The Debate

Did Donald Trump Just Raise the Odds of War Between India and Pakistan With One Phone Call?

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The Debate

Did Donald Trump Just Raise the Odds of War Between India and Pakistan With One Phone Call?

Let’s talk about Donald Trump’s first phone call with Pakistan’s prime minister.

Did Donald Trump Just Raise the Odds of War Between India and Pakistan With One Phone Call?
Credit: Flickr/ Gage Skidmore

U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump’s first phone call with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif — three weeks into the presidential transition in the United States — gives South Asia watchers cause for concern. As a Pakistani readout of the call shows, if there’s anywhere Trump would be better off speaking to world leaders with a State Department briefing in hand, it would be in the Indian subcontinent. Here’s the full text of the Pakistani Press Information Department’s readout:

Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif called President-elect USA Donald Trump and felicitated him on his victory. President Trump said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif you have a very good reputation. You are a terrific guy. You are doing amazing work which is visible in every way. I am looking forward to see you soon. As I am talking to you Prime Minister, I feel I am talking to a person I have known for long. Your country is amazing with tremendous opportunities. Pakistanis are one of the most intelligent people. I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it. Feel free to call me any time even before 20th January that is before I assume my office.

On being invited to visit Pakistan by the Prime Minister, Mr. Trump said that he would love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people. Please convey to the Pakistani people that they are amazing and all Pakistanis I have known are exceptional people, said Mr. Donald Trump.

It’s easy to get pulled into the absurdity of the typically over-the-top Trumpian language at play here, but these two short paragraphs could easily have the effect of snowballing into an early diplomatic crisis in South Asia for the Trump administration. First, for Pakistan, after more than a decade without a U.S. presidential visit (George W. Bush visited President Pervez Musharraf in 2006), here you have a U.S. president-elect accepting an invitation to visit. Second, Trump’s declaration that he is “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play” will give cause for celebration in Islamabad and cause for concern in New Delhi.

India’s reaction to this statement will be as important as Pakistan’s. Though it hasn’t dominated headlines in the United States, tensions between India and Pakistan across the Line of Control in Kashmir have been consistently high since a September attack on an Indian Army camp by militants killed 19 Indian soldiers, the highest casualty attack against the Indian Army in more than a decade. Moreover, days before Trump and Sharif spoke, seven more Indian soldiers were killed by militants in Nagrota in Kashmir. Though neither side has directly escalated since India claimed to have carried out “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control, the possibility of a conflagration between the two nuclear-armed neighbors remains very real. (India and Pakistan last fought a conventional war as armed nuclear states in 1999.)

For India, despite Trump’s well-known tendency to reverse course on issues, there is no option but to take the Pakistani readout of the Trump-Sharif call as a literal suggestion of what Trump plans to do. Betting on the alternative — that Trump was simply trying to satisfy another interlocutor by saying what he thought Sharif wanted to hear — cannot become a basis for national-level policymaking.

Based on the call, India has to be ready for the possibility that the next U.S. administration will not only stay away from directly condemning Pakistan for deploying militant proxies on the Indian side of Kashmir, but that Trump may be gearing up for a return to treating Pakistan like any other U.S. major non-NATO ally. The trend line in the Obama year suggested gradual distancing from Pakistan and rapprochement with India, with New Delhi potentially having factored in continuity in U.S. policy post-2016. Indeed, India would have preferred if Trump had stuck with his thoughts on Pakistan in 2012, when he tweeted the following:

When will Pakistan apologize to us for providing safe sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden for 6 years?! Some ‘ally.’

Vipin Narang, a nuclear weapons and security studies expert and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the The Diplomat that “the one thing that would give [the Government of India] an aneurysm is any US effort to ‘mediate’ Kashmir, which is, it sounds like, what Trump was offering–or at least it was vague enough that India could interpret it that way.” Narang’s right that a U.S. offer to mediate between India and Pakistan is the last thing that would interest New Delhi given repeated incidents of militant violence in Kashmir since September. “On the heels of Uri and Nagrota, this is probably the last thing India wanted to hear. Phone calls like this where [the president-elect of the United States] goes off-script can create problems for US policy and global security — in a volatile nuclear-armed region — where one previously did not exist.”

“This could literally start a nuclear war,” Narang added.

Of course, Trump, once he’s adequately briefed on the situation in South Asia and on the trajectory of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship since 2011, may come to realize that the promises he laid out in his call with Sharif are probably untenable. That realization won’t in itself be a positive development, since any move to pull back will unnecessarily strain ties with Pakistan. Even if the civilian leadership in Pakistan understands that Trump’s effusiveness on the call was his characteristic brand of insincere exaggeration, public opinion and even the Pakistani military’s view of the new U.S. president may force the relationship downwards.

Is there a way to fix the damage that may have been done as a result of this call? Trump could attempt to walk-back his ad hoc signaling by delivering a teleprompter-based policy speech crafted by knowledgeable staff on South Asia, but even then, the commitments laid out to the Pakistani prime minister here are now an on-the-record fact of what the next U.S. president has said he intends to do. That, regardless of what comes next, will play a part in determining outcomes in U.S. diplomacy with India and Pakistan.

Trump must understand that the stakes are exceptionally high in South Asia given the persistent and real threat of nuclear exchange. And while the United States’ position doesn’t directly affect tactical decision-making by Indian and Pakistani leaders on when and if to escalate, both sides do consider the likely U.S. reaction to escalation in their evaluation of the available options.

Since the immediate aftermath of the Uri attack, South Asia watchers have wrangled with the question of whether it’s likely that India and Pakistan will once again go to war over Kashmir. Trump’s phone call to Sharif suggests that this debate won’t end anytime soon and may indeed persist through the next four years.

Update: Later Wednesday evening, the Trump transition team released its own, less-detailed read-out of the call:

President-elect Trump and the Prime Minister of Pakistan Muhammad Nawaz Sharif spoke today and had a productive conversation about how the United States and Pakistan will have a strong working relationship in the future.  President-elect Trump also noted that he is looking forward to a lasting and strong personal relationship with Prime Minister Sharif.