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How US diplomacy put brakes on India-Pakistan escalation after 'surgical strikes'

Bharat Bhushan | Updated on: 6 October 2016, 18:30 IST

US diplomacy played a crucial role in ensuring that the tension between India and Pakistan was not escalated further in the aftermath of India's 'surgical strikes' against terrorists in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK).

When US National security Advisor Susan Rice called Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, apparently she did not do so to support India's 'surgical strikes' against Pakistan.

According to those in the know, the US administration also reached out to Pakistan.

The US message to both countries was the same: do not escalate the conflict.

Fearing that tensions in South Asia would help Trump, US made India and Pakistan de-escalate

US diplomatic intervention could be the reason why Prime Minister Narendra Modi is advising people not to thump their chests. And it might also explain why Pakistan is denying that any 'surgical strikes' by India took place. However, nothing prevents the two sides to instead opt for a propaganda war which suits the political class on both sides.

According to informed sources, Rice advised India against chest-thumping after striking some forward locations of the Pakistan Army. India was counseled to be patient and not do anything that might impact the outcome of the US Presidential election due on 8 November.

US calculations

The US calculation was that any escalation of India-Pakistan conflict would damage the foreign policy legacy of President Barack Obama in his last days in office. Additionally, a conflict between India and Pakistan would give a handle to the Republican Challenger Donald Trump. He would use the escalating conflict between two nuclear neighbours to berate the Obama administration.

Rice apparently condemned the cross-border terrorist strike at Uri. Until her call to the Indian NSA, the US Secretary of State John Kerry had situated the Uri terrorist strike in the context of the violence that had been going on in Kashmir for the last two and half months and given call of ending all violence.

Thus, while Rice's phone call represented a movement forward in recognising Pakistan's role in promoting cross-border terrorism against India, her essential message to India was to tone down the military rhetoric and not escalate the conflict.

She apparently made it clear that if the Democrats won the presidential election, then India could expect the continuation of the current administration's policy towards Pakistan and Islamabad's promotion of UN designated terrorist groups - that is, the Haqqani network, the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. However, if the Republicans won, she warned that then India would have to wait for the new administration to take over in January and for the emergence of Donald Trump's policy towards the region.

Rice's message to Pakistan

In the US communication to Pakistan, Islamabad was reprimanded for not condemning the Uri attack which had invited Indian retaliation.

It might be recalled, that Pakistan Prime Minister had justified the Uri attack to reporters in London, while on his way back from attending the UN General Assembly meeting in. New York. He had said, "The Uri attack can be the reaction of the atrocities in Kashmir, as the close relatives and near and dear ones of those killed and blinded over the last two months were hurt and outraged."

The Americans apparently told Pakistan that despite the US advising it to condemn the Uri attack, the Pakistani leadership had deliberately chosen to ignore it. US is believed to have warned Pakistan against taking any military retaliation to worsen the situation.

This is what possibly led to Pakistan going in the denial mode while India did nothing beyond hyping the strikes on Pakistani forward positions as a series of major 'surgical strikes'.

If Pakistan claims that the exchange of fire was routine one on the LoC and no ingress by Indian soldiers took place into territory under its control, there is little rationale for it to escalate the issue militarily. Even if the Pakistan military might be seething within, under US advice it is unlikely to do anything precipitate immediately.

The US advice is perhaps one of the reasons why India is unlikely to release whatever evidence it has of the military strikes. The ultra-nationalists in India can continue celebrating India having crossed the Rubicon of strategic restraint to punish Pakistan, while Pakistan can keep trying to debunk Indian claims.

Churn in Islamabad

In Pakistan, it is perhaps this marginalisation by the US which might have forced the unprecedented exchange at a meeting reported by Pakistan's leading newspaper, Dawn. It has reported on a recent showdown between the Pakistani civil and military authorities on containing terrorism.

In the meeting between the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry, Chief of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt. Gen. Rizwan Akhtar and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, apparently, the ISI was told about the international isolation of Pakistan and the need to act against terrorist groups operating from Pakistan.

The message to the ISI was apparently that "military-led intelligence agencies are not to interfere if law enforcement acts against militant groups that are banned or until now considered off-limits for civilian action."

Significantly, the news story in Dawn claims that Foreign Secretary Chaudhary in his briefing to the gathering said that US-Pakistan "relations have deteriorated and will likely further deteriorate." He told the meeting that "the principal international demands are for action against Masood Azhar and the Jaish-e-Muhmmad; Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Taiba; and the Haqqani network."

On India, Chaudhry reportedly said that the principle demands were the completion of the Pathankot investigation and some visible action against Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Surprisingly, the Pakistan Foreign Secretary also reported that China was also unhappy and wanted a change of course by Pakistan. China apparently has also questioned the logic of being asked to repeatedly block the designation of Masood Azhar as a terrorist by the UN.

However, the Pakistan PMO has since denied the report.

Experts say that civilian administration may say what it wants, what Pak Army does is what matters

Security experts familiar with Pakistan, however, are reluctant to overplay the importance to this meeting. "Such presentations have happened in the past also. What matters is what the Pakistan Army does on the ground. The Pakistan Army needs these terrorists for bleeding India in Kashmir and it needs to keep the Kashmir issue alive for its own survival," one of them said.

Another security expert said that while Pakistan may not want the escalation of military tensions with India under US advice, it was highly unlikely that it would act against the terrorist groups it uses as its proxies in the region.

"General Raheel Sharif will not allow action against the LeT, JeM, Hafiz Saeed or Masood Azhar in the run up to his retirement in November. Only after his retirement would anything become possible - that is, if at all such action is taken under international pressure," he claimed.


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First published: 6 October 2016, 18:30 IST
Bharat Bhushan @Bharatitis

Editor of Catch News, Bharat has been a hack for 25 years. He has been the founding Editor of Mail Today, Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times, Editor of The Telegraph in Delhi, Editor of the Express News Service, Washington Correspondent of the Indian Express and an Assistant Editor with The Times of India.