So far, United States President Donald Trump has had remarkably good luck: His administration has avoided a major international crisis not of its own creation. That luck has run out, however, with a deadly dispute between India and Pakistan. In previous showdowns on the subcontinent, the US played a critical role in preventing tensions between the nuclear-armed rivals from getting out of control. We are about to find out whether an erratic, hollowed-out Trump administration is capable of a similar performance.
India-Pakistan tensions over the disputed area of Kashmir have persisted since the birth of the two nations in 1947. The current crisis broke when a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden vehicle on to an Indian security convoy, killing more than 40 Indian troops in Indian-administered Kashmir on February 14. After more than a week of threats and counter-threats, Indian fighter planes reportedly bombed suspected militant camps on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control — the first time Indian forces carried out strikes on the Pakistani side since 1971.
Although the amount of damage caused is unclear, in response, Pakistan retaliated militarily with its air force the next day. The potential escalatory implications are severe — both countries have nuclear weapons.
Given the grave dangers of an India-Pakistan war, the US has a clear interest in calming things down. In prior confrontations, in fact, American diplomacy had been vital to walking India and Pakistan back from the brink.
During the Kargil War — a limited but fierce military conflict high in the mountains over Kashmir in 1999 — the then US president Bill Clinton used personal diplomacy to convince Pakistani leaders to pull their fighters back from confrontation with Indian troops. As Bruce Riedel, a senior National Security Council official present at the talks, recalled, “We could all too easily imagine the two parties beginning to mobilise for war, seeking third-party support (Pakistan from China and the Arabs, India from Russia and Israel) and a deadly descent into full-scale conflict with a danger of nuclear cataclysm.”
Similarly, after militants attacked India’s parliament in December 2001, leading both countries to move troops to the border, the then US secretary of state Colin Powell and other US diplomats swung into action. They pushed Pakistan to visibly distance itself from militant groups in Kashmir, while also calling on India to show restraint. When the crisis flared again after an attack in Kashmir that killed 31 people in May 2002, Powell worked tirelessly to prevent Indian military retribution.
This sort of de-escalatory diplomacy is again necessary. The question is whether Washington is up to the task.
In some ways, the job is harder because the US has less leverage with Pakistan now than it did in 2001-2002, as a result of the Trump administration’s slashing of aid and a longer-running American shift towards alignment with India. (By the same token, Washington has more leverage with India than it did two decades ago.) The deeper problem, though, is that this administration has so far struggled to perform the sort of deft diplomacy the situation demands.
Disciplined messaging with carefully calibrated pressure has not been this president’s forte. The tendency on key issues such as North Korea has been shoot-from-the-hip presidential diplomacy that leaves allies confused and Trump’s own aides scrambling to keep up. On top of that, key mid and upper-level positions are unfilled across the foreign policy bureaucracy, including the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, and many offices and agencies are operating at far less than full strength.
While all eyes were on Venezuela and Trump’s summit, the India-Pakistan crisis could actually be the acid test for Trump’s foreign policy. It may show whether an understaffed administration with a penchant for chaos is capable of executing smart and steady diplomacy when it is needed most.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.