The crisis surrounding the recent Indian air strikes on Pakistan at Balakot has subsided—for now. But the confusing welter of claims and counterclaims about the military action on both sides continues. Whether Indian Air Force (IAF) strikes on their intended targets were successful, whether Pakistan did in fact shoot down two Indian aircraft or only one, and whether the IAF did in fact bring down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 are all controverted issues. Definitive answers appear elusive at the moment, despite insistent probing within South Asia and by the larger international community. While the questions pertaining to the specific military actions are interesting, there is a real risk that an excessive focus on the operational minutiae will obscure three larger strategic issues that bear upon the challenges of preserving peace on the Indian subcontinent in the long term.

Pakistani Terrorism Remains the Real Threat to Stability

The combustive IAF strikes on Pakistani territory on February 26, 2019, were a long time coming—and they were owed entirely to Pakistan’s extant strategy of employing terrorist proxies to wage war against its neighbors, Afghanistan and, especially, India. For over two decades now, the sequence of events that precipitated the Indian military riposte in late February has been simulated in war games in Washington and likely in New Delhi and Rawalpindi as well. The progression of events is depressingly familiar: a Pakistani terrorist group attacks an Indian target and causes significant casualties; depending on the circumstances, the Government of India finds itself compelled to respond through the use of conventional military instruments; this, in turn, precipitates a Pakistani military reaction and, before long, a vicious action-reaction spiral—if not contained by external intervention—produces a major conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers of South Asia.

Ashley J. Tellis
Ashley J. Tellis is the Tata Chair for Strategic Affairs and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, specializing in international security and U.S. foreign and defense policy with a special focus on Asia and the Indian subcontinent.
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Many observers feared that the latest crisis—which began with Jaish-e-Mohammad’s (JeM) suicide bombing of an Indian Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) convoy at Pulwama on February 14, 2019, provoking Indian military retaliation and the subsequent Indo-Pakistani air battles on February 26–27—was heading in exactly this direction. That it did not eventuate in a full-scale war as a simulation might have predicted is owed greatly to propitious political circumstances. But if such deadly outcomes are to be averted permanently, for the sake of peace and stability in South Asia, the fundamental cause of the convulsion—namely, the Pakistan military’s continued support for terrorist groups deployed against its neighbors—must be confronted squarely by the international community and ultimately by the Pakistani polity itself.

It is possible that, even after the initial attack at Pulwama, a further escalation might have been avoided had Pakistan responded in ways to help defuse the crisis. When India demanded that Pakistan stop supporting terrorist groups operating from its territory—after JeM had already claimed responsibility for the bombing and had in fact identified the assailant—Pakistan’s foreign ministry disingenuously rejected the Indian entreaty on the grounds that “JeM remains a proscribed entity in Pakistan since 2002 and Pakistan is implementing its obligations on sanctions implementation.” The first part of this claim is meaningless, because the supposed proscription had no impact on JeM’s ability to operate with impunity inside Pakistan, and the second part of the claim is entirely fraudulent. Not to be outdone, the Director General, Inter-Services Public Relations, the Pakistan military’s diplomacy arm, only added fuel to the fire when, continuing a hoary tradition that predates the recent attack, he insinuated that the bombing at Pulwama was “some sort of [a] staged incident” by India to embarrass Pakistan. Furthermore, he claimed this always occurs “whenever there is supposed to be an important event in Pakistan, or [when] the country is moving towards stability.”

This pervasive refusal to accept responsibility for the actions of terrorist groups that not only operate out of Pakistani territory but also enjoy the active support of its military and intelligence services in their ongoing covert war against India remains the real cause of the repeated crises in South Asia. Rawalpindi’s strategy of attempting to bleed India through such “subconventional” conflicts represents an insidious form of nuclear coercion, in which Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are “employed” to protect it against any Indian conventional retaliation that might ensue as a riposte to terrorist attacks carried out by its proxies.

Pakistani nuclear weapons, accordingly, serve simultaneously as a license for open-ended terrorism against India and as a deterrent against any Indian conventional retaliation that might follow. Should India choose to dare Rawalpindi’s challenge, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons serve an additional function as well: as a catalytic device to compel international (mainly U.S.) intervention aimed at restraining Indian retribution during a crisis provoked by Pakistan. This strategy of intimidation has been largely successful over the last three decades insofar as it has prevented India—until Balakot—from undertaking any direct attacks on Pakistani territory. To be sure, New Delhi sought to retaliate episodically for some Pakistani terrorist attacks in the past, but it did so principally through covert attacks by special forces or by targeted artillery strikes on Pakistani positions across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.

The fear of escalation to major conventional conflict that might result in nuclear use prevented New Delhi from ever attacking Pakistani territory—outside of the disputed areas—directly, thus strengthening a resilient form of Indian self-deterrence. This ensured that Pakistan would never have to bear the costs of the depredations inflicted by its terrorist proxies on India, an immunity that only further stimulated continuing attacks on its larger neighbor. Even when Pakistani terrorist groups conducted attacks on India outside of state direction or control, the same benefits accrued to their military sponsors: Pakistan enjoyed immunity to Indian retaliation because of New Delhi’s fears of provoking a larger crisis.

Irrespective of the tactical effectiveness of the IAF’s strikes at Balakot, the strategic significance of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to attack targets in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province is that it has finally exorcised the ghost of self-deterrence, which had threatened to become an iron-clad constraint on the conduct of Indian retaliation. To be sure, New Delhi’s capacity to convey resolve would have been substantially enhanced had the IAF’s operations been viewed as unambiguously successful by all observers; had the Indian government characterized its actions simply as retributive justice intended to shore up deterrence rather than taking refuge in the legally obscurantist locution, “non-military preemptive action,” which was intended mainly to justify Indian decisions in terms of the laws of war; and had Indian political leaders not expressed questionable claims of success centered on body counts and the like. But even if the IAF strikes were a complete failure, the fact that the Indian government for the first time chose to attack sites in what is recognizably Pakistan’s national territory represents the erosion of a major psychological barrier—namely India’s reluctance to frontally challenge Pakistan’s nuclear coercion—and opens the door to future punitive actions that may be far more painful than those witnessed in this initial salvo.

Having said this, however, it would be equally premature to conclude that the fresh precedent of overt and direct attacks on Pakistani territory will henceforth automatically come to constitute a new floor for future Indian retaliation. The kind of avenging action that may be undertaken, or is justified, hereafter will always depend on political circumstances and the character of India’s leadership, which may push it in one of several directions: no retribution, limited retaliation, or highly expanded reprisals. No permanent rules can be derived for the indefinite future from the recent decision to attack Balakot, even though the Modi government’s decision to target Pakistani territory represents an important change from past Indian strategic practices.

Furthermore, Indian policymakers should be exceptionally careful to avoid suggesting that a repeat of Balakot, or more ambitious versions of the same, will henceforth come to define India’s retaliatory response to any significant terrorist attacks. Any insinuation or declaration to that effect would create unnecessary and unhelpful tests of Indian credibility, thus pushing policymakers into a cul-de-sac where they might either have to embarrassingly eat their words in a crisis or be forced into unwise courses of action that may not be justified by the demands of prudence.

Effective deterrence of Pakistani terrorism, especially after Balakot, may require more deliberate efforts by New Delhi to induce uncertainty about the severity of its future military responses. Such ambiguity is likely to be far more effective in coping with the continuing threat of Pakistani nuclear-shadowed terrorism than the unhelpful tyranny imposed by either declared redlines or the presumption that all future Indian retaliation must, as a matter of course, exceed the bounds set by the Indian military action in February 2019.

Good Luck May Not Hold Forever

Although the international press was charged by fears of nuclear escalation as India and Pakistan traded aerial blows at Balakot and beyond, the key distinguishing characteristic of the recent crisis was the deliberately limited levels of violence unleashed by the two South Asian rivals. In part, this restraint arose from the fact that the calamity at Pulwama created an inconvenient crisis for both nations.

At the Indian end, it is easy to imagine that the JeM attack on the CRPF convoy had produced a fresh opportunity for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)–led coalition to recover its political fortunes as it heads into a tighter national election than was imagined a year ago. Since the BJP is an ardently nationalist party that under Modi’s leadership has pursued tough policies both in Kashmir and against Pakistan, the Pulwama attack could arguably have provided Modi with an opportunity to inflict major reprisals on Pakistan. Such a course of action would demonstrate the merits of his decisive leadership, would summon Indians toward renewed national unity of the kind that materializes only in a crisis, and would create political capital in support of the BJP at a time when its economic record—the plank on which Modi secured his decisive majority in the 2014 election—was under attack in domestic politics.

