Some 2,000 miles from Hanoi where President Trump was about to sit down with the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to find a way to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, almost came to the brink of war. It may be the most dramatic escalation of a crisis that started February 14 in the aftermath of a deadly terrorist attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy.
During his press conference in Hanoi, President Trump said that his administration was engaging with the two countries to de-escalate the situation. However, it is not still not apparent whether New Delhi and Islamabad will exercise restraint and avoid using further military actions.
Tensions flared up Wednesday when Pakistani fighter planes violated Indian airspace in the disputed Kashmir region and might have tried to drop bombs on Indian military installations. The Indian air force responded by scrambling its jets. Pakistan claimed that it shot down two Indian aircrafts from within its airspace and arrested one pilot who ejected into the Pakistani territory. India acknowledged that one of its jets had crashed during the incident but offered no further details.
Pakistan’s incursions were designed as a show of force after India carried out airstrikes within its border a day earlier. India claimed that it destroyed a training camp used by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) militants in the border town of Balakot and killed “a very large number” of them. JeM is a Pakistan-based terrorist organization that claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack that killed 42 Indian paramilitary personnel. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised a “jaw-breaking response,” creating a war-like fervor among his countrymen.
Rejecting Indian charges of harboring the JeM terrorists, Pakistan warned India not to breach its territorial integrity.
“Pakistan will not think about retaliation; it will retaliate,” snarled Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Having been in power for less than a year, it is crucial for him to not cower to Indian threats. Moreover, as a relatively new leader, Khan would not pass up the opportunity to give shape to his future image by appearing firm against the perennial enemy.
It turned out that both leaders somewhat kept their promise, further adding fuel to the fire.
After publicly declaring his intentions for dealing a blow to Pakistan, it became practically impossible for Modi, who is up for re-election later this year, to renege. Plus, India launched so-called “surgical strikes” along the border into the Pakistani territory in 2016 in response to a terrorist attack. Therefore, it became a question of “when,” not “if,” as to the scope of India military action against Pakistan.
That said, very few people thought India would go that far to have conducted airstrikes inside Pakistan. After all, never before did a nuclear-nation use airstrikes on another’s territory. Now that India had dropped bombs on Pakistani soil, which also evoked the painful memory of Abbottabad when Americans successfully infiltrated into Pakistani airspace in order to neutralize Osama bin Laden, Pakistan had to do something. Thus, Pakistan’s military adventurism should not come as surprising either.
Given that both countries were able to publicly shame each other to an extent but not to the point that war is inevitable, it is time India and Pakistan toned down the rhetoric and resorted to diplomacy. The dynamics between the two countries is such that neither India nor Pakistan will take meaningful steps towards holding a dialogue fearing that it would make the pleading party look weaker. Ego precedes rationalism when it comes to Indo-Pak relations.
Therefore, leaders from India and Pakistan should seek alternatives to what might amount to a reconciliation or peace summit. Negotiations over the return of the Indian pilot captured by the Pakistanis offer such an option. Delegates from India and Pakistan can meet to set the stage for the handover of the pilot and use the opportunity as a pretext to continue talks over disputed issues, including terrorism.
While it was unfortunate that India ruled out any such possibility, Pakistan’s fresh offer to release the Indian air force officer seems promising.
The United States should keep close tabs on the developments.
President Trump can directly speak with the Indian and Pakistani leaders to encourage them to not escalate any further. He can also send a high-profile envoy to South Asia to help broker peace. Secretary of State Pompeo fits the bill perfectly.
The White House’s somewhat tardy response to the brewing crisis in South Asia is already jarring, given that the fate of nearly 1.5 billion people is at stake. It should not wait any longer to get India and Pakistan to the negotiation table. But, above all else, India and Pakistan must drop their predilections for optics and adhere to diplomacy.
Arafat Kabir is a graduate student of political science at the University of Utah. He writes about South Asian politics, defense, and business with a special focus on Bangladesh. He is a contributor to Forbes Asia. His articles have also published in media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Diplomat, and The National Interest. He can be reached on Twitter at @ArafatKabirUpol. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.