- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Long-simmering tensions boiled over into direct clashes Wednesday as Pakistan shot down two Indian fighter jets and took one pilot hostage, fueling the possibility of all-out war as the Trump administration and world leaders pleaded with the two nuclear-armed states and South Asian rivals to step back from open conflict.

With Washington focused on the Capitol Hill testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and much of the world transfixed by the president’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, perhaps the world’s most dangerous crisis played out in and around the long-disputed Kashmir region.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, taking a break from the diplomacy in Vietnam, said in a statement Wednesday that he had spoken with leaders of both countries “to underscore the priority of de-escalating current tensions by avoiding military action, and the urgency of Pakistan taking meaningful action against terrorist groups operating on its soil.”

“I expressed to both ministers that we encourage India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and avoid escalation at any cost,” Mr. Pompeo said.

The downing of the two Indian MiG-21 Bison fighter jets came just a day after India launched airstrikes in Pakistani territory — a move officials in New Delhi cast as a necessary response to Pakistan’s failure to crack down on a terrorist group in its territory responsible for a deadly bombing in Kashmir earlier this month.

The escalating crisis, U.S. officials and regional analysts said, is in danger of spiraling out of control. With both nations wielding nuclear weapons and with a history of repeated conflicts over Kashmir, the stand-off carries far-reaching, potentially catastrophic implications.

Political leaders in both India and Pakistan said Wednesday appeared anxious to calm tensions and avoid war. But Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said the two rivals are walking a tightrope and that any misstep could trigger a nuclear conflict.

“All world wars have had miscalculations,” Mr. Khan said in a video appeal to India counterpart Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I want to ask India, can we afford such miscalculations? The kind of weapons we have, will we be able to afford a war? It’ll go beyond Modi’s control, it will go beyond my control.”

Military role

Mr. Khan’s reference to the situation being “beyond my control” suggests the country’s powerful military — not the civilian leadership — may hold the key to how the crisis unfolds. Specialists say that reality, along with Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to snuff out terrorist groups operating within its borders, has led India to largely ignore Mr. Khan, adding a layer of complication to any peace talks.

“Recognizing that Pakistan’s military maintains real control over the nation’s security apparatus, India has chosen not to engage [Mr. Khan] following his assumption of power in August 2018,” Richard Rossow, chair in U.S.-India policy studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a blog post this week.

The cross-border violence and escalating rhetoric had U.S. and allied leaders pleading for restraint. European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini warned Wednesday that the situation “has the potential to lead to serious and dangerous consequences for the two countries and the wider region,” while a Foreign Ministry spokesman in China —which maintains close links to Islamabad — urged the two sides to “avoid a deterioration of the situation.”

Pakistani officials appealed to the U.S. to take a more direct role in negotiating peace between the two countries, which have battled over the Kashmir region for decades.

“We would certainly like to have more [support], and would certainly like to see more active involvement of the United States,” in bringing those talks to fruition, Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Asad Majeed Khan told reporters in Washington on Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Mr. Modi reportedly held meetings with top military officials on Wednesday. India has long resisted outside intervention into the status of Kashmir.

Since their mutual founding in 1947, both nations have claimed control of the divided province of Kashmir and have occasionally gone to war. Most recently, Pakistan in 1999 sent ground forces into Indian-controlled parts of Kashmir. The same year, India shot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing 16.

The renewed conflict this week stems from a Feb. 14 suicide car bombing in an Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir. India blamed the assault, which killed 40 Indian paramilitary forces, on the terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed.

India has alleged that Pakistan refuses to crack down on that militant organization and others, and therefore bears responsibility for the attack. Ambassador Khan said Wednesday that India has yet to provide any proof that its airstrikes this week specifically targeted Pakistani-based militants.

• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.

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