How Far Will America Really Go to Back India Against Pakistan?

New Delhi has set a new precedent: when the next provocation comes, it won't hesitate to take the fight into Pakistan. Until what point will the Trump administration 'stand with #India,' as Pompeo recently tweeted?

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U.S. President Donald Trump meets Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 leaders summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina November 30, 2018
טראמפ ומודי. רה"מ הודו ניצח בבחירות בעזרת רטוריקה לאומניתCredit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS
Rupakjyoti Borah
Rupakjyoti Borah

The late February air strikes by Indian fighter jets were meant to send a tough message to Pakistan. In the small hours of that night, Indian Air Force Mirage-2000 jets pounded terror camps at Balakot in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan in what the Indian Ministry of External Affairs termed a "non-military pre-emptive action." The strike was in response to the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama in which at least 40 Central Reserve Police Force troops were killed by Pakistan-based militants.

The following day, the Pakistan Air Force launched a sudden attack targeting Indian military installations. In the ensuing dogfight, India lost a MiG-21 fighter and a pilot was captured. In a welcome development, the Indian pilot was subsequently released by Pakistan.

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In the aftermath of the attack, India went on a diplomatic offensive. The Indian Foreign Secretary noted at a press conference that the airstrike "specifically targeted the JeM(Jaish-e-Mohammed) camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence."

In the aftermath of the initial Pulwama terror attack on Feb 14, one of the strongest expressions of support came from the Trump administration.  The U.S. National Security Advisor, John Bolton and the U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo backed India’s right to self-defense. Pompeo tweeted: "We stand with #India as it confronts terrorism. Pakistan must not provide safe haven for terrorists to threaten international security."

Pakistani soldiers patrol in the area where Indian planes launched a pre-dawn airstrike targeting a terrorist training camp near Balakot, Pakistan. Feb. 27, 2019Credit: Aqeel Ahmed,AP

What are the implications of an Indian Air Force so deep inside Pakistan? And how far will the U.S. back India in any renewed, and potentially more lethal, conflict with Pakistan?

First, it means that New Delhi will from now on up the ante and will not hesitate to take the fight into Pakistan. This air strike is very significant as it was the first time that Indian jets crossed into Pakistani territory since the 1971 war, which led to the creation of Bangladesh.  Previously, India had not crossed the Line of Control diving Kashmir, even during the Kargil War of 1999 - but this time it was different.

Secondly, it means that India is trying to upset the calculations of the Pakistani deep state. Islamabad backs terror elements, which had indulged in a spate of terror attacks in India, including the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008, when Pakistan-backed terrorists carried out a series of coordinated attacks in the city, killing Indians as well as nationals from many foreign countries, including Americans and Israelis

Going forward, the American factor will be very significant for India, and may well influence the scale of its response in another round, as well as dissuading other superpowers from challenging India's response.

The strong U.S. support may have played a role in the somewhat muted Chinese response to this round of Indian air strikes. The Chinese Foreign Ministry laconically noted, "We have taken note of relevant reports. I want to say that India and Pakistan are both important countries. A sound relationship and cooperation serve the interests of peace and stability in South Asia. Both parties remain restrained and (should) do more to improve bilateral relations."  

An Indian student lights a candle to pay tribute to Central Reserve Police Force personnel, in Chennai, following an attack on a CRPF convoy in Kashmir. February 18, 2019 Credit: AFP

China has already poured in a lot of money into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and clearly has a lot of national prestige depends on it. If India-Pakistan tensions spill over, it will directly impact Chinese investments in Pakistan. There has already been a backlash in many countries to the  Belt and Road Initiative, a Chinese regional development project, and the last thing that Beijing needs is its investments going down the drain in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, three P-5 countries (the U.S., UK, France) have moved a fresh resolution in the UN Security Council to designate Pakistan-based terror group JeM chief Masood Azhar as a global terrorist. On earlier occasions too, New Delhi had moved such resolutions but these resolutions had been vetoed by China. It remains to be seen how Beijing will react this time.

The Pakistani economy is in tatters, its foreign exchange reserves barely topping $8 billion it is already on the "grey list" of the Financial Action Task Force, and the country has been looking for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Here too, the U.S. could turn on the screws on Islamabad.

Although Pakistan has released the Indian pilot, New Delhi should not lower its guard. As India has clear conventional superiority, Pakistan may once again go for unconventional warfare.

Supporters of the All Pakistan Muslim League Quid hold national flags beside a replica of a missile during an anti-India protest, in Karachi on March 5, 2019Credit: AFP

Washington has unequivocally indicated that it will back India’s "right to self-defense" in the face of Pakistan-sponsored terror. After the Indian airstrikes of Feb 26, Pompeo reiterated that stance when he spoke with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and stressed "the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil." 

New Delhi sees that its interests are clearly aligned with the U.S. in the global power stakes. Regarding the U.S.'s rivals and opponents, Beijing still remains a concern for India. As for its ties with Iran (a potentially serious irritant in its ties with Washington), New Delhi is treading a careful path between Iran and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE, a policy driven by its national interests, especially energy demands.

Islamabad may have overestimated Washington’s dependence on it as Trump seeks a way out of Afghanistan. An administration determined to withdraw U.S. troops does need Pakistan's military to take up the slack. But a broader assessment indicates the United States clearly understands the importance of India and its capacity to act as an amicable swing state in the Indo-Pacific. 

Dr. Rupakjyoti Borah conducts research at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. His latest book is "The Elephant and the Samurai: Why Japan Can Trust India?" Twitter: @rupakj

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