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Trump more hands-off than predecessors on India-Pakistan conflict

Pakistani soldiers stand next to what Pakistan says is the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan controled Kashmir at Somani area in Bhimbar district
Pakistani soldiers stand next to the wreckage of an Indian fighter jet shot down in Pakistan controled Kashmir, on Feb. 27, 2019. Photo: STR/AFP via Getty Images

As India and Pakistan descend into direct combat over violent attacks in Kashmir and subsequent cross-border reprisal, the U.S. appears unprepared to help defuse the situation.

The big picture: The India-Pakistan salvos mark the biggest international security crisis test of the Trump presidency. But unlike his predecessors, who viewed conflict on the Indian subcontinent as an issue of paramount importance, Trump and his team have seemed content to lie low, or even to tacitly support India over Pakistan.

Between the lines: This approach departs from those of past administrations, which perceived military action between these two nuclear-armed neighbors as a potential precursor to nuclear war.

  • In 2001, for example, President Bush sent Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to Islamabad for in-person negotiations around an India-Pakistan crisis that could have gone nuclear. That trip built on nearly a dozen direct calls between Secretary of State Colin Powell and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to iron out the crisis.
  • Bush felt — as Trump appears not to — that the U.S. could not afford to sit out such a crisis, later referring to "the year that we had shuttle diplomacy to convince Pakistan and India not to go to war with each other."

To be sure, Trump has been busy: Currently, he’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Hanoi for the most promising denuclearization opportunity in years — this just after extending the ceasefire in the U.S.–China trade war and declaring a national emergency on the southern border.

The Trump administration also suffers from having a thin Pakistan diplomatic team at the State Department, with neither a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for South Asia nor a special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan (the current special representative is responsible solely for Afghanistan, following staffing changes made by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson).

The bottom line: To help stop further escalation between India and Pakistan, Trump may need to become a diplomatic multitasker.

Joel Rubin is president of the Washington Strategy Group and the former deputy assistant secretary of state for the House of Representatives.