Why India and Pakistan could be big headaches for the next U.S. president

In an election campaign that has made Donald Trump look like a crazy, self-imploding clown, here are two statements the Republican presidential nominee has made that are indisputably true. The first was his observation that airports in the United States are like those in a (so-called) “Third World country.” The second was his comment that the India-Pakistan equation is a “very, very hot tinderbox.”

Indians and Pakistanis who agree on nothing these days found themselves nervously giggling in unison at Trump’s offer to “mediate” between the two countries. But unwittingly the bombastic candidate actually flagged one of the foreign policy challenges that could necessitate the next U.S. president’s early attention.

In the likely event of a Hillary Clinton win, her administration will no longer be able to count on New Delhi displaying what is known as strategic restraint; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dramatically altered the traditional Pakistan doctrine with several high-risk firsts. None of the old rules apply.

Modi’s electoral campaign in 2014 mercilessly mocked India’s previous Congress government for being too soft on Pakistan and promised a muscular response to Islamabad-backed terrorists; his boasting of having a 56-inch chest came to be the ultimate metaphor for his government’s machismo. But armed with the largest political victory by any prime minister in 30 years, Modi in fact ended up displaying an audacious appetite for gambling on peace instead.

In May 2014, in a historic first, Modi invited Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his oath-taking ceremony. In December 2015, he showed the kind of dramatic gumption no leader before him had when he made a surprise unscheduled visit to Lahore to wish Sharif well on his birthday. When this trip was followed by a terrorist attack on an Indian air force installation, he held his nerve and allowed Pakistani investigators, including one from the Pakistani spy agency ISI, to visit the military base- another contentious first.

After these initiatives failed, Modi channeled the same capacity for taking perilous but strong-willed chances by turning hard line on Pakistan. The policy shift came earlier this year during a two-month period of civilian unrest in the Kashmir Valley spurred on by the killing of a local militant, Burhan Wani. The Modi government saw the internal dimension of anger and alienation as distinct from Pakistan’s fueling of the fire. A ratcheted-up campaign by the Sharif government to present Wani on the international stage as a sort of victim-hero prompted a furious India to underscore human rights violations by Pakistan in its own province of Baluchistan. Modi railed against these atrocities while addressing the nation on India’s Independence Day in the presence of the global diplomatic corps. This was a radical departure from the policy of all previous governments; India was challenging not just Pakistan, but China as well — the province is critical for Beijing’s proposed $46 billion economic corridor that seeks to connect Xinjiang to the Gwadar port in Balochistan.

Then came the attack on an army camp in Kashmir in which 19 Indian soldiers were killed. Eleven days later, in the first such acknowledgment of its kind, the Modi government went public with the fact that special forces commandos had crossed the line of control (a military control line that serves as the de facto frontier separating Kashmir on the Indian side from the Pakistani side) to conduct surgical strikes on terror launchpads from where the Pakistani military facilitates the crossing over of armed infiltrators into Indian territory.

This is now India’s new normal — an attempt to increase the cost of terrorism for Pakistan and call out what many in Modi’s party called the “nuclear bogey.”  The conventional wisdom of ‘nuclear deterrence’ — that fears of escalation between two nuclear powers would hold back India from an officially owned punitive response to terrorism — has been openly challenged.

India’s message was not just for Pakistan but also for countries such as the United States that have long counted on the deterrence theory to manage regional tensions. Writers including George Perkovich and Toby Dalton (“Not War, Not Peace“) have argued that that a military counterattack by India could escalate to “destruction beyond imagination” but that has not happened — at least so far. The theater of conflict is currently confined to Jammu and Kashmir along the 124 mile-long international border and the 450-mile stretch of the line of control where a 13-year-old cease-fire is under threat. Mortar fire has returned to areas where even small-arms weapons had fallen more or less silent.

How will (and should) the United States respond if the Indo-Pak border flares up further? Another terror strike on India’s mainland could send all calculations awry.

In contrast to Trump’s vague generalizations, Clinton has a keen understanding of how Pakistan’s “deep state” has for decades used terrorism as a virtual weapon of asymmetric warfare against India. In June 2014, Clinton told me in an interview that elements within the Pakistani Army and its main spy agency, the ISI, “were under the mistaken view that having these kinds of proxies vis-à-vis India, vis-à-vis Afghanistan was in Pakistan’s interests, not just the military’s interest, but in their sovereign interest.” She went on to compare this to “keeping poisonous snakes in your backyard expecting they will only bite your neighbor’’ as a commentary on how jihadists and obscurantists had begun to devour Pakistan from the inside.

As secretary of state, Clinton  announced a $10 million bounty for information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Saeed, key architect of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008 and the Pakistan-based head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba. One-hundred and sixty-six people were killed in the 72-hour siege, including six Americans. Clinton told me she was struck by how “difficult” it must have been for India to show “restraint” after the attacks.

That restraint can no longer be taken for granted — that’s India’s messaging to Washington. Given Clinton’s proud mention of monitoring the operation that took out Osama bin Laden from his hideout in Pakistan (“While you were hosting ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ Donald”), there is an expectation in India that she will bring some of her famed hawkishness to her administration’s Pakistan policy. No blank checks on military aid; stringent economic pressure to shut down terror groups; and a foreign policy grammar that doesn’t club India and Pakistan together, or worse, separate them only by a hyphen.

In September, in a closed-door Virginia fundraiser, Clinton warned of the dangers of a jihadist coup in Pakistan and the possibility of “suicide nuclear bombers.” She gets it. Which means in her early days in the Oval Office, Clinton may need to do some plain-speaking with Pakistan much sooner than she had bargained for.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines. Dutt is based in New Delhi.

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