On these assumptions, the terrorist attack at Pulwama would seem like a golden opportunity for Modi to transform an election that, until that point, was fought mostly on economic and political issues into a plebiscite on national security, where his nationalist credentials would advantage him over his opponents. For all these supposed benefits, however, the crisis precipitated by the JeM attack brought significant political downsides. For starters, the very fact that the attack occurred raised renewed questions about Indian counterterrorism effectiveness, the limitations of Indian intelligence, and the weaknesses of the operating practices of India’s internal security forces. Furthermore, that JeM was able to recruit a local Kashmiri to carry out the suicide bombing in its name—a deviation from the traditional pattern in which suicide attacks are carried out by Pakistani infiltrators—opened the door to uncomfortable questions about the Modi government’s policies in Jammu and Kashmir, obviously an issue that the BJP would not want reopened in the prelude to the election. Finally, any major terrorist attack in India raises the uncomfortable question of military retaliation—an issue that Indian governments traditionally have been skittish about for a variety of reasons ranging from the uncertainty about the effectiveness of their military responses to the fear of precipitating major conflicts at a time when the Indian nation is deeply concerned about pressing economic issues.

For all these reasons, the crisis produced by the attack at Pulwama could not be welcomed even by a strongly nationalist leader like Modi at a time when his reelection hangs in balance. The outcomes of interstate confrontations can never be discerned with certainty, are rarely subject to easy manipulation—because the antagonist has a vote too—and, if concluded either ambiguously or adversely, can actually harm a politician’s fortunes. Given these realities, Modi found himself in an unenviable situation. The attack at Pulwama was sufficiently conspicuous that some form of punishment was inevitable, particularly in an election season when the prime minister’s political credibility as a tough leader was on the line. Eschewing retaliation would have diminished his reputation for decisiveness and would have signaled timidity to Pakistan and especially to its deep state, emboldening Rawalpindi to step up its coercion of India. Vengeance, accordingly, was unavoidable, with the only question being whether it could be kept limited in space, time, and intensity.

If Modi was thus constrained in regard to the decision to use force, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan was even more hemmed in. Pakistan’s financial situation is extremely parlous and the country is once again contemplating a bailout by the International Monetary Fund, which would require the support of major global powers who are already deeply dismayed by Pakistan’s long history of support for various terrorist groups. The country is also under the scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force for weak enforcement of several terrorism financing codes. The United States, under President Donald Trump’s administration, has furthermore adopted a very tough posture toward Pakistan, cutting out large amounts of financial and military aid and threatening further unspecified consequences if Pakistan does not curb its support for terrorism and assist Washington in negotiating an orderly exit from Afghanistan. The circumstances of Khan’s election to the prime ministership have not helped matters either: elevated to power in what is widely seen as a corrupted poll conducted under the tutelage of the Pakistan military, Khan has since struggled to establish his own legitimacy as a rightful leader, arrest Pakistan’s economic slide, and improve its image as a responsible state in the community of nations.

With these aims, the JeM attack at Pulwama could not have come at a worse time for Khan. Although it appears that he recognizes the growing liabilities to Pakistan posed by the army’s support for various terrorist groups, he simply cannot compel the service and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) arm to shift course with respect to the policy of perpetually bleeding India. As a result, when the Pulwama attack occurred, Khan quickly realized that Pakistan would once again be in India’s crosshairs as the smoldering volcano of terrorism had erupted anew: whether or not the JeM attack was actually authorized by its ISI patrons was beside the point. The group operated out of Pakistan, had close links to the Pakistan military’s premier intelligence service, had a long history of violent attacks in India, and its actions now threatened to bring the two neighbors into a serious conflict that, however painful it might be for India, would be potentially catastrophic for Pakistan.

After his government’s early attempts at parrying Indian accusations failed—because the critical point was not whether the Government of Pakistan or its agencies had authorized the attack but rather that they have provided continuous sanctuary and support for JeM, among other groups, in the first place—Khan shifted his focus toward securing international support in order to ward off the expected Indian retaliation. On this score, too, his regime was disappointed as no permanent members of the UN Security Council offered support; the United States took a particularly tough line, with the European Union and Saudi Arabia joining in to urge Pakistan to root out the terrorist groups operating from its soil.

Perhaps the unkindest cut of all came from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which, having invited India’s external affairs minister as its guest of honor to its annual meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, rejected Islamabad’s plea to rescind the invitation as a mark of solidarity with Pakistan. Pakistan’s foreign minister, accordingly, boycotted the meeting and its government had to be content with a ritual denunciation of the Indian attack issued by the OIC secretariat, which “urged India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and avoid any steps that would endanger peace and security in the region” (emphasis added). As one senior Trump administration official speaking on background summarized things later, “There has been a lot of solidarity with India and a lot of frustration with the fact that Pakistan has still not cracked down on [terrorist] groups. Pakistan has been pretty isolated over this situation.”

