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May 10, 2013

Riedel’s fantastical fantasies

Avoiding Armageddon adequately covers the history of the US and the Indian subcontinent but is marred by naïve proposals to solve Kashmir.

9780815724087_p0_v1_s260x420Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it: and risk an Armageddon. That Santayana quote (without the Armageddon bit) is the premise on which Bruce Riedel bases his latest book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back. After a 30 year career at the CIA, Riedel has served at various senior positions in the US administration under the last four presidents, the most recent being the chair of the review of American policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan for newly elected President Obama in January 2009. Riedel contends that Americans are notoriously averse to studying their history while Indians and Pakistanis wallow in theirs. In 200 pages, he covers a wide span of history of the US and the Indian subcontinent – starting from Columbus and Vasco da Gama, and ending in the present.

The problem in the book is not the quick flythrough over the history of America and the subcontinent. It is with his prescription for what he thinks ails this region, and the medicine that the US can administer to India and Pakistan. He paints a doomsday scenario where a nuclear war between India and Pakistan is possible any time. That may win his book attention among the discredited nuclear ayatollahs on the Hill but his contentions are not grounded in reality. As Shyam Saran, the Chairman of National Security Advisory Board warned recently, it is not sufficient to analyse the India-Pakistan nuclear equation only in the bilateral context. Indian nuclear arsenal – as much as Pakistan would like to portray otherwise – was developed to primarily counter a nuclear Communist China. Having just vanquished Pakistan in a war in 1971, India had no need to conduct a nuclear test three years later to target Pakistan. The China factor was also explained by Jaswant Singh to the Americans after the 1998 nuclear tests. That Riedel completely ignores China or India’s No First Use policy in the argument doesn’t come as a surprise when he is cherry-picking facts to suit his narrative.

To further bolster his narrative, Riedel brings out the old hackneyed line that India and Pakistan (mischievously clubbing both countries together) “spend an enormous amount of their wealth on their military … (despite) facing huge challenges of poverty and unemployment.” While China is completely ignored again, he also forgets that India spends barely 1.7 percent of its GDP on defence. This is less than the spending in many European countries today, and down from almost 3 percent by India in the late 1990s. And while China’s defence budget this year is more than three times larger than India’s defence budget, its actual spending will be even higher.

The arguments get further muddled up. If the 2000 attack on Indian parliament gave “a vivid warning that there are those in Pakistan who seek a nuclear confrontation to realise their twisted dream of destroying the Indian union”, then there is nothing India can do to satisfy them. Similarly, there is little that India can to prevent the jehadi groups in Pakistan from getting their hands on a nuclear warhead. The only answer, however radical it may sound, is to take away the nuclear weapons from Pakistan’s military-jehadi complex. Else the military-jehadi complex will continue to blackmail the world behind its nuclear arsenal and Riedels of the world will keep putting the onus on India to stop them.

Riedel’s litany of bad ideas runs long. Most of them flow from his tunneled approach, where the only neighbour he assumes India has is Pakistan. He wants a South Asia Bureau to be created in the US National Security Council, and in the rest of the US executive branch, followed by an Indian Ocean Military Command looking after India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. That India comes under Pacific Military Command is because the top US leadership, unlike Riedel, sees India as an important player in relation with a rapidly growing China. And India’s role there is going to gain even greater importance in the future.

Riedel correctly identifies that Pakistan’s twin sense of vulnerability and unfulfilled aspirations are the root of the problem: Pakistan is unsatisfied with its borders and is living next to a much-bigger rival, India. He also correctly concludes that while more trade and people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan can help, Pakistani establishment will not allow any progress on that front.

Riedel presumes that the US can push President Karzai of Afghanistan to publicly accept the Durand Line as the de facto permanent border. Statements from the US State department earlier this year on the status of the Durand Line were vehemently opposed by all sections of Afghan society and polity. Not even the Taliban, despite being a Pakistan proxy, accepted the Durand Line as a frontier when they ruled Afghanistan.

Riedel doesn’t explain how the US, the UN and the ISAF will get Pakistan to address the insecurity of its badlands in the north in exchange for Karzai’s acceptance of the Durand Line? Despite sustained pressure from the top US officials over the last few years, Pakistan has refused to launch military operations in North Waziristan. Pakistan army has instead signed many peace treaties with various factions of the Taliban in the tribal areas. Now when the US is moving out of Afghanistan in 2014, there exists no incentive for Pakistan army to move against the jehadis in tribal areas.

