by Akbar Ahmed and Lawrence Wilkerson
While Michael Cohen mesmerized the Democrats in the House of Representatives and provided more fodder for Republican ire, President Trump resumed his love affair with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un in a second U.S.-DPRK summit in Vietnam.
Most if not all of the U.S. media and the American people were thus preoccupied while once again one of the most dangerous state-to-state confrontations, centering in Kashmir, began to spiral out of control.
It has happened before, most recently in 2002 when one of us was in the U.S. government as chief of staff of the State Department. But in that confrontation—and even in all those other spats in the past since the 1971 war that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh—neither side launched attack aircraft or dropped bombs on the other’s territory. This week there were. In fact, Pakistan shot down two Indian fighter-bombers that crossed the border and captured one pilot, who it then released into Indian custody.
With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi facing elections, the situation in India could easily spiral out of control. This is particularly true because Modi’s Hindu nationalism views Pakistan not so much as a rival state but as a poisonous cesspool and demonizes India’s own Muslim minority. It is an ideology that the majority of Indians should—and in many cases do—abominate. A nationalistic fury would be easy to generate, indeed is already being generated. Army generals have called for a nuclear strike against Pakistan, and TV anchors have named cities to target first. The Indian government has built up hysteria in the media to the point that thousands have demanded the destruction of Pakistan through a nuclear strike.
Islamabad was relatively calm. Prime Minister Imran Khan set the tone, repeatedly requesting dialogue. But he emphasized that, if attacked, Pakistan would defend itself. Although Pakistan’s release of the Indian pilot has eased the tension somewhat, the situation remains extremely dangerous.
What is necessary immediately is what diplomats call an offering of “good offices.” A power such as the United States needs to step in and hold the hands of the leaders and the national security elite of both states. Talk to them, calm them down, point out to them what an exchange of nuclear weapons would entail, for the region and for the world.
As Colin Powell and his deputy Richard Armitage did in 2002, Washington should be “on the way” to both Islamabad and New Delhi. Unfortunately, America has no diplomats of note right now. Also, the U.S. president is not taking responsibility and is instead withdrawing from the world. His idea of international engagement seems instead to cynically flirt with tyrants who make a mockery of democracy. Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, regional parties are holding an exercise to explore the “consequences of a regional nuclear exchange.” They, at least, see the stark possibilities.
The Americans and Europeans should see them, too. The fallout from any major nuclear exchange will kill crops in Iowa, to say nothing of the tens of thousands it will kill in the warring countries and surrounding region—and to say nothing as well of the additional tens of thousands who will be killed or horribly wounded by the explosive power of the nuclear weapons. Brian Toon of the University of Colorado-Boulder has explained that a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan could unleash a global nuclear winter and end civilization. Who in their right mind wants to see the nuclear genie released in such a way?
For India and Pakistan to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war is the height of irresponsibility. The international community cannot allow two nuclear powers to threaten to exchange nuclear strikes without exhausting every effort to stop it.
Russia and China cannot fulfill and have not fulfilled the peacemaking role that the United States has played in the past. When will Washington wake up? The diplomatic team Trump has fielded doesn’t likely have the capacity to deal with this enormous challenge. But still, it should at least try.
As a matter of fact, Secretary of State Pompeo should have already bought his plane ticket. Vice President Pence should take the other capital. The president should get his plane ready to travel to both capitals if need be to provide his “good offices.” Immediate action is critically needed.
But until the conflict in Kashmir is solved, the root cause of the current crisis, the Damocles sword of nuclear obliteration, hangs over not only India and Pakistan but the world.
True, such critical diplomacy will not likely arouse Trump’s base or gain its support. But the president just might save their lives, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others, if he and his diplomatic team are successful. That is a worthy enough goal. The base’s instincts be damned. Their political wants can wait. Let’s save lives first.
How about a diplomatic move on behalf of humanity, Mr. Trump? Then you might actually be eligible for a Nobel Prize.
Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at the School of International Service, the American University and was the ambassador of Pakistan to the United Kingdom. Lawrence Wilkerson is the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William & Mary and was chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell