U.S. President Donald Trump signaled there might be an easing of tensions between nuclear-armed South Asian rivals India and Pakistan after days of escalation that resulted in skirmishes between their air forces and fears of all-out war.
“I think reasonably attractive news from Pakistan and India. They’ve been going at it and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop. Hopefully, that’s going to be coming to an end,” the U.S. president said at a press conference in Vietnam after he finished a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Later in the day, Pakistan’s prime minister, Imran Khan, announced his country was going to release “as a peace gesture” an Indian pilot captured Wednesday when Pakistan shot down an Indian war plane.
Welcoming Pakistan’s announcement, Indian Air Force Vice Marshal R.G.K Kapoor said that the “IAF (Indian Air Force) is happy and looks forward to return of Wing Commander Abhinandan” (Varthaman). Asked if it was being seen as a goodwill gesture, he said, “We see it as a gesture in consonance with Geneva Conventions.”
The pilot’s return, however, could be “a kind of breakthrough. That could create the conditions for any diplomatic discussion, dialogue,” says Manoj Joshi, a strategic affairs expert at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
Many analysts on both sides said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could not afford to lose face ahead of a tough election soon, so Pakistan might have to offer him something to present to his public.
Khan, according to Lahore-based political analyst Rasool Bakhsh Raees, had already made one such concession by offering to have a dialogue with India on terrorism.
“Pakistan’s policy for a decade-and-a-half has been that they were willing to discuss terrorism with Kashmir and a host of other issues,” Raees said, calling it a big change and saying that if Modi were wise, he would seize the opportunity.
So far, Modi has avoided taking calls from the Pakistani prime minister, who said he tried to reach out.
Even if the hostilities between the South Asian rivals subside under international pressure, the head of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, Ajai Sahni, feared that aerial combat along their disputed border in Kashmir could become the “new normal.”
“What I see basically is that this is going to turn into the new normal, that as we have the incessant cycle of cross-border firing, in which hundreds of lives are lost, we will also have now the possibility of occasional or frequent aerial air skirmishes in which more lives will be lost.”
The Line of Control, the de facto border in Kashmir, is already volatile, with thousands of instances of cross-border shelling in the last few years, disrupting lives in villages close to it.
The shelling was so heavy Tuesday night, according to residents in the border town of Chakothi on the Pakistani side, that they were forced to flee their homes to nearby Muzaffarabad to take shelter.
Tensions between the two countries mounted after an attack earlier this month in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed more than 40 security personnel. A Pakistan-based group, Jaish e Mohammad, claimed responsibility.
Even though Pakistan claims it does not support militant groups and Prime Minister Khan has offered to cooperate in the investigation of the attack, the international community’s reaction seems to indicate the country might face long-term pressure over the issue, even after the current crisis is over.
In the wake of the attack, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed Pakistan to take “meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.”
The European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, Federica Mogherini, said Pakistan needed to take “clear and targeted action related to all forms of terrorist activity,” saying “[t]errorism can never be justified.”
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for “accountability under international law and the perpetrators of the terrorist acts be brought to swift justice.”
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his country would work to ensure “those responsible for the attack are held to account.”
A fresh proposal is expected to be tabled by the United States, Britain and France in the U.N. Security Council to designate the head of JeM, Masood Azhar, as a global terrorist. This has been a long-standing demand of India but previous bids have been blocked by China, ostensibly on behalf of Pakistan. JeM is already on the U.N.’s list of terrorist organizations.
Pakistan’s leader said the country was already taking action against all terrorist groups in compliance with the Financial Action Task Force requirements. The international terror funding monitor has placed Pakistan on its watch list.