US President-elect Donald Trump should develop clearer US policies to ease strains between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India, senior analysts said at a discussion at the US Institute of Peace (USIP).
The discussion followed an escalation across the Line of Control that has further strained ties between the two countries.
Two analysts taking part in the discussion said that relations between India and Pakistan were becoming less predictable as nationalist sentiment in India heightens political pressure to escalate its response to clashes in the disputed territory of Kashmir.
“The fear of direct military conflict is real,” Shamila Chaudhary, a former Pakistan director at the U.S. National Security Council said, referring to recent attacks in India-held Kashmir, which India has blamed on Pakistan.
Chaudhary said that every new administration wants to solve the India-Pakistan standoff, a possibility that Trump and his vice president-elect, Mike Pence, have indicated in recent months.
She was, however, of the opinion that it was not going to work, and added that more modest goals for the upcoming administration could be to consolidate or better coordinate US policy making on India and Pakistan.
Chaudhary suggested strengthening private diplomacy to build communication between the countries and limiting public statements, which “don’t work well in the region”.
Speaking on the ties between the US and Pakistan, Sameer Lalwani, deputy director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, said that although the US has slashed aid to Pakistan, Washington still needs a working relationship with Pakistani authorities.
The US needs Pakistani cooperation on intelligence, homeland security and counter-terrorism, the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) extremists, and stabilizing Afghanistan, he said.
The new administration needs to consider what problems the next India-Pakistan crisis could present to US policymakers, Toby Dalton, the co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said.
He said it was critical that the United States maintain intelligence ties with each country, apart from any other issues in its relations with them.
Sadanand Dhume, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that US efforts to forge tighter bonds with India while ignoring India’s concerns about Pakistan is “a circle that can no longer be squared”.
Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi won election in 2014 in part by running as a nationalist who would not be pushed around by Pakistan, Dhume said.
Anything that erodes Modi’s image as a strong leader will become a political liability as India moves toward its next parliamentary elections in 2019, and so “India is becoming much more hawkish in its public opinion and its politics,” he said.
The India-Pakistan conflict has never been a priority in US foreign policy and it is unlikely to become one for the Trump administration, the analysts agreed.
Despite the United States' “vital interest in averting any escalation of nuclear threats between the two countries, it has done little long-term planning to prevent it and generally engages the issue only when crises arise”, Chaudary said.
The India-Pakistan experts suggested that the next administration would do well to bring new focus and coherence to US policy.
Solutions for conflicts dividing India and Pakistan are well known, Moeed Yusuf, USIP’s associate vice president for Asia programs, said.
Acknowledging the difficulties of bringing India and Pakistan to any agreement, he asked, “Is it really impossible? At the end of the day, normalisation solves everyone’s problems,” he added.