‘You either normalise with China or normalise with Pakistan. It’s easier to normalise with Pakistan. In the long run,competition will be with China’

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24X7,Stephen P Cohen speaks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about the changing US relationship with India and Pakistan,and why India can play a crucial role in nudging Pakistan towards ‘normalisation’.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published: September 3, 2013 5:49 am

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24X7,Stephen P Cohen speaks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta about the changing US relationship with India and Pakistan,and why India can play a crucial role in nudging Pakistan towards ‘normalisation’.

Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. We are at New Delhi’s India International Centre and my guest is Professor Stephen Cohen,a guru of gurus,but more importantly a great student of the subcontinent.

Really appreciate being on your programme,I have watched it many times.

Thirty years of knowing each other and we’ve never done an interview. So we better get it right.

It’s also a coincidence that it’s the 50th year that I first came to India. In fact 50 years ago we stayed at the India International Centre.

Your children were very young then.

I had one baby here on the first trip and one was born here,so therefore he is an Indian citizen. My daughter is a professor,studied autism in India,and the son is a professor of history of Telugu. So we have a lot of India connection.

What has changed in the subcontinent and what hasn’t in 50 years?

When I came here in 1963,we drove from Delhi to Patna,just to see what the country looked like. You couldn’t do that now.

But what has changed is the attitude towards the United States,and there has been a roller-coaster of attitudes… When I came here right after the war with China,US-Indian relations were very close. The 1965 war took place and we were disillusioned,India was disillusioned. We broke apart,and for a long time,India turned towards the Soviet Union for weapons. When the Soviet Union collapsed,clearly that affected Indian strategy and that’s one of the arguments I make in the book. The collapse of the Soviet empire sort of transformed India’s relations with the United States. Also the economic reasons…

That’s the new book?

Yes,the new book puts it in the larger context. The new book really is based on 50 years of research. My first books looked at Pakistan as well as India. I was originally interested in the role of the military in these two countries—why India went in one direction and Pakistan in the other. So,one book was on the Indian Army and the other on Pakistani army. The new book is about India-Pakistan relations as such and the transformation that may happen in the future. So it looks ahead 35 years,make it 100 years of conflict between India and Pakistan.

Tell us about the change in attitudes. In India,Pakistan,Washington,and the change in attitudes vis-a-vis each other. There are many variables.

In the case of Pakistan,we always believed that Pakistanis were a true ally. And they would tell us that. The Pakistani argument was that the Americans betrayed Pakistan many,many times. There was some truth in that but it was clearly an exaggerated story. I think the war in Afghanistan,the American soldiers in Afghanistan,has put paid to that argument.

I regularly teach American officers in various summer schools,and seven years ago they started telling me,‘Professor,I’ve served in Afghanistan for a year and the people who were shooting at me were coming from Pakistan. They are our ally. Why are they doing this?’ I would tell them that Pakistan is playing a double game. And that began a slow shift in American opinion about Pakistan. Ironically some Republicans are more anti-Pakistani than the Democrats. It used to be the other way around.

Until about 10 years ago…

Yes. We needed Pakistan for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan,that revived the relationship. I was in the State Department and I could see the process going on,and we wanted to believe what the Pakistanis told us because it was convenient.

When Pakistanis negotiated with America…

Their strategy is — it’s not unique,but it’s notable — they tell us what we want to hear,and they do what they want to do. And I found that during the (Ronald) Reagan administration,because Pakistanis would tell me what I wanted to hear,and since I knew Pakistan pretty well… Essentially what would happen was that we lied to the world about their nuclear programme and they lied to the world about our involvement in Afghanistan.

You lie for us and we lie for you.

Yes,but it’s not a sustainable relationship.

Is it unravelling now?

Pakistan is important because of its location. My joke in Washington is ‘Pakistan used to be important for its positive qualities,as the most liberal,modern Islamic state we knew of,it was a great ally many times,but now it’s important because of its negative qualities’. Relationship with India has grown steadily. The nuclear deal broke through the psychological barrier.

We had never signed a treaty before.

Each side gave up something. We swallowed our non-proliferation anxieties. Our nuclear Ayatollahs had to be quiet for a while. India needed it and we needed India… But I think there is a long-term transformation because the Indian economy is very important to America and American businessmen. Plus we have the inter-penetration of societies.

What’s better for India? That Pakistan-America relationship should stay intact,evolve or that the break should become more permanent?

The latter is a disaster,because for many years Pakistan used the United States to pressure India. During the whole run-up to the nuclear thing,when I was in government,the Pakistanis would tell us,‘We will sign whatever you want,get the Indians to sign first’,and we would put pressure on India. The Pakistani strategy was brilliant. Now after Kargil,the Indians used America to pressure Pakistan,and that’s been the case since then. We find ourselves between India and Pakistan for good or for bad. We are still confused what we can do with that relationship,but we see both sides coming to us to influence the other side. I think the book is about this… but I think the main argument in the book is for India and Pakistan to settle this themselves.

