Pakistan India

Protestors rally against war outside the United Nations on Feb. 28 in New York. Pakistan's prime minister has pledged to release a captured Indian jetfighter, a move that could help defuse the most serious confrontation in two decades over the Kashmir region. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Pakistan’s decision to repatriate an Indian pilot shot down during India’s recent air raids is a promising gesture toward calming a dangerous flare-up between the two nuclear-armed, hostile neighbors. But the two governments desperately need to engage in serious measures to prevent further outbreaks that could lead to the use of weapons of mass destruction that would exact a terrible toll on both nations.

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced that the pilot, shot down Wednesday in a dogfight with Pakistani aircraft over Kashmir, was being returned as a “gesture for peace.”

The United States and other friends of both nations may have a role to play in advancing that much-needed peace. As then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said two years ago, the United States “very much wants to see how we de-escalate any sort of conflict (between India and Pakistan) going forward.” But the standard U.S. approach has been to say that direct dialogue between the two countries is the preferred approach, a position designed to distance Washington from the dispute over Kashmir that underlies the conflict between the two nations.

But ways should be found to improve the faltering process of dialogue between the two countries so that it directly addresses issues of nuclear war. The Indian and Pakistani governments have fought four wars over Kashmir in the last 72 years, followed by periods of detente and diplomacy. But the danger of a new and more destructive war is ever present.

It is easy to see the sources of friction between the two nations, but hard to see the path toward resolving them. That is where outside mediators, such as the United States and China, could play an effective role.

A major first step should be to address Pakistan’s view of India as a mortal threat. Various assessments of Pakistan’s strategic concerns say that both its policy of encouraging terrorist attacks on Indian soil, particularly in Kashmir, which Pakistan claims to own, and its support of the Taliban in Afghanistan in an effort to control that country are part of an historical national survival strategy against what is seen as an overwhelming Indian threat.

Pakistan’s rationale for obtaining nuclear weapons is also part of that strategy.

The dispute over Kashmir may be beyond resolution at this time. But India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are here to stay. What is desperately needed is a dialogue between the two countries on the conditions under which they might be used and the likely consequences of a nuclear exchange. If, as likely, that dialogue leads to acceptance of “mutually assured destruction” by both sides, then both would effectively acknowledge a limit to their mutual hostility and can begin to address the issues that divide them without the threat of war.

And if Pakistan can be persuaded to rethink its basic strategy in the absence of a mortal threat, it would lose its national survival rationale for support of the Taliban. Then a real peace in Afghanistan may also become possible. These are strong reasons for U.S. engagement with both nations that go beyond the traditional call for direct dialogue on issues that divide them.

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