Recognizing that Pakistan found itself vulnerable on the issue of terrorism internationally, and obviously seeking to avoid an unnecessary conventional war with India, the Khan government responded to the IAF’s attacks at Balakot with a deliberately measured rejoinder: it mounted a modest air raid across the Line of Control in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir—eschewing the option of attacking Indian territories beyond—while announcing in language that mimicked India’s that the PAF had “taken strikes at non-military target [sic], avoiding human loss and collateral damage.” Although the Pakistani surface strikes were probably as ineffective as their Indian counterparts at Balakot, the PAF shot down an Indian MiG-21 and apprehended its pilot as he bailed out over Pakistani Kashmir. (India claims that it downed a PAF F-16 during this engagement, but this claim has not been independently corroborated as yet.) Having demonstrated to India that its attack would not go unanswered, Imran Khan then seized the initiative by announcing that Pakistan would release the captured pilot as a gesture of goodwill, thus bringing the curtain down on the calamity provoked by Pulwama.

While the air engagements certainly represent an escalation compared to previous Indo-Pakistani interactions in the context of subconventional warfare, the carefully calibrated employment of force on both sides indicates that both New Delhi and Rawalpindi consciously sought to avoid a major conventional conflict, much less a nuclear crisis. The armies of the two nations, for example, were not mobilized or primed for combat. The Indian Navy did surge its surface and subsurface vessels, arguably as a precautionary measure as it has done in earlier crises, and possibly to hold at risk Pakistan’s seaborne assets far from its heartland—if the Indian government were to so order in case the crisis escalated further. Not surprisingly, Pakistan similarly increased the responsiveness of its own naval and naval air forces.

The IAF, the principal instrument chosen by India for its retaliation to the Pulwama attack, settled for a conservative option at the direction of India’s political leadership: striking Pakistani territory through the employment of a small flight of aircraft tasked with the covert penetration of Pakistani airspace, a mission intended to register the delicate balance between restraint and resolve. Even though the IAF activated its air defense net and raised the alert levels at many forward air bases, again for protective reasons, it did not engage in any offensive counterair operations in support of its intruding contingent, holding defensive counterair options in reserve only in case its attackers got into trouble. (The IAF employed these latter tactics the following day when Pakistan retaliated.) Similarly, the PAF strike force indulged in very shallow penetrations of Indian airspace beyond Pakistani Kashmir, conducted a perfunctory surface strike, and egressed quickly enough to satisfy the demands of both survivability and honor.

Far from irresponsibly rolling the dice, therefore, India and Pakistan employed force carefully and with restraint—as one would expect of states engaged in a conventional conflict under the nuclear umbrella. The use of “kinetic force” in this instance was driven less by the imperative of securing significant tactical goals and more as a form of “tacit bargaining.” As Neil Joeck pointed out in an insightful essay published almost thirty years ago on the subject of nuclear proliferation, India and Pakistan have developed the capacity to engage in such patterns of interaction, which permit them to produce beneficial outcomes despite the Sturm und Drang of otherwise energetic strategic competition.1

During the Balakot crisis, this capacity was displayed with telling effect. It suggests that both nuclear powers—their often wild rhetoric notwithstanding—have taken the measure of the other and have learned how to calibrate the use of force to secure some desired political ends. Thomas Schelling’s landmark work during the Cold War demonstrated that successful outcomes can be obtained even in highly competitive environments without formal (or complete) communication between two adversaries as long as the actors involved are capable of recognizing limits, assessing competing interests, and pursuing independently rational actions that exploit “uncoordinated coordination” to produce restrained outcomes in situations where failure can be extraordinarily costly.2

Obviously, the international community cannot be confident that such tacit bargaining will always occur successfully between India and Pakistan. To the degree that such an assurance is necessary for peace and stability, however, it is imperative that the critical precipitant, namely Pakistani terrorism against India, remain the central focus of all international efforts in South Asia. Indian restraints, though driven this time around by domestic considerations as much as international ones, may not appear in a future crisis. Pakistan, too, may be propelled toward escalation even if it seeks to avoid that.