It’s a much-abused term,and I remember as a student,you hated labels. You banned the use of words like ‘superpower’ and ‘third world’… You used to tell us that these words close your mind.

India is a superpower in some ways,not in others. America is a superpower in many dimensions but not in all. And third world,I forget who said it,it is like third grade… India does not want to be the leader of the wretched world,but wants to be with the big boys. It also has a unique access to the rest of the world,which America doesn’t have.

I’m using one more label. Was Kargil a gamechanger? In terms of a strategic blunder made by Pervez Musharraf? Because this sanctified the Line of Control as nothing else had done.

I agree with that,because the Americans came out and said,this is wrong,restore the Line of Control. In the book,I go further and I say that American policy should be to recognise reality. That that line is not going to be changed. You are two nuclear weapon states,you and Pakistanis can negotiate some kind of line.

Bill Clinton said that borders of the subcontinent can no longer be redrawn in blood.

I think that is a settled issue,there’s no question about it. The issue is about some of the fuzzy areas in Kashmir,Siachen and others.

We are going through a period of particularly broken politics right now. We can’t even give parliamentary sanction to an agreement signed with Bangladesh to settle our borders.

I think as people think through and discuss it,they will realise that these borders where there are no minerals,there is no body living there,can be negotiated… You give up something,you get something,and as long as you get something for what you are giving up,that’s a good deal.

In the case of terrorism and Pakistan,which is the big issue here and should be really,can the Indians give up something or offer something in exchange for Pakistanis deciding….

In exchange for Hafiz Saeed….

Yes,I would be the first one to send a missile his way. It’s outrageous of him to parade himself there. The danger is that Pakistan may be too weak to do anything. We are dealing with a nuclear Pakistan but also a weak Pakistan that cannot enforce its own laws. I was briefed by the ISI on the attack on Mumbai and the ISI defence,by the ISI director,was we didn’t know about it. And to me not knowing about it and doing it consciously — I don’t know which is worse. It’s like Abbottabad.

Did you believe him when he said ‘I didn’t know’?

His nose got a little longer. The Pinocchio effect.

So what you are saying is that I don’t know what is worse,like Abbottabad.

And I don’t think he knew. Because in every bureaucracy,especially intelligence bureaucracy,people at the bottom know that people at the top don’t want to hear something. Do it but don’t tell me.

There’s a wonderful expression,in fact invented in your country during Iran Contra hearings. Col (Oliver) North had to give President Reagan plausible deniability. So do you buy Pakistan’s argument that they didn’t know what was happening in Abbottabad?

I suspend judgement,because I find it risky to speculate… On the surface,it’s quite impossible. The danger is that Pakistan didn’t know about it. In which case we don’t know what they know about the nuclear programme and other things. And a Pakistan,which is more a military power with terrorists etc,which does not have control,is a dangerous Pakistan. That’s why the election of Nawaz Sharif was a good thing.

I’ll make a statement that Pakistan and Afghanistan are now loosely called AfPak,the whole region.

A term I dislike.

Even I do. The two countries are so different and to club them together… you will not succeed in the next 200 years. They have more automatic rifles than all the Indian armed forces and paramilitary forces put together,and I think Pakistan has more nukes than us. How do you deal with that?

Some people would go the limit and pressure Pakistan,using pressure tactics. I told the Congress about eight years ago that Pakistan’s policy was ‘Help me or else… (I’ll shoot myself)’. If you think Pakistan is a crazy state,then the threat of going down exploding everybody is credible. On the other hand if you think they act rationally,you’ve lost your country. So India faces a difficult dilemma,just like we faced with the Soviets. The more we demonise the Soviets,the more the nuclear threats get credible,and that’s the making of a long arms race.

Just as Barack Obama and David Cameron are finding a way to dig their way out of the hole that is loosely called AfPak,India has to find a way to live closely to this hole forever. Either this hole gets filled or we dig a hole for ourselves.

I once had dinner with Zia (ul-Haq) right after his coup. I said ‘General Zia,if Pakistan were in Africa,it would be a major power’. He said,‘Yeah’. Then he realised they were not in Africa,but next to India. So their obsession is that they are smaller compared to India. So you have to live with a country that is smaller than you but has more nuclear weapons that can do great damage. That’s a dilemma America would have faced if Mexico was a radical Catholic country with 150 nuclear weapons.

We’ve got to deal with this. It requires transforming Pakistan’s image of itself as a state that defines itself as anti-India and find another reason for Pakistan and India to live together. And I think there are a lot of ways to do that. Economic growth… South Asia is currently the least integrated economic region in the world. If India takes a leadership role… These are goals shared by most Pakistanis,even in the military.

Why do the angriest Muslims in the world live in Pakistan? They don’t live in Palestine,Egypt,Iraq or Afghanistan,countries that have been invaded. Why in Pakistan,which has never been invaded?

