Does Washington Need to Be Neutral in South Asia?

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By Travis Wheeler

The American crisis management in South Asia since India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices in May 1998 has had the overriding objectives of preventing crises from escalating to limited warfare, and preventing limited warfare from transitioning to all-out conflict. Scholars such as Stephen Cohen have suggested that the United States has succeeded in the past by playing crises “‘down the middle’, serving as an umpire between two contending parties.” Strobe Talbott, who served as a deputy secretary of state during the Bill Clinton years and was a key interlocutor of Indian and Pakistani leaders after the tests, echoed this when he characterised the US approach to crisis management as one of “studied neutrality”. Senior officials in South Asia have shared these perceptions of the US role and even groused that an “umpire” could not successfully manage crises between India and Pakistan.

The United States has not been a neutral third party in the progression of nuclear-tinged crises between India and Pakistan beginning with the Kargil Conflict in 1999. Yet, this new approach to crisis management has not resulted in a loss of access to or influence among decision makers in India or Pakistan. This suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Washington does not need to be neutral to be an effective crisis manager in South Asia

The end of US neutrality: why it happened

The “neutral umpire” or “honest broker” role certainly applied during the first two nuclear-tinged crises on the Subcontinent — the 1986-87 “Brasstacks” crisis and the 1990 “Compound” crisis. Both crises were prompted by large-scale military exercises. Misperception surrounding the meaning of these exercises and ensuing military maneuvers could have resulted in escalatory spirals. Washington was a spectator during “Brasstacks”, but served as an “honest broker” in defusing Indian and Pakistani concerns and dampening prospects for escalation during the 1990 crisis.

The 1999 Kargil conflict was the turning point in the US crisis management in South Asia. The United States has sided decisively with India and come down hard on Pakistan in this and every subsequent crisis. It has done so for two main reasons. First, these crises have been triggered by the provocative acts of one actor – Pakistan – or the non-state actors that find refuge there. This has meant that the US crisis managers have had to focus on risky triggering actions, not sources of misperception, to avert escalation — and this has changed the substance of the US crisis management. Secondly, India and Pakistan’s possession of nuclear weapons has increased the stakes of the US crisis management.

Due to these factors, the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W Bush concluded that preventing escalation on a nuclearised Subcontinent required holding the instigator of the crisis primarily responsible for de-escalation rather than responding ‘“even-handedly’ by holding both sides partially to blame” as had been the case in earlier crises.

US crisis management in the 1999 Kargil conflict

What has the end of a US neutrality in crisis management meant in practice? A closer look at Kargil highlights its core elements and explains why the United States adopted a new crisis-management ‘playbook’.

Firstly, the United States avoided any equivocation about which country was to blame for the crisis. Washington declared that Pakistan had surreptitiously infiltrated forces across the Kashmir divide. This ill-conceived and dangerous act triggered the conflict, a point President Bill Clinton underscored repeatedly in his communications with Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif. That Pakistan’s military would attempt a fait accompli to change the status quo along the Line of Control mere months after Vajpayee had taken a “risk for peace” by travelling to Lahore in February 1999 cemented the perception of Pakistan as a “reckless” actor in Washington.

Secondly, Washington held that the party responsible for initiating the crisis was also primarily responsible for bringing the crisis to a peaceful resolution before it escalated beyond a limited war. Washington fretted that New Delhi might move its conventional forces across either the Line of Control or the international border, potentially compelling Pakistan to use its nascent nuclear capability. The Clinton administration maintained, however, that the surest way to reduce the risk of nuclear use was to apply pressure on Pakistan to carry out an “immediate and unconditional”withdrawal and abstain from incursions across the Line of Control in the future. Appeals to Indian restraint were part of Washington’s ‘playbook’ but the United States put the burden of de-escalation on Pakistan.

Thirdly, the Clinton administration refused to reward Pakistan with a commitment to become more involved in negotiations over Kashmir. “I can’t publicly or privately pretend you’re withdrawing in return for my agreeing to be an intermediary [with respect to Kashmir],” Clinton told Sharif during their Blair House summit on July 4, 1999. “I am not – and the Indians are not – going to let you get away with [nuclear] blackmail.” Sharif was desperate to gain an advantage out of the crisis to help with his political survival. Clinton rejected this gambit and insisted that Pakistan withdraw its forces and return to the Lahore Declaration. The emphasis on the declaration, which called for India and Pakistan to resolve their disagreements on a bilateral basis, undermined Pakistan’s renewed intention to “internationalise” the Kashmir dispute.