Where the larger conditions for a return to conflict are concerned, there are disconcerting portents already appearing in Islamabad. With the Balakot crisis having subsided, Pakistan’s leaders appear to be now dishing out a self-serving tale that disaster in February 2019 was averted largely because of their restraint, which has been “lauded” by the international community and especially by the United States. Using cherry-picked fragments of U.S. statements, or news of conversations between Pakistani officials and their U.S. counterparts, a congratulatory narrative about Pakistani responsibility in the face of Indian hostility is being constructed and disseminated through the press and the electronic media nationally. The precipitating driver of the disaster at Pulwama, namely Pakistan’s support for various terrorist groups against India and Afghanistan and the role of JeM in engineering the massacre of CRPF troopers, is artfully overlooked in favor of a smug encomium that centers largely on Pakistan’s “self-defense against an external aggression.”

After every confrontation with India in the past, various spinmeisters in Pakistan have woven similar fables, all intended to absolve their country of responsibility. Over time, these narratives are endlessly repeated, and invariably come to constitute the received wisdom inside Pakistan. They reinforce the perception that Pakistan’s woes are owed entirely to the malfeasance of others and, in this instance, are especially dangerous because they will end up reinforcing Rawalpindi’s reluctance to extirpate its jihadi proxies given their presumed utility for the ongoing struggles with India.

Confronting Pakistan’s prevailing policies on terrorism as well as its various subterfuges to avoid changing course are, therefore, essential if a future descent into the use of unlimited force is to be averted in South Asia. Islamabad, but more importantly Rawalpindi, needs to be aided and pressed toward achieving this outcome—with assistance to be entertained only if there is a demonstrable—and permanent—Pakistani commitment to eliminating the terrorist groups it has begotten over the decades. Without durable proof of such actions, political support and financial backing will only end up being a case of throwing good money after bad, as the sorry record of U.S. aid toward Pakistan after the September 11 terrorist attacks has demonstrated.

The Trump Administration’s Successful Crisis Management Could Prove Fragile

There is a widespread perception that the Trump administration was delinquent in managing the India-Pakistan crisis as it evolved after Pulwama. This view is mistaken. It arises from the expectation that U.S. intervention in subcontinental crises must be conspicuous, heavy-handed, and focused only on pursuing restraint and de-escalation, no matter what the stakes or the circumstances. Previous interventions by Washington usually conformed to this template, with then president Bill Clinton’s management of the Kargil crisis in 1999 regarded as the gold standard. The Trump team’s involvement in the Balakot predicament was very different both in style and substance, but it was successful given the objective it set for itself: the refusal, for the first time, to permit the United States to become an accessory after the fact to Pakistan’s nuclear coercion of India.

The Trump administration may be faulted for many foreign policy failings but, during the Balakot crisis at least, it found the right balance between avoiding support for Rawalpindi’s strategy of seeking international intervention to shield it from the consequences of debacles of its own making and the necessity of avoiding escalation sequences that could eventuate in nuclear weapons use. To this end, the administration was undoubtedly aided by both India’s and Pakistan’s own restraint, but the fact that U.S. policy has now come to such a pass suggests a further evolution in U.S. attitudes toward Pakistani terrorism. And rightly so.

Contemporary U.S. efforts to confront the challenges of Pakistani terrorism go back to the Clinton administration, which first had to deal with the upsurge in Rawalpindi’s coercion as Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal gradually matured. Pakistani terrorism against India in fact predates its acquisition of nuclear weaponry: the ISI actively supported the Sikh insurgency in the Punjab in the early 1980s, but as Pakistan gradually acquired nuclear capabilities during that decade, it increasingly turned its attention—even before it had actually created a nuclear arsenal—to thinking about how it could exploit its new strategic capabilities to wrest Kashmir away from India. Once the Kashmir insurgency began in earnest after the rigged 1987 state elections, Pakistan jumped in with both feet to support the Kashmiri rebellion against India. This led to a major India-Pakistan crisis in 1990, which was defused in part through a very public U.S. intervention by Robert Gates, then president George H. W. Bush’s emissary to the subcontinent.

The Clinton administration had to deal with the ravages of the Indo-Pakistani rivalry over Kashmir that raged throughout the 1990s, which led Clinton to once famously describe the salubrious state as “the most dangerous place on earth.” The Clinton administration’s approach to Pakistani terrorism against India during this period focused fundamentally on condemning terrorist outrages whenever they occurred, but without necessarily reproaching Pakistan publicly. At the same time, it exhorted both New Delhi and Islamabad to negotiate their differences on Kashmir with the expectation that, if this “root cause” of conflict were to disappear, the problems of terrorism and the attendant risks of conventional conflict and nuclear escalation would vanish as well.

