WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump said on Thursday that the confrontation between India and Pakistan was “hopefully coming to an end”.

All three arms of the United States government — the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon — joined their president in urging South Asia’s two nuclear-armed nations to give peace a chance. They are backed by the European Union and other major nations, particularly China, which also asked the two neighbours to avoid escalation.

“We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India. They have been going at it, and we have been involved in trying to have them stop,” said President Trump while addressing a news conference in Hanoi, Vietnam.

According to a transcript released in Washington, the US president also said he had “some reasonably decent news” from the region, apparently referring to Pakistan’s planned release of an Indian pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.

EU, China and other major nations ask two neighbours to avoid escalation; Mike Pompeo speaks to leaders of Islamabad and New Delhi

“I think hopefully that’s going to be coming to an end. It has been going on for a long time, decades and decades. There’s a lot of dislike, unfortunately,” he said.

Mr Trump, who indicated last Friday that the US and other powers were trying to defuse tensions, was more explicit now. “So, we have been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organisation and some peace, and I think probably that’s going to be happening,” he said.

Hours after Mr Trump’s comments, Prime Minister Imran Khan said his country planned to release an Indian pilot it captured on Wednesday. “In our desire of peace, I announce that tomorrow, and as a first step to open negotiations, Pakistan will be releasing the Indian Air Force officer in our custody,” Mr Khan said.

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said he had spent “a great deal of time” talking to Indian and Pakistani leaders last night to de-escalate the potentially dangerous confrontation between the two sides.

The statement, released by his office in Washington, followed speculations in the US capital that on the night between Wednesday and Thursday India and Pakistan had come close to a larger confrontation but a timely intervention by the United States, China and other major powers prevented it.

“We were and continue to be very engaged with the issue between India and Pakistan,” Secretary Pompeo said. “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.”

He said he “had good conversations” with those leaders and was 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,” he added.

Earlier, the US State Department asked Pakistan and India to cease all cross-border operations as the White House alerted the world that the risk of further military action in the region was “unacceptably high”.

“The United States calls on India and Pakistan to cease all cross-border military activity and for a return to stability,” a spokesperson for the US State Department told journalists in Washington.

“We urge both sides to take immediate steps to de-escalate the situation, including through direct communication. Further military activity will exacerbate the situation,” the spokesperson said. The US official described the Feb 14 attack in Pulwama as “cross-border terrorism” and warned that such attacks “pose a grave threat to the security of the region”.

“We reiterate our call for Pakistan to abide by its United Nations Security Council commitments to deny terrorists safe haven and block their access to funds,” the official said.

On Thursday, the Pentagon also asked India and Pakistan to back off future military attacks following the first Indian air strike into Pakistan since 1971. A Pentagon statement said Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan was focused “on de-escalating tensions and urging both of the nations to avoid further military action”.

Mr Shanahan has been in contact with Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen Joseph Dunford, US Indo-Pacific Command head Adm Philip Davidson and US Central Command head Gen Joseph Votel “regarding India-Pakistan tensions”, the Pentagon said.

On Wednesday afternoon, Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington briefed the US media on the situation, pointing out that the United States had failed to condemn India’s air strikes inside Pakistan, which “emboldened” New Delhi.

“It is construed and understood as an endorsement of the Indian position and that is what emboldened them even more,” Ambassador Asad Majeed Khan said. “There is perhaps no other country better placed than the United States to be able to play some role,” he said, pointing to the US relationship with both countries.

Mr Pompeo had also described the Indian strikes as “counter-terrorism actions”.

Ambassador Khan said that Pakistan had made a “sincere” offer to investigate the deadly Feb 14 bombing and sought “dialogue” with India, but New Delhi ignored the offer.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton talked to his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval for a second time in a week, discussing the current situation in the region.

Published in Dawn, March 1st, 2019

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