Better late than never: US comes to its senses on India-Pakistan conflict

“We support India’s right to self-defense,” U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton said after Pakistan-based militant organization Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) attacked Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir on Feb. 14.

We should all remember this statement as the moment Bolton reset India-Pakistan relations as we’ve known them since 1947. Once a deliberate and cautious backchannel intermediary on security flare-ups between the nuclear-armed rivals, the United States has taken yet another step back from Pakistan and one closer to India.

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What happens when the United States gives up its traditional role for one that, according to some in Pakistan, exacerbates the conflict? The consequences of that approach play out as we speak.

This week’s Indian retaliatory strike in Balakot, Pakistan represents just the third instance in history that a nuclear power has hit another nuclear power with conventional forces. 

The rarity of the situation should concern the United States, but a shifting geopolitical environment inevitably draws the Americans closer to India, regardless of the details of the current flare up. India proves useful in American attempts to contain China, which only continue to strengthen.

Also, the complete U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan means the United States will rely on Pakistan less for use of its transit routes to support the war, expanding the political space to exert greater U.S. pressure on Pakistan’s links to anti-India militants.

In the long-run, a nuclear-armed India unfettered by the same American pressures may find it can act on its security interests more directly and forcefully than the past. But it runs the risk of creating new challenges for itself, in particular how a more confrontational relationship with Pakistan will hover like a dark cloud over its global ambitions.

A perpetual state of Indo-Pak war also bodes ill for the rest of the region, especially Afghanistan, where the two countries remain embroiled on opposite sides of the conflict. The stakes there only stand to intensify if India and Pakistan increasingly resort to more hostile tactics instead of actual conflict resolution. 

History shows that U.S. intervention in India-Pakistan conflict yields positive results, as it did during the Kargil War in 1999. And despite Pakistan’s complicated relationship with the United States, it welcomes the American involvement.

With a smaller military footprint and unmatched conventional capabilities to those of India, Pakistan views the role of certain foreign governments as a critical component of its conflict resolution toolkit. But such intervention often comes at a cost for India, which faces the consequences of political backlash at home as well as continued threats from Pakistan’s militant proxies once fears of nuclear war diminish.

After the Pakistani military shot down an Indian air force planes and captured an Indian pilot, the United States walked back its rhetoric of self-defense. U.S. Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoUS warns airlines about flying over Persian Gulf amid Iran tensions Trump: Anonymous news sources are 'bulls---' Iranian official: Trump 'holding a gun' while pursuing talks MORE urged both countries “to exercise restraint, and avoid escalation at any cost.”

Pompeo’s statement comes several days too late and contradicts that of his own government, but it will serve its purpose nonetheless to signal that the United States is once again ready to intervene.

Beyond high-level diplomatic engagements, we can expect that at the working level in the U.S. embassies in Delhi and Islamabad and in Washington that diplomats, military strategists and intelligence analysts are closely tracking real-time events with the contingency plans they prepare for moments just like these.  

The United States will look for other voices of influence to assist in bringing the two countries back from the brink, namely the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and perhaps even China.

Last week, Pakistan suggested Indian retaliation could adversely impact the ongoing talks with the Taliban. If Pakistan decides to assume a spoiler role, the United States may find greater reason to urge Indian restraint.

But that won’t be easy in India, where the national elections, an increasingly stronger Indian military and the absence of justice for previous attacks linked to Pakistan all conspire against peaceful resolution of conflict. 

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While nuclear conflict remains highly unlikely, we must consider the possibility of additional surgical strikes by India and retaliation by Pakistan. Pakistan may jail some anti-India militants or temporarily shutdown their facilities, as it typically does under pressure, but we should not expect any military moves against them.

As long as India enjoys a more strategic relationship with the United States and it maintains stronger conventional military capabilities, Pakistan will not shift its policy of using militants as proxies against India.

With Bolton’s statement that the United States supports “India’s right to self-defense,” Pakistan’s use of proxies is likely to become more entrenched, further intertwining the United States in South Asia’s complex security politics rather than extracting it from them.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is senior advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and senior South Asia fellow at New America. She was director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council under President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden calls for unity, jabs at Trump in campaign launch Several factors have hindered 'next up' presidential candidates in recent years Lewandowski: Why Joe Biden won't make it to the White House — again MORE.