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What The U.S. Is Doing To Ease Tensions Between India And Pakistan


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been working the phones. He says he spent, quote, "a good deal of time last night talking with the leaders of India and Pakistan." Pompeo is trying to defuse tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors - tensions that erupted on Valentine's Day.


That's when a suicide bomber drove a vehicle packed with explosives into the disputed region of Kashmir and killed at least 40 Indian troops. A Pakistan-based militant group took credit for the attack. Since then, both countries claim to have shot down the other's fighter jets. So what's the role of the U.S. here in trying to walk India and Pakistan back from all-out conflict? Let's bring in Alyssa Ayres. She served in the State Department during the Obama administration and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome.

ALYSSA AYRES: Thank you so much.

KELLY: What is the U.S. interest in this region? What is at stake here for Americans?

AYRES: We have many interests in the region, obviously. But in this immediate moment of crisis, the United States has a strong interest in trying to prevent the use of nuclear weapons. The second is that India is a major defense partner of the United States. And the third interest is Pakistan, a longtime partner of the United States. We have a difficult relationship, but it is a country that the United States is working with, including on the challenging problems in Afghanistan.

KELLY: The U.S. has played a role multiple times over the years in terms of talking both these countries back from the ledge. Is there a historical moment you would point to that provides useful lessons for this current one?

AYRES: Yeah. So I think one of the most interesting moments to look back on, in fact, in the history of U.S. relations in South Asia is 1999 and the conflict that took place over Kashmir - actually referred to as the Kargil War because that is the point from which Pakistan sent irregular forces across dressed as if they weren't military to begin a war.

KELLY: And we saw tensions escalate. I'm thinking 1999, so this is President...

AYRES: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Bill Clinton at the time.

AYRES: Exactly.

KELLY: Right. I think we have some tape of President Clinton talking after the incident when he was reflecting on his role. Here it is.


BILL CLINTON: I knew my only real job on the Fourth of July was to get Pakistan back across that line of control under whatever I had to do to get it done because, otherwise, we were just out there rolling dice hoping to goodness that nothing terrible would happen.

KELLY: Bill Clinton there reflecting on his role. In his words, whatever I had to do to get it done. What did he do?

AYRES: He convinced Pakistan that they had caused this problem and they needed to stop this problem. And so Pakistani forces did retreat after that. It was actually a moment of change in the U.S.-India relationship. Here was a moment where the United States recognized that the provocation in that case was coming from Pakistan, and the U.S. was fair in compelling Pakistan to pull its troops back and de-escalate.

KELLY: So apply that to today. Does the U.S. have the leverage it once did in this part of the world?

AYRES: Our leverage has changed over the years. I think what you've seen is Pakistan has slowly realized that not only is the U.S. calling for a de-escalation and for Pakistan to be very firm and take greater action against these terrorist groups, but you've seen a whole host of other countries do the same thing - the EU, from Australia, from France. The U.N. Security Council released a press statement last week. So you see a kind of consensus about this problem.

KELLY: I'm curious, though, about the U.S. leverage in particular in a moment where we see the U.S. playing a different role on the global stage and where its status as an international mediator, say, in the Middle East has been called into question. Is that same dynamic underway in South Asia?

AYRES: The United States hasn't played a role of an active mediator in trying to solve the bilateral problems between India and Pakistan. But in these moments of tension, the United States has played a role of calling upon both countries to use restraint. And increasingly, you see the United States calling upon Pakistan very specifically to stop this use of terror. So the role is different than in the Middle East. I don't think the United States has the type of clout it might've had 35 years ago. But you have seen a consensus among the powers around the world all echoing each other to create that kind of echo chamber about the kind of actions Pakistan should take.

KELLY: Alyssa Ayres, thank you.

AYRES: Thank you.

KELLY: She's a senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations.

(SOUNDBITE OF GALACTIC'S "CINERAMASCOPE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.