In abandoning the role of a “neutral umpire”, the United States took clear positions that favoured India’s interpretation of the crisis as well as its preferences for crisis termination — all the while denying Pakistan a quid pro quo for withdrawing from Kargil. In retrospect, taking India’s side was a foreseeable American reaction because India was the status quo power seeking to maintain the integrity of territory it already controlled while Pakistan was the aggrieved state trying to change the status quo by the use of force.

The lack of a US neutrality, while undoubtedly exasperating to Pakistani leaders, was, perhaps surprisingly, not a barrier to effective crisis management during Kargil. A key reason was that the United States was not alone in calling on Pakistan to withdraw and respect the sanctity of the Line of Control. China, Pakistan’s “all-weather” friend, backed the US position, which militated against the notion that the United States was treating Pakistan unfairly or “colluding” with India.

More fundamentally, the US crisis management was successful in Kargil because both sides had something to gain from it. The presence of a crisis manager – even one that had unquestionably taken sides – protected India and Pakistan from what they feared most: full-scale war. Indian leaders acted with restraint because they wished to avoid uncontrolled escalation that could result in intolerable losses as well as undermine their economy and status as a rising power. Moreover, India did not need to escalate immediately because the United States was applying heavy pressure on Pakistan.

Pakistani leaders, including army chief General Pervez Musharraf, were apprehensive of losing yet another conflict to India and what that would mean for the army’s standing in domestic politics. As India steadily reversed Pakistan’s gains on the battlefield, Sharif and Musharraf came to understand the necessity of withdrawal but hesitated to do so without political cover from the United States. The American intervention, however onerous, gave both countries an “off ramp” from the road to general war. This explains why Washington lost neither its access to nor influence among the parties to the dispute.

US crisis management in the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” and 2008 Mumbai crises

The Kargil misadventure is unlikely to be repeated. However, the basic “playbook” established in 1999 held in the 2001-02 “Twin Peaks” crisis and the 2008 Mumbai crisis. Both were instigated by the risk-inducing behaviour of terrorist groups whose leadership resided in Pakistan — first against the Indian parliament in “Twin Peaks” and then against symbols of India’s global status in Mumbai.

The United States sought to de-escalate “Twin Peaks” by obtaining two pledges from General Musharraf, who now served as army chief and president of a military government after oustingSharif in a coup in October 1999. The first pledge, made in a major public address in January 2002, was a commitment to crack down on cross-border militancy. The second, secured by then US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and conveyed to Indian leaders, was Musharraf’s strong assurance that Pakistan would “permanently” end militant infiltration across the Line of Control. Though the US response was somewhat more restrained than during Kargil lest post-9/11 counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan be jeopardised, Washington was unambiguous about Pakistan’s responsibility for de-escalating a crisis that it had provoked.

The same pillars of the US crisis-management – apportioning blame based on ground realities and putting the onus for de-escalation on Pakistan – followed Lashkar-e-Taiba’s deadly attacks on Mumbai in November 2008. The outgoing Bush administration’s plan was to “show support for India”, get Pakistan to “own up” to its ties to Lashkar, and “convince Pakistan to take enough steps to defuse the crisis”. All the US actions during the crisis – from high-level visits to the region by then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice to intelligence sharing and law-enforcement cooperation with New Delhi – pointed toward these objectives. Washington’s one-sided approach to crisis management was once again complemented by relative international unity on the question of Pakistani culpability and a determination in both Islamabad and New Delhi to sidestep a costly conflict.

Implications for future crises

Since Kargil, New Delhi has tilted towards Washington and the Beijing-Islamabad nexus has intensified. Pakistan’s strategic planners appear to believe that they can win any struggle for dominance with “full-spectrum” deterrence. Indian strategists appear committed to attempting to deter Pakistan by punishment — whether by firings across the Line of Control, “surgical strikes”, or offensive conventional campaigns.

Whether and to what degree political leaders share these impulses is an open question — and new research shows that political considerations affect a state’s decision on whether to “select” into a crisis. Still, these strategies, if enacted in future crises, could reinforce escalation dynamics and constrain the diplomatic space in which crisis managers can operate. Nevertheless, Washington is likely to maintain access to and influence among decision makers in Islamabad and New Delhi if it can continue to deliver on its core crisis-management functions: preventing escalation and providing face-saving “off ramps”.

The central lesson of the progression of nuclear-tinged crises following the Subcontinent’s overt weaponisation is that Washington is less concerned about the appearance of neutrality than it is in arresting crises with escalatory potential. If Pakistan – whether by its own actions or by those of anti-India groups based in Pakistan – continues to be responsible for instigating crises, Washington will have little choice but to side emphatically with India. However, even in a crisis instigated by Pakistan, India could once again find itself the subject of a US crisis management if New Delhi fails to exercise restraint and opts for escalation. In this event, the focus of the US crisis management could become more “even-handed”.

This piece was orignally published in Herald and can be found here

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