Despite Washington's preoccupations with the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi, the United States had launched intense diplomatic efforts to tamp down the rising India-Pakistan tension before Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's announcement that he was going to free the Indian pilot captured by his country. There are enough signs that Washington may have had advance information about it. If Islamabad had expected condemnation of India or even a measure of understanding from Washington when Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mohammed Qureshi called Secretary of State Michael Pompeo soon after the Balakot raid, it was disappointed.
As the US negotiations with the Taliban enter a crucial phase and Washington plans to reduce the number of troops based there by half, and eventually pullout completely in five years, it has to ensure that chaos on the subcontinent do not interfere with its plans.
Secretary of State Pompeo has said that he spent “a good deal of time” Wednesday night with leaders of both neighbours before Khan made the announcement on Thursday calling it a gesture of goodwill. Pompeo did not say to whom he had spoken on Wednesday, but in an earlier round on Tuesday he had spoken to both External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj and Pakistan FM Qureshi. It would appear from the timeline of events leading up to Khan's statement about freeing the pilot that US had advance knowledge of it.
President Donald Trump said cryptically at a news conference that began around 12:30 pm Indian Time in Hanoi, “We have, I think, reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India” and added, “I think, hopefully, that (the confrontation) is going to be coming to an end”.
Hours later at a Pakistan National Assembly session to discuss the India-Pakistan situation that began in Islamabad at 3:30 pm Indian time, Khan declared that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was going home to India.
Tellingly, Trump headlined the India-Pakistan issue in his statement to reporters in Hanoi, even ahead of the breakdown in talks with North Korea. He said the US had “been involved in trying to have them stop” and “been in the middle, trying to help them both out” .
Again, later in Manila, Pompeo made the Delhi-Islamabad diplomacy the top item at his news conference.
He told reporters that he had good conversations with leaders of India and Pakistan to ensure “there was good information exchanged” and hoped to lessen the tension on the subcontinent.
“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 in Manila.
He added, “I had good conversations, and I am 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”.
Neither Trump nor Pompeo directly took credit directly for the Varthaman's impending release or for Khan's conciliatory tone, beyond the hints.
But it had echoes of the Kargil conflict in 1999 when India and Pakistan were on the brink of a major conflict and then-President Bill Clinton intervened to get Islamabad to back down.
After provoking India by sending its troops into Kargil in Kashmir and facing a defeat and isolation, Pakistan's then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appealed to Clinton for help. Clinton “made Pakistan’s withdrawal a precondition for a settlement and the price it must pay for the U.S. diplomatic involvement it had long sought,” according to Strobe Talbott, who was the Deputy Secretary of State.
Then as now, the nuclear factor did not work.
The killing of more than 45 Central Reserve Police Force personnel in a suicide bombing in Pulwan on February 14 for which the Pakistan-based Jaishe-e-Mohammad (JeM) owned responsibility created a fresh wave of revulsion in Washington and around the world sickened by terrorism.
Last week Trump made a statement that made India's retaliation sound reasonable, when he said that he "understood" why New Delhi was seeking a strong response to the suicide bombing. New Delhi is "looking for something strong" and because India has lost almost 50 people in the Pulwama attack, "I can understand that also", he said.
After the Indian strike on a JeM base in Balakot, Secretary of State Pompeo issued the sternest possible message to Pakistan on Tuesday offering a justification for Indian Air Force's actions by calling them "counter-terrorism actions", a loaded phrase in international parlance.
He also mentioned "close security partnership" between the US and India.
(The writer is a New York-based Nonresident Fellow, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)