curb support to anti-India militants and New Delhi’s growing intolerance of this policy, coupled with a perceived lack of progress in Pakistan’s investigations into the January 2016 Pathankot cross-border attack, set the stage for a deterioration of bilateral relations in 2016.” The appointment of Coats was confirmed in March.
“Increasing numbers of firefights along the Line of Control, including the use of artillery and mortars, might exacerbate the risk of unintended escalation between these nuclear-armed neighbors. Easing of heightened Indo-Pakistani tension, including negotiations to renew official dialogue, will probably hinge in 2017 on a sharp and sustained reduction of cross-border attacks by terrorist groups based in Pakistan and progress in the Pathankot investigation,” he said, at the hearing which took place at the Dirksen Senate office building in Washington DC.
Lieutenant General Vincent R Stewart, Director of Defense Intelligence Agency, told the same Senate committee: “Bilateral relations between India and Pakistan worsened following several terrorist attacks in India. Continued threat of high level terror attacks in India, violence in Kashmir and bilateral diplomatic recriminations will further strain India-Pakistan ties in 2017. Following a terrorist attack on an Army base in Indian Kashmir last September, New Delhi conducted a highly publicized operation against militants across the Line of Control.” This is the first time a top official has given credence to the “surgical strikes” conducted across the LoC, which followed the Uri terror attack.
“In 2016, Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged some of the heaviest fire in years along the Line of Control in Kashmir, and each expelled a number of the other’s diplomats amid growing tension. India has sought and continues to move to isolate Pakistan diplomatically and is considering punitive options to raise the cost to Islamabad for its alleged support to cross-border terrorism,” Lt Gen Stewart, an Obama administration appointee, told the hearing.
What is significant is that both Coats and Lt Gen Stewart’s statements have put the onus of the terrorist attacks on Pakistan, and South Block sources said that this is the result of meetings between Indian and US officials at various levels over the last six months — after Trump’s victory in the US Presidential elections last November.
Coats also said: “Pakistani-based terrorist groups will present a sustained threat to US interests in the region and continue to plan and conduct attacks in India and Afghanistan. The threat to the United States and the West from Pakistani-based terrorist groups will be persistent but diffuse. Plotting against the US homeland will be conducted on a more opportunistic basis or driven by individual members within these groups.”
“Pakistan will probably be able to manage its internal security. Anti-Pakistan groups will probably focus more on soft targets. The groups we judge will pose the greatest threat to Pakistan’s internal security include Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Jamaat ul-Ahrar, al-Qa’ida in the Indian Subcontinent, ISIS-K, Laskhar-e Jhangvi, and Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami. The emerging China Pakistan Economic Corridor will probably offer militants and terrorists additional targets,” he said.
Reflecting on the threat to Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, Coats said, “Pakistan’s pursuit of tactical nuclear weapons potentially lowers the threshold for their use. Early deployment during a crisis of smaller, more mobile nuclear weapons would increase the amount of time that systems would be outside the relative security of a storage site, increasing the risk that a coordinated attack by non-state actors might succeed in capturing a complete nuclear weapon.”