The US had launched diplomatic efforts to tamp down the rising New Delhi-Islamabad tensions before Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s announcement that he was going to free the Indian pilot captured by his country and there were signs that Washington may have had advanced information about it.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has said that he spent “a good deal of time” on Wednesday night with leaders of both neighbors before Khan made the announcement on Thursday calling it a goodwill gesture.
Pompeo did not say to whom he had spoken on Wednesday, but in an earlier round on Tuesday, he talked to both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi.
It would appear from the timeline of events leading up to Khan’s statement about freeing the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilot that the US had advanced knowledge of it.
President Donald Trump said cryptically at a news conference that began at around 12.30 p.m. (Indian time) in Hanoi on Thursday, saying: “We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India… I think, hopefully, that (the confrontation) is going to be coming to an end.”
Hours later at a Pakistan National Assembly session to discuss the India-Pakistan situation that began in Islamabad at 3.30 p.m., Khan declared that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was going home to India.
Tellingly, Trump headlined the India-Pakistan issue in his statement to reporters in Hanoi, even ahead of the breakdown in talks with North Korea. He said the US had “been involved in trying to have them stop” and “been in the middle, trying to help them both out”.
Later in Manila, Pompeo made the New Delhi-Islamabad diplomacy the top item at his news conference.
He told the media that he had good conversations with leaders of India and Pakistan to ensure “there was good information exchanged” and hoped to lessen the tension on the sub-continent.
“I spent a good deal of time on the phone last night talking to leaders in both countries, making sure there was good information exchanged, encouraging each country to not take any action that would escalate and create increased risk.
“I had good conversations, and I am hopeful that we can take down the tension there, at least for the time being, so they can begin to have conversations that don’t portend risk of escalation to either of the two countries. So we’re working hard on that,” Pompeo added.
Neither Trump nor Pompeo took credit directly for Varthaman’s impending release or for Khan’s conciliatory tone, beyond the hints.
But it had echoes of the Kargil conflict in 1999 when India and Pakistan were on the brink of a major conflict and then-President Bill Clinton intervened to get Islamabad to back down.
After provoking India by sending its troops into Kargil and facing a defeat and isolation, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appealed to Clinton for help.
Clinton “made Pakistan’s withdrawal a precondition for a settlement and the price it must pay for the US diplomatic involvement it had long sought”, according to Strobe Talbott, who was the Deputy Secretary of State then.
Then as now, the nuclear factor did not work.
The killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) troopers in a suicide bombing in Pulwama, Jammu and Kashmir, on February 14 for which the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terror group claimed responsibility, created a fresh wave of revulsion in Washington and around the world sickened by terrorism.
Last week Trump made a statement that made India’s retaliation sound reasonable when he said that he “understood” why New Delhi was seeking a strong response to the suicide bombing.
New Delhi is “looking for something strong” and “I can understand that also”.
After the Indian strike on a JeM base in Balakot, Pakistan, on Tuesday, Pompeo issued the sternest possible message to Pakistan offering a justification for the IAF’s actions by calling them “counter-terrorism actions”, a loaded phrase in international parlance.
He also mentioned, “close security partnership” between the US and India.
If Islamabad had expected condemnation of India or even a measure of understanding from Washington when Qureshi called Pompeo soon after the Balakot raid, it was disappointed.
As the US negotiations with the Taliban enter a crucial phase and Washington plans to reduce the number of troops based there by half and eventually pull out completely in five years, it has to ensure that chaos on the subcontinent do not interfere with its plans.