The heating of the India-Pakistan Line of Control with increased firing and targeting of civilians, in which 10 people have died, has caused concern in Washington with US officials privately and publicly stressing restraint on both sides.
"We are concerned about any violence along the line of control. We continue to encourage the governments of India and Pakistan to engage in further dialogue to address these issues," State Department Spokesperson, Jen Psaki said.
For good measure, she added that US “policy on Kashmir has not changed. We still believe that the pace, scope, and character of India and Pakistan's dialogue on Kashmir is for those two countries to determine," she said in response to a question.
Is the Pakistan Army feeling abandoned by America in the wake of a successful and high-visibility visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the United States? Modi was feted at the White House and given a personal tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial by President Barack Obama himself. This couldn’t have pleased the Pakistan army.
To add insult to injury, Obama did not raise Kashmir with Modi, according to NSC senior director Philip Reinder, who briefed Indian and Pakistan journalists last week. Even the word Kashmir did not come up.
The joint statement talked clearly of India and the US working together to dismantle Pakistan-based terrorist groups, a fact that must have landed like a brick in Rawalpindi.
US officials see the ratcheting up of tensions on the LOC in several ways. First, they point out, it is a periodic occurrence and both sides do it.
Second, they think increased firing by the Pakistan army might be designed to get international attention, especially American attention.
Third, the extremely murky domestic situation where the Army is busy asserting its primacy over foreign and security policies and keeping Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in check. Sharif has been under siege for more than a month because of protests led by Tehreek-e-Insaf leader Imran Khan and a Canada-based cleric, Tahir-ul-Qadri. They are demanding his resignation.
The Pakistan Army is indirectly behind the drama to reduce Sharif’s maneuverability because he dared to think of making peace with India. His decision to attend Modi’s swearing-in was seen as kowtowing.
“Ties with India must come from the army and on the army’s terms,” says Aparna Pande of the Hudson Institute, who has written a book on Pakistan’s foreign policy. Sharif has effectively been cut down to size, thanks to the protests and his own inability to govern effectively.
There is talk of calling mid-term elections next year, which, if they take place, will surely see an erosion of votes for Sharif, Pande said. Sharif is slowly losing the confidence of the people, thanks to Imran Khan’s games.
A semi-election campaign might already be underway – how else does one explain Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s sudden outburst on Kashmir, if not to eat into Sharif’s stronghold in Punjab? Incidentally, his provocative statements have not gone down well in Washington.
The LOC flare-up also ensures that India will not be making a peace offering to Sharif to help boost the civilian government. The Pakistan army has blocked this diplomatic space for the time being.
The firing may also be designed to provoke India into making a foolish move, given that Modi and the BJP generally are more hawkish on Pakistan. US officials hope New Delhi won’t make a false move, which could lead to a bigger conflagration.
Washington is preoccupied with two major crises – fighting ISIS and Ebola, which claimed its first victim in the US. Pakistan has been pushed down the ladder of importance. In fact, US analysts also say there is a distinct “Pakistan fatigue” in the Obama Administration.
The Americans are tired of baby-sitting the Pakistan Army, they say. But at the same time the administration will not make an “unfriendly” move against Rawalpindi. There are many within the bowels of the State Department and the Pentagon who still have sympathy for Pakistan, nurtured over the years because of Islamabad’s willingness to be a vehicle of US policy in Afghanistan starting with the Soviet invasion in 1979.
President Obama himself has gone from seriously trying to engage the Pakistan military leadership under former Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in 2010 with real US assistance to help the country turn a corner to losing interest after discovering Kayani’s “obsession with India.”
Sources say Obama was disappointed by Kayani’s perspective on Afghanistan and India, which was filled with paranoid projections about New Delhi’s ambitions in the region and contained in a 14-page paper the former chief presented to Obama.
The lack of US attention might be the reason that Pakistan invoked the UNMOGIP or United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan to go and check the LOC situation. Usually Pakistan cries on American shoulders and asks for Washington to intervene and pressure India.
(The views expressed in the above article are that of Ms. Seema Sirohi, a senior journalist based in Washington D.C.)