This otherwise sensible view did not take into account the fact that Pakistani grievances about India had long ceased to be centered on Kashmir alone: after the 1971 war, the desire to avenge Pakistan’s defeat became an important motivation, and, in more recent times, preventing India’s rise has also become a strategic priority of the Pakistani military. In any event, by the time the Clinton administration departed from office—after the shock of the brazen Pakistani invasion at Kargil in the aftermath of India’s then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s extraordinary peace pilgrimage to Lahore—Clinton felt compelled to warn Pakistan that “this era does not reward people who struggle in vain to redraw borders with blood.” The dismay at Pakistan’s behavior, its dalliance with terrorism, and the reckless ambition of its military had finally combined to leave senior U.S. policymakers publicly critical of Pakistan’s increasing dependence on terrorism as a security strategy and to focus more on this danger than on ameliorating Islamabad’s grievances over Kashmir.

This shift only deepened during the George W. Bush administration. In dealing with the consequences of the September 11 attacks, the United States for the first time came face-to-face with the challenges of confronting violent Pakistani surrogates—the Taliban and their al-Qaeda guests in Afghanistan and the motley collection of groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and JeM, which were employed predominantly against India. As the dehyphenation of India and Pakistan became the centerpiece of Bush’s policy toward South Asia—a natural consequence of the fact that India’s geopolitical fortunes were rising in sharp contrast to Pakistan’s—his administration’s emphasis on confronting the problems posed by Pakistan’s reliance on jihadi terrorism only increased. This was required partly by the demands imposed on Washington by the global war on terror and partly by the necessity of defusing the intense Indo-Pakistani military crisis that materialized in 2001–2002.

During this episode, the Bush administration focused on pressing Rawalpindi to retrench its support for its anti-India terrorist proxies, but ultimately had to give Pakistan a pass because Washington was, for understandable reasons, unprepared to sacrifice Pakistan’s cooperation against al-Qaeda. On several occasions, senior administration officials did attempt privately to push India toward negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir, again on the old assumption that, if the Kashmir issue were resolved, the larger India-Pakistan security competition would disappear. However, they were consistently rebuffed by New Delhi, which wanted Washington to keep an insistent focus on Pakistani terrorism rather than on the supposed “root causes” that spawn it.

Because the Bush administration’s approach to the war of terror also rejected the idea of “root causes” as a justification for terrorism, because India was independently engaged in a back channel dialogue with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir, and because the new U.S. partnership with India made Washington more cognizant of Indian sensitivities, the administration eventually ceased to make the resolution of the Kashmir problem the centerpiece of its peacemaking in South Asia. This sensible policy shift was accompanied instead by condemning Pakistani terrorism more insistently, particularly as U.S. problems with the Taliban began to mount in Afghanistan.

The startling LeT attack in Bombay in November 2008 pushed the United States toward a further modification of its policy. Responding to the familiar Pakistani refrain—against the weight of the available evidence of official complicity—that the atrocity was perpetrated by “stateless actors,” then secretary of state Condoleezza Rice nonetheless held Pakistan responsible on the grounds that even stateless actors operate from the territory of states; consequently, Pakistan ultimately retained responsibility for the actions of its terrorist occupants.

This evolution came to constitute the new U.S. baseline in regards to terrorism emanating from Pakistan’s borders, a position that held throughout former president Barack Obama’s administration. During this time, concerns about Pakistan’s deep enmeshment with terrorism received renewed attention and Rawalpindi’s intentions provoked even greater skepticism in Washington than was the case during the Bush administration. Consequently, when yet another Pakistani terrorist attack occurred at Uri in September 2016, the Obama administration moved the needle further. After then national security adviser Susan Rice “reiterated [the U.S.] expectation that Pakistan take effective action to combat and delegitimize United Nations-designated terrorist individuals and entities,” a senior White House official speaking on the record declared that the United States “empathized [with] the Indians’ perception that they need to respond militarily.”