But all this pales into insignificance compared to what Riedel suggests is the underlying problem that drives Pakistan’s relationship with terrorism: India and Kashmir. He wants the US diplomacy to help advance the Kashmir issue to a better, more stable solution. He floats the usual formulas – the Galbraith solution of making Kashmir like Saar region between France and Germany, make Line of Control a permanent international border, a special condominium and so on. India will agree if US presses quietly and forcefully because US-India relations are steady and enduring after the nuclear deal. US will force Pakistan to break up and dismantle the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and India will then be ready to do a deal on Kashmir. Because Pakistan may not listen to the US, US can ask China, Saudi Arabia, UAE and the UK to push Pakistan to the negotiating table. If only things were as simple as that. In the entire discussion, there is no consideration of the domestic political situation in either India or Pakistan. The whole thing displays a naiveté unexpected of a CIA veteran and top US Presidential advisor.

Riedel’s fantastical proposals could have been ignored but for the recent changes in the US administration, where such bad ideas from the past could again be resuscitated. These proposals need to be snubbed before they get traction and consume India’s limited diplomatic resources. Nehru told the American ambassador in 1953 that “he was tired of receiving moralistic advice from the Unites States. So far as Kashmir was concerned, he would not give an inch.” That intent holds good even today. When Richard Holbrooke tried to include Kashmir in his AfPak mandate – in accordance with the third and most important point of Riedel’s AfPak review for President Obama in 2009 — Delhi made it clear, both in public and private, that Holbrooke was not welcome in India.

The book is not completely devoid of merit though. It précis the long history of US and the Indian subcontinent in six readable chapters. It jogs the memory with many forgotten facts and interesting anecdotes. The New York Times, for example, called the 1857 war of independence “a Mohammedan conspiracy” to restore the Mughal Empire.  Ulysses S Grant was the first US President to visit India, when he travelled to Bombay, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Benares and Calcutta immediately after leaving the White House in 1876. Pakistan was invited to the fiftieth anniversary of Japan’s surrender in the Second World War in Hawai in 1995 and honoured for its role in Japan’s defeat at the commemoration ceremony. It was absurd as Pakistan didn’t even exist in 1945. But Pakistan represented the Indian soldiers because the Indian government didn’t wish to be associated with Churchill’s war.

After Kennedy responded favourably to Nehru’s call for help in the aftermath of the Chinese humiliation, the approval ratings among Indians for America soared from 7 percent at the start of the war to 62 percent at the end. Later, Bob McNamara told JFK in 1963 that “we should recognise that in order to carry out any commitment to defend India against any substantial Chinese attack, we would have to use nuclear weapons.” Kennedy responded that “we should defend India, and therefore we will defend India if she were attacked.”

Indira Gandhi’s snubs to Nixon and Kissinger were legendary. In a meeting during one of Nixon’s visit to Delhi before he became President, Mrs Gandhi famously asked an aide in Hindi, “How much longer must I talk to this man?” In October 1974 when Kissinger visited India on a three-day trip as the Secretary of State, Mrs Gandhi had lunch with him on the first day and then left for Kashmir.

The book also makes some revelations. American investigators were 90 percent certain that Zia’s plane crash was due to mechanical failure and not sabotage. For the remaining 10 percent, Riedel unequivocally rules out CIA’s hand in the crash: “One thing is certain: America does not kill its ambassadors or its allies’ leaders.” He also claims that the massive explosion at Ojhri ammunition facility outside Rawalpindi in April 1988 was done by the Indian intelligence agencies. Although it was the major depot to supply the Afghan fighters, the ISI had used the site to store equipment for the Kashmir jihadis and Khalistan militants. More than 1000 people, including five ISI officers died in the blast. It has always been speculated that the explosion was ordered by Pakistan to cover up its pilferage of Stinger missiles, which the US wanted to audit.

Riedel also reveals that there were some significant successes due to India-US cooperation after 2008 Mumbai terror attacks in thwarting the LeT’s nefarious designs. The US played a major role in Abu Jundal’s apprehension in Saudi Arabia and his handing over to the Indians. In 2009, a plot to attack the American, British and Indian embassies in Dhaka was foiled by effective counterterrorism cooperation between India and the US. A much more elaborate LeT plot in October 2010 to attack the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi was disrupted wand prevented by good counterterrorism work. If the plot had succeeded, Riedel claims, it might have been even bigger than the 2008 Mumbai attack.

Riedel’s book covers a vast expanse of history but his noteworthy effort ends up propping a list of rather fanciful suggestions for solving Kashmir. Professional historians are always reluctant to draw lessons from history. Riedel is not one, and he will perhaps realise that history offers no obvious answers. It only provides the comfort of knowing that failure is nothing new.

Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back (2013)

By Bruce Riedel

Brookings Institution Press, 230 pages


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