The idea of Pakistan was created by unhappy Indian Muslims,and as they moved to Pakistan,the Mohajirs became disillusioned with Pakistan. Ironically many would want to come back to India,one way or the other. If Pakistan should break apart,you may be faced with millions of Pakistanis wanting to go back to their ancestral homeland — Mohajirs from central India,Urdu speakers. You don’t want that,it would change Indian politics.

But there is another reason. Pakistanis at all levels,particularly diplomats and soldiers,believe they have been betrayed by the US,India can’t be trusted,so betrayal has become a theme of their life now…

Part of Indian steps to create national unity is by being anti-Pakistani. And Pakistanis have always identified themselves as anti-Indians. Few countries have defined themselves as opposition to each other,it’s a lifetime…

And then we have the larger problem — which is something that our prime minister believes and we agree with him — that India is caught in a situation of triangulation,because of China,Pakistan and India. China gives Pakistan a bit more nukes,rockets and uses Pakistan to balance us. So until we settle with Pakistan,we can’t settle with China. How does India break out of it?

I’ve talked to your politicians about this,I won’t mention names. One of them had a very perceptive idea,that you either normalise with China or normalise with Pakistan. It’s easier to normalise with Pakistan than China. In the long run,there is going to be competition with China,not with Pakistan. You’ve proved that you are much better in economy,cultural power than Pakistan,and on the other hand Pakistan has the power that can hurt you. Hence it would be easier to settle with Pakistan without giving up vital Indian interests like Kashmir.

So the way to break out of this triangulation is to first move with Pakistan. You may have a better chance there.

It’s about how to balance your opportunities and risks. In case of Pakistan,you have to look for countries with like-minded views. I think America is such a country,the Chinese are to some extent. The Chinese are desperately afraid of what might happen in Pakistan because they also have a Muslim minority population…

As a student of your work,I think your two books on India and Pakistani armies are still your finest books. How much has changed in these two armies,and will you renew those books?

I am going to renew the Indian Army book. At the end of the Indian Army book I had predicted that Indian military may be more politically involved,and I am not sure whether that will happen or not. It’s been 45 years since I wrote the book,so far it hasn’t,and I think it is an outstanding accomplishment. The problem is that the price for that may be lack of good military advice on strategic issues,and a sort of a whacky arms acquisition strategy…

Last time I saw Kayani (Ashfaq Parvez Kayani,the Pakistan army chief),I said to him ‘Sir,you can’t run Pakistan but you won’t let others run either’. His response was ‘Hmmm’,that’s all he said… But they agree and their behaviour indicates that they do understand they can’t run the country. But can they find Pakistani leaders who will run the country properly? The first time I met Zia…

He called you Professor sahib….

The first time I met Zia,it was right after Indira (Gandhi) was elected,and he was bemoaning the quality of Pakistani politicians. I said,as a joke,that India has just had elections,there are a lot of spare Indian politicians who could run your country. He said ‘No,we had them once before and we don’t want them again’. I was joking,but he took it seriously. But I think that’s one of the critical issues India might be able to help in. That is,how do you create a political culture in Pakistan which functions,which the military there will respect.

In one of our earlier conversations,you said India and Pakistan — this is getting a bit light now — you said there is a cricket gap,there is a kebab gap,and there is a hockey gap. I think the cricket gap has now been filled. So what about the other two?

The kebab gap is there. I told K Subrahmanyam…

Unlikely that he would be able to hold forth on kebabs.

He did in fact. I teased him,saying ‘Well Subbu,Pakistani kebabs are ahead of Indian kebabs’. He frowned at me and took me to Bukhara (the restaurant). He is a vegetarian,and he ordered kebabs and looked at me and said,‘Eat the kebabs. Aren’t they better than Pakistan’s’? I didn’t know what to say.

Have you found any other gaps lately?

Well,India is way ahead of Pakistan in tennis. I would say the Bollywood gap is enormous. I buy all of my pirated Indian DVDs in Pakistan,they are much cheaper there. I don’t think Indians appreciate the attractiveness of their culture to many Pakistanis. Pakistanis are really South Asians,they wanted to be Middle-Eastern but they are South Asians. They have the culture,taste and temperament of South Asians.

The Pakistani army,which has always admired you secretly,would do well to listen to you because you are after all our foremost South Asian,not just South Asianist.

I try to say the same thing in and to both countries,because I don’t want to get caught saying two different things and people asking me or accusing me of being pro-Indian or pro-Pakistani. On my first trip to Pakistan,the ISI showed me my file and said you are the pro-Indian professor,we know that.

But I try to be pro-American in the sense what American interests are in the region. In the book I say,maybe controversially,it’s in America’s interest for India and Pakistan to have good relations with each other,more than good relations with either of them.

That’s why I have a new label for you now,‘Professor Cohen triple hyphenated — America-Pakistan-India’,and none of us is complaining. So just keep coming back as it’s always so stimulating to have a conversation with you.

Thank you. As long as I get my visa.

Transcribed by Jerrin Mathew

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