The Trump administration’s declaration in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack thus constitutes a further—inevitable—progression of U.S. policy toward Pakistani terrorism against India. When National Security Advisor John Bolton forthrightly declared in a conversation with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval “that we support India’s right to self-defense,” he was not merely affirming the obvious. Rather, giving vent to Washington’s exhaustion with Pakistan’s decades-old duplicity on terrorism, Bolton did not merely convey the administration’s recognition that Modi had little choice but to retaliate in the circumstances—as Obama’s officials had done previously—but consciously sought to undermine the traditional Pakistani strategy of nuclear coercion by signaling that the United States would neither intervene to shield Pakistan from Indian retaliation nor offer Rawalpindi any form of exculpatory support. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirmed this approach publicly when he declared on Twitter, seemingly the administration’s preferred channel for strategic communications, “We stand with #India as it confronts terrorism. Pakistan must not provide safe haven for terrorists to threaten international security.”

Having declaimed thus, senior Trump administration officials went silent, producing the mistaken impression that they were missing in action. In fact, they were implementing outside of the public eye a new policy toward Pakistani terrorism, which consisted of pressing hard on Pakistan—demanding that it satisfy detailed stipulations pertaining to the suppression of JeM—even as Washington publicly afforded India new latitude in undertaking retribution. Unlike previous U.S. attempts at crisis management, which involved visible trips to the region by high-profile dignitaries, the Trump team settled for intense behind-the-scenes pressure on Pakistan mounted by the highest levels of the U.S. government and conveyed through clear messages delivered by the secretary of state, the national security adviser, and senior U.S. military officials to their Pakistani counterparts. This preference for recessed diplomacy was grounded in the judgment that it would allow Pakistan to save face while still complying with U.S. terms.

The administration’s pursuit of a quiet, but asymmetric, strategy during the Balakot crisis—leaning on Pakistan while providing respite to India—did not go unnoticed. Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington, Asad Majeed Khan, took strong issue with the policy, telling local reporters that the U.S. response to the Indian air strike was “construed and understood [in New Delhi] as an endorsement of the Indian position, and that is what emboldened them even more.” That the Trump administration nevertheless persisted with its approach spoke volumes about its desire to protect the U.S.-India strategic partnership and, furthermore, reflected its confidence that any Indian retaliation would be both measured and limited. The frequent communication between U.S. and Indian officials during this period, when the latter previewed their intentions, strengthened the administration’s conviction about the viability of its basic orientation.

As a result, when Pompeo urged both sides to avoid “further military activity” in the aftermath of the Indian attack inside Pakistan, his remarks were aimed mainly at exhorting the two rivals to return to the status quo ante rather than conveying any criticism of the Indian retaliation. This advice, at any rate, emerged from an abundance of caution because of the concern that supporting military activities on both sides might inadvertently trigger further violence.

The administration’s clear support for India during this crisis appears to have secured some early dividends. Under strong private pressure from the United States (supported by the international community), the Pakistani government has recently begun to crack down on jihadi groups like JeM and LeT. Pakistan has no doubt undertaken similar actions before, only to have them peter out after international pressure subsided. Whether the current Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Bajwa’s desire to progressively rid the nation of its jihadi groups—including those currently supported by his own army and intelligence services—is real, only time will tell. The emerging Pakistani propaganda, however, which pretends that the crisis provoked by the Pulwama attack has no relationship to Pakistani terrorism, does not bode well for the objective of eliminating jihadi violence as an instrument of state policy.

To the degree that the Balakot attacks precipitated renewed U.S. pressure on Pakistan, they have served a useful purpose. The Trump administration, at any rate, should not give Pakistan respite: through both multilateral instruments and direct pressure, it should continue to compel both Islamabad and Rawalpindi to persist with putting the jihadi proxies they have nurtured out of business.

Trump is uniquely positioned in this regard. He already harbors an intense dislike of Pakistan’s perfidy, and he has the required recklessness to make any game of chicken that Pakistan chooses to play a losing proposition for Rawalpindi. His administration’s strategy of cutting India slack in regard to its retaliation for Pulwama has paid off for now: an unmanageable escalation of the Indo-Pakistani conflict has been avoided, India can claim satisfaction for the losses it has suffered, and Pakistan has had to reckon with international isolation and embarrassment yet again despite its pretenses to the contrary. All in all, this constitutes a decent outcome, but precisely because there is no assurance that it can be easily replicated in the future, Trump and his national security team ought to stay focused on ensuring that Pakistani terrorism against India (and Afghanistan) is defeated for the success of larger U.S. geopolitical interests in Asia.

After Balakot, What?

