New Delhi: The Balakot crisis led to a reset in the US-Pakistan relationship, after the Donald Trump administration refused to leverage Pakistan’s policy of nuclear brinkmanship, Ashley J. Tellis, senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in an article.
Tellis, a specialist in international security, US foreign and defence policy with a focus on the Indian subcontinent, said the crisis has been temporary averted.
“There is a widespread perception that the Trump administration was delinquent in managing the India-Pakistan crisis as it evolved after Pulwama. This view is mistaken. It arises from the expectation that US intervention in subcontinental crises must be conspicuous, heavy-handed, and focused only on pursuing restraint and deescalation, no matter what the stakes or circumstances," according to Mumbai-born Ashley Tellis.
“Previous interventions by Washington usually conformed to this template, with then president Bill Clinton’s management of the Kargil crisis in 1999 regarded as the gold standard. The Trump team’s involvement in the Balakot predicament was very different, both in style and substance, but it was successful given the objective it set for itself: the refusal, for the first time, to permit the United States to become an accessory after Pakistan’s nuclear coercion of India," he added.
While the shift in the US' stance started during the Bill Clinton administration, during the Kargil conflict it gained momentum. During the George W. Bush administration, it led to the dehyphenation of India and Pakistan after the September 11 attacks. However, Washington’s dependence on Pakistan in its fight against Al-Qaeda prevented a radical policy shift. It changed gears again after the 2008 attack in Mumbai, with the then Barack Obama administration holding Pakistan government responsible despite its claim of ‘stateless actors’ carrying out attacks.
“Trump is uniquely positioned in this regard. He already harbors an intense dislike for Pakistan’s perfidy, and he has the required recklessness to make any game of chicken that Pakistan chooses to play a losing proposition for Rawalpindi," according to Tellis.
India wants to continue its strong messaging to non-state actors in Pakistan and its deep state, by increasing the cost of asymmetrical warfare for its neighbour and its terror proxies. Indian strategists believe this may force the Pakistani military to rethink its long-term strategy of inflicting on India “death by a thousand cuts.’
“Irrespective of the tactical effectiveness of the IAF’s strikes at Balakot, the strategic significance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to attack targets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is that it has finally exorcised the ghost of self-deterrence, which had threatened to become an iron-clad constraint on the conduct of Indian retaliation," Tellis wrote.
Mint reported on 27 February about India rewriting the rules of the sub-continent’s Great Game by launching air strikes against terror training bases in Pakistan and strategically repositioning itself in the region. The Indian air strikes is also being seen as an attempt by India to draw fresh red lines to redefine the security calculus, raising the conflict threshold beyond the low-intensity cross-border conflict and bolstering India’s Cold Start doctrine — the plan to attack Pakistan within 48 hours of any major provocation or terror attack without risking a nuclear conflagration.
Tellis however didn’t term it as a new normal and wrote: “It would be equally premature to conclude that the fresh precedent of overt and direct attacks on Pakistani territory will henceforth automatically come to constitute a new floor for future Indian retaliation."
“The Trump administration’s declaration in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack thus constitutes a further—inevitable—progression of US policy toward Pakistani terrorism against India," Teliis wrote as was articulated by US national security adviser John Bolton and US secretary of state Michael R. Pompeo.
In fact, it was the US President Donald Trump who had described the situation as “very dangerous" and said he could understand New Delhi’s desire for something “very strong" before India’s air strikes on Balakot.
“To this end, the administration was undoubtedly aided by both India’s and Pakistan’s own restraint, but the fact that US policy has now come to such a pass suggests a further evolution in the US' attitude towards Pakistani terrorism," Tellis wrote.
The escalations came in the backdrop of the upcoming general elections in seven phases, with polling beginning on 11 April and ending on 19 May. There has been a shift in the narrative with the Pulawana attack and the subsequent air strikes, overshadowing issues related to development, jobs and farm crisis.
While the crisis has helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) make national security a poll issue, Tellis pointed out that “the crisis precipitated by the JeM attack brought significant political downsides. For starters, the very fact that the attack occurred raised renewed questions about Indian counter terrorism effectiveness, the limitations of Indian intelligence, and the weaknesses of the operating practices of India’s internal security forces. Furthermore, that JeM was able to recruit a local Kashmiri to carry out the suicide bombing in its name—a deviation from the traditional pattern in which suicide attacks are carried out by Pakistani infiltrators—opened the door to uncomfortable questions about the Modi government’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir."
The US stand also comes in the backdrop of China scuppering a UN Security Council move to get Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar designated as a terrorist—the fourth time it has foiled such an attempt—expected to have ramifications for bilateral ties that were slowly returning to normal.
China’s ties with Pakistan is another factor impeding trust between China and India. Beijing, on its part, looks suspiciously as India’s growing ties with the US and it’s participation in informal groupings like the “Quad" — a loose arrangement between the US, Australia, Japan and India to ensure peace and stability in Indo-Pacific region. China views the “Quad" as a containment policy drawn by the US against it.
Placing the blame squarely on Pakistan, Ashley wrote: “That it did not eventuate in a full-scale war as a simulation might have predicted is owed greatly to propitious political circumstances. But if such deadly outcomes are to be averted permanently, for the sake of peace and stability in South Asia, the fundamental cause of the convulsion—namely, the Pakistan military’s continued support for terrorist groups deployed against its neighbours—must be confronted squarely by the international community and ultimately by the Pakistani polity itself."