WASHINGTON: A report released by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) on Tuesday warns that fully backing any Indian action against Pakistan might lead to an uncontrollable spiral of escalation, eventually risking a nuclear exchange.

The study, conducted by a group of senior US diplomats and scholars, highlights the possibility of the Indian government attributing attacks to Pakistan regardless of their origin and considering cross-border strikes against Pakistani military, intelligence, and other targets.

The authors urge US policymakers to “keep in mind that giving the Indian government carte blanche on military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan could also lead to a spiral of escalation and hostilities that would ultimately distract India from countering Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific”.

They argue that such an escalation could also “trigger greater Chinese involvement in India-Pakistan dynamics, which, in turn, could entangle the United States and provoke a global geopolitical crisis”.

A study highlights possibility of India attributing attacks to Pakistan and considering retaliatory strikes

The study group that compiled the report includes Ambassador Anne Patterson, Dr Tricia Bacon, Ambassador Michael P. McKinley, Dr Joshua White, and Dr Brian Finucane.

Ms Patterson, a former US ambassador to Pakistan, notes that US policymakers “dramatically reduced attention to counterterrorism in South Asia” after their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Now, “Americans want to see Afghanistan and Pakistan in the rear-view mirror,” she adds.

But the report also recognises that there can be “some measure of reciprocity in the counterterrorism relationship” between Pakistan and the United States, as “Pakistan struggles to deal with the violent anti-state TTP and, to a lesser extent, ISIS-K”, says another author, Joshua White.

US approach towards Pakistan

The report points out that the United States has two approaches towards Pakistan. One option involves collaborating with Pakistan to counter rising terrorist threats from Afghanistan and Pakistan while also exerting pressure to discourage Pakistan from supporting anti-India terrorist groups.

Alternatively, the US government could adopt a coercive approach to compel Pakistani action against concerning threats, including anti-India terrorist groups.

The first option, which entails moderate cooperation with calibrated pressure, is considered pragmatic due to the region’s geography and Pakistan’s history of supporting anti-India groups.

The report argues that given ongoing tensions with Iran and the absence of a significant US military presence in Central Asia, Pakistani land routes and airspace remain crucial for accessing landlocked Afghanistan. Thus, any counterterrorism strategy that sidelines Pakistan would face logistical challenges and likely prove ineffective.

The second option, a coercive approach, would involve political and economic disengagement with Pakistan, similar to early policies in the Trump administration. However, this approach may not address geographical constraints or advance US counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan. Pakistan could retaliate by refusing cooperation on transnational threats and closing its airspace.

Published in Dawn, May 15th, 2024

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