For all the drama associated with the Indian air strikes at Balakot, the fundamental structure of larger Indo-Pakistani strategic competition in South Asia has merely been altered but not decisively transformed. The longer-term decisions about India’s strategy for dealing with Pakistan are still not settled, and Indian policy for addressing the problems in Jammu and Kashmir going forward—which provide endless opportunities for Pakistani meddling—is as yet unclear. Further complicating matters is the fact that the recent IAF strikes at Balakot, while serving to catalyze U.S. pressure on Pakistan to restrain its terrorist proxies, may have done little toward deterring Rawalpindi in the future. The widely perceived operational ineffectiveness of the IAF’s interdiction mission on February 26 in particular ought to raise serious questions in the minds of both the IAF leadership and India’s civilian security managers. Finally, the awful Indian public diplomacy after the air battles leaves doubts about New Delhi’s ability to manage power on the global stage: the tall, unsubstantiated, and bombastic claims advanced by Indian leaders, the IAF’s evasiveness about the bomb damage assessment at Balakot, and the quality of the national debate throughout the crisis (especially in the Indian electronic media) have not enhanced India’s respectability. None of these shortcomings are irreparable, but if unaddressed they will impede India’s ambitions to become a leading power.

Pakistan’s challenges are far graver in contrast. Although Prime Minister Imran Khan came out of the crisis with his image burnished, the challenges he faces at home on multiple fronts remain daunting. Unfortunately, he has not, thus far, demonstrated any meaningful capacity to develop policies that address these problems. That his actions helped defuse the crisis does not in any way efface the reality that Pakistan was isolated internationally as it attempted to deflect the Indian accusations over Pulwama—and justifiably so because the global community has few doubts that Pakistan still remains the fount of terrorism in southern Asia. Islamabad has demonstrated a disconcerting capacity not simply to spin this reality but, more dangerously, to believe its own illusions, a pathology that only strengthens its continuing involvement in terrorism even as it fails to respond to the widespread international disenchantment with its behavior.

The costs paid by Pakistan—not to mention others—for nurturing terrorist groups over the last four decades have been high, and the world community is now tired of Pakistan’s persistent denials, obfuscation, and equivocation when it comes to confronting the monsters it has begotten. Khan’s government today represents, for perhaps the first time in a decade, a military regime with a civilian façade, and he is partnered with an army chief who seems sensitive to the damage done both to Pakistan’s reputation and its state capacity as a result of its traditional investments in terrorism. Whether Pakistan can now pull away from the abyss in the face of those entrenched constituencies that benefit from terrorism remains to be seen, but the future promises only further embarrassment and persistent dangers to Pakistan’s well-being if Imran Khan is not up to the task.

The United States, contrary to many critics, acquitted itself honorably during the recent crisis. It held Pakistan to account for the ongoing terrorism against India, protected the strategic partnership with New Delhi, and worked without fanfare to dampen inadvertent escalation between the two rivals. To that degree, Washington discharged its traditional role in India-Pakistan crises, but its task was made easier this time around because both of the belligerents had their own reasons to prevent the altercation from getting out of hand. It would be unwise for the United States to tempt fate in this regard: even though the escalation chain from terrorism to nuclear war is far longer in the Indian subcontinent than popular commentary suggests, the stakes are sufficiently high that the United States ought to take no chances. It requires Washington to focus single-mindedly on Pakistan, its sustenance of terrorism, and its provocative strategy of nuclear coercion.

The problems of Jammu and Kashmir are largely a distraction in this regard. The Trump administration must summon the fortitude to avoid any involvement in this dispute between India and Pakistan. Any attempted intervention by Washington will only land it in a deep diplomatic morass, which will immediately threaten the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership while making a resolution of the original quarrel even more difficult. Consequently, as Joshua White has sensibly counseled, Washington “should avoid the temptation to engage the sudden bouts of hyper-legalism that afflict Pakistani leaders following a terrorist attack in India, and focus instead on the uncomfortable truths that are already plainly in public view.” The facts speak for themselves: Pakistani terrorists often kill Indian and Afghan citizens and have been doing so for decades, whereas the reverse is never true. Centering U.S. policy on this simple fact will take Washington in a direction where it might be able to prevent future conflicts between India and Pakistan, protect the strategically vital partnership with New Delhi, and perhaps, just perhaps, even help save Pakistan from itself.

The author is deeply grateful to John H. Gill for his close reading and very helpful comments on this article.


1 Neil Joeck, “Tacit Bargaining and Stable Proliferation in South Asia,” Journal of Strategic Studies 13, no. 3 (1990): 77–91.

2 Thomas C. Schelling, “Bargaining, Communication, and Limited War,” Conflict Resolution 1, no. 1 (March 1957): 19–36.