Last week, tensions between India and Pakistan—sparked by a suicide attack claimed by a Pakistan-based terrorist group—put the world on notice. “The United States has reached a point where it believes that the militants operating out of Pakistan are … a threat, not just to India and to Afghanistan and our forces in Afghanistan, but … a threat to the long-term stability of the Pakistani state,” says Richard Olson, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.
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Tim Farley: Last week, India and Pakistan appeared to be in an escalation cycle of violence. In response to the February 14th suicide bombing, India launched airstrikes into Pakistan, something that has not happened since 1971. Pakistan responded, India responded, there's been a back-and-forth, the tensions rising. As we've been watching North Korea, we have to remember that Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers and this has the potential to get out of hand.
Tim Farley: Things seem to have calmed down, but we wanted to get some perspective, so we are pleased that Ambassador Rick Olson can join us, the former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, a former special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a senior advisor to the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @usip. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us today.
Rick: My pleasure, Tim. Thanks for having me.
Tim Farley: Give us some perspective on the events that took place and the contexts of the relationship between Pakistan and India in which these events took place.
Rick: Sure. Well, as you said in the lead-in, last week was a scary week because even though the news was in some ways overshadowed in the States by the Cohen testimony and overseas by the Hanoi Summit, you've actually had two nuclear weapon states engaged in armed conflict in a way that they haven't seen since 1971.
Rick: It all started with a suicide attack on the 14th of February in Indian Kashmir. The militant outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed, which is based in Pakistan, claimed credit for it. Now, it's important to note that as far as we know, and of course I don't see intelligence anymore, there's no direct line between Pakistan and the attack, but the group that claimed responsibility is based in Pakistan.
Rick: India responded on the 26th of February with airstrikes, and this is significant because the airstrikes went beyond just the immediate border area, beyond Pakistani Kashmir, they actually went in to the adjoining province in Pakistan. And the signal of that strike, of course, was that it would have been possible for the Indian Air Force just as easily to have hit the capital Islamabad or other military targets. They claimed to have hit a militant camp operated by Jaish-e-Mohammed, the group that claimed responsibility.
Rick: And the following day there were dog fights between the Indian and Pakistani Air Force around over disputed Kashmir, and an Indian pilot was shot down and landed on the Pakistani side of the border. This actually wound up providing the key to the resolution of the crisis, because Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan offered to immediately release the pilot, in other words not to keep him under detention, and also offered to talk directly with India about terrorism, which is something that Pakistan has been reluctant to do in the past. So that-
Tim Farley: I wonder if you could give us just a little more understanding of the so-called line of control, for people who are not, it's a border between India and Pakistani Kashmir, but I wonder if you could tell us why this is the zone? It's like the forbidden zone, in some ways.
Rick: Yeah, well, so this all dates back to the partition of India in 1947, in which Kashmir, the region of Kashmir, wound up being split between mostly in Indian territory, but partially in Pakistani territory. And neither side, particularly the Pakistani side, has ever accepted this partition, both of have claims on all of the territory. And so the line of control is the informal border, it's fenced up and it looks like a border, but neither side officially recognizes it and it's one of the tensest place in the world.
Rick: There is a low scale, low intensity conflict going on there all the time, which actually after this crisis resumed, or after this crisis was de-escalated last Friday with the return of the pilot, shelling resumed over the weekend, with causalities that were, I've heard as high as 25, which is of course regrettable, but perhaps not all that uncommon. It's a very tense area.
Tim Farley: Again, former Ambassador to Pakistan Ambassador Rick Olson joining us here on POTUS, he's a senior advisor the United States Institute of Peace. The timing, going back to the 40s and also the tensions, it's somewhat reminiscent to me of what we see with Israelis and Palestinians, it's a border that nobody recognizes, it's a territorial dispute.
Tim Farley: What's especially striking about this though is that we have two nuclear powers who will occasionally face off against each other, and it seems to me from people I've spoken to, Mr. Ambassador, that when the United States gets involved it is seen by each side as either an advantage to the other side or not. In other words, everything the U.S. does is filtered in the context of what they're doing to the other guy.
Rick: Yeah, it's a complicated dynamic, and I will say that the U.S. was quite engaged in this process, we don't know all of the quiet diplomacy that was taking place behind the scenes, but Secretary Pompeo did call his counterparts, his Pakistani and Indian counterparts, after the shoot down of the pilot and urged restraint. But also noted that the strike that the Indians had taken was a counter-terrorism strike and so it did not condemn that strike.
Rick: U.S. is in a delicate position, it has a historic longstanding friendship, indeed almost alliance with Pakistan, which has been greatly strained over the last 17 years by Pakistani support for militants in Afghanistan. And the relationship with India is nascent and growing, but the influence of the United States on India is perhaps not as great as it has been at least in the past with Pakistan.
Rick: The key thing I would say is that the United States has really reached a point where it believes that the militants operating out of Pakistan are really a threat, not just to India and to Afghanistan and our forces in Afghanistan, but I think really a threat to the long-term stability of the Pakistani state. And so that's one of the very pointed messages that has come out of this crisis.
Tim Farley: Any concern that any other country is trying to wield influence? China, Russia, any other outside player?
Rick: Well, I think for better or for worse, the U.S. is in the best position right now to have influence with both sides. The Chinese are strong backers of Pakistan and in the past have been willing to use their veto at the Security Council to prevent the banning of these terrorist outfits, including Jaish-e-Mohammed.
Rick: So one thing to watch in the period ahead is whether China, and perhaps even with Pakistani acquiescence, would agree to stop using their veto and allow Jaish-e-Mohammed to be designed as a U.N.-designated terrorist organization. That would be a significant signal I think that those two powers are serious about addressing the root cause.
Rick: And Pakistan has banned Jaish-e-Mohammed and announced financial sanctions against them, but that unfortunately has been done in the past with various militant organizations and hasn't really resulted in their being eliminated, they simply change their names and do business under a new name.
Tim Farley: Mr. Ambassador, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Rick: Thank you, my pleasure.
Tim Farley: Important discussion when you see you a fistfight it's one thing, a gunfight with two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan.
Tim Farley: Ambassador Rick Olson, former ambassador to Pakistan, a senior advisor to the United States Institute of Peace joining us this morning. The Twitter handle is @usip.