Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum by Stephen P. Cohen, The Brookings Institution: Washington, DC, 2013, ISBN 978-0-8157-2186-4, 236 pp., $26.96 (Hardcover), $16.17 (Kindle).
Stephen Cohen has been an expert voice for reason in South Asian affairs for decades and is highly regarded for his level headedness and encyclopedic knowledge of all things South Asian. A Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, Steve has authored a series of seminal works dealing with South Asian issues. As expected, he tackles the big issues (such as The Idea of Pakistan (2005), and India: Emerging Power (2001). This time he takes on one of the most problematic issues of all, which has dominated the South Asian subcontinent ever since the end of British Rule in 1947, namely the sad state of the India-Pakistan relationship. Cohen points out that while American policy makers have devoted seemingly unlimited time and energy to the Israel/Palestine dispute, the issues dividing India and Pakistan have remained unresolved for a longer period and in some ways may have come to eclipse the Palestine dispute in importance. He speculates that this “conundrum” may elude solution until 2047, marking a century of hostility (the title is a clever play on words that references the South Asian obsession for the sport of cricket. In cricketers’ parlance, “shooting for a century,” indicates a batsman’s attempt to crack one hundred runs).
I always heartily recommend Cohen’s books because he does not allow ideology to overly influence his analysis. South Asian policy has been held captive to partisan politics and the narrow perceptions of American power elites ever since the countries of the region gained independence. He has no partisan axe to grind. Rather, he prefers to describe the region as it is and use his sterling intellect to devise substantive policy recommendations. He is not prone to the bouts of hysteria, which grip most American writers on the subcontinent. They tend to ignore the region until something dramatic happens like the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Indian detonation of nuclear devices, or the Al Qaeda attack on the United States and then produce overwrought books on this crisis de jour. After some time, their attention wanders off to another region and another crisis, and South Asia slips back into obscurity. As the dean of our South Asia experts, Cohen sticks with the region come what may, avoids the hyperbole and stands out as a voice of reason.
Another strong point is his ability to take vast amounts of data regarding a region, which is often totally unfamiliar to his American audience, and organize it into a format that makes sense. This is amply apparent in Shooting for a Century. He rightfully points out that while much has been written about India and Pakistan and their relationship with the United States, little has been written about their relationship with each other. This book is not intended to be the definitive work on this subject that cries out to be written. Rather, it lays the groundwork and sets the parameters for future works. Writers have avoided this subject because of its daunting complexity. Steve points out that many American observers (and policy makers) have fallen into the trap of viewing the Kashmir dispute as the principal reason for the rivalry. Steve disabuses us of this notion. The sad scenario in Kashmir has made relations worse. It has provided a cause for extremists in both India and Pakistan, and the Pakistan Army has repeatedly manipulated Kashmir and Kashmiris to perpetuate its dominance of Pakistan. Despite this, Kashmir is a symptom rather than a cause. Pakistan and India would be at loggerheads whether there was a Kashmir dispute or not.
The author concludes that the India-Pakistan dispute is based on a complex series of historic, cultural, political, and geographical factors that are not easy to understand. He does us a great service, however, by breaking down these complex factors into a series of digestible lists. Steve then moves on to explore the unique and differing perspectives of Indians and Pakistanis on these issues. He points out that there is a generational difference regarding dispute. The older generation, with firsthand experience of the bloody partition and recurring wars, nurses its grievances and bitterness. Younger Indians and Pakistanis have little experience of open military conflict, and live in a world that is far more interconnected. While personal interaction between Indians and Pakistanis remains limited by travel and trade restrictions, the Internet provides a window into the other country that was not previously available.
Cohen examines the attitudes of specific interest groups in both countries and their impact on bilateral relations. These include, the military, the intelligence services, the diplomats, businessmen, and academics. Each group has its own particular set of interests. For example, the Pakistan Army still nurses a grievance over its 1971 defeat by India and longs for revenge. Pakistani military personnel internalize a value system centered on the perceived Indian threat and the need to use any means necessary to defend against it and assure Pakistan’s survival. Diplomats on both sides often have considerable experience negotiating with the other party. They recall with bitterness the long rounds of inconclusive talks and what they view as the deception and deceit practiced by the other party. Intelligence operatives on both sides have firsthand experience of the dirty side of the relationship and come from a culture of mistrust. Academics long to gain entry into the other country and conduct research to present an accurate picture to fill in the blanks. Businessmen long to normalize trade to gain access to new markets and push up their profit margins.
In his final two chapters, the book examines the future and concludes by examining American policy in South Asia and the American structure set up to conduct that policy. The author’s systematic analysis results in a number of helpful points to help Americans comprehend and deal with the dispute. For example, while lauding the efforts of private citizens, retired generals and diplomats, and academics to conduct “track two” diplomacy, he concludes that these efforts have not produced the expected results and are unlikely to do so. The dispute can only be resolved by India and Pakistan and only by the two governments. The United States has repeatedly tried to influence the dispute and push the two rivals into negotiations. The United States has long viewed a solution of the Kashmir dispute as an essential prerequisite to improved India-Pakistan relations. In reality, there is little the United States can do regarding Kashmir and an overly heavy-handed approach only convinces both sides to dig in deeper. Instead, the United States should conduct “bypass surgery,” in which it bypasses Kashmir and moves on to work with India and Pakistan to deal with many other pressing issues.
The rapidly changing situation in Pakistan has redefined the India-Pakistan dispute and made it much more dangerous for the world at large. Pakistan is deteriorating in many different areas. It continues to become less stable. Its economy is in decline. Its political institutions grow weaker with each passing day. It is unable to provide basic infrastructure. It faces a serious internal terrorist threat that is taxing the Army. Its Taliban-centric policy in Afghanistan has proved to be a failure and it faces a time of decision after Western troops depart later this year. As a result, the dispute is now one that “Pakistan cannot win and India cannot lose.” This has reinforced the strong impetus of influential Indians not to make concessions, but to wait until Pakistan becomes so desperate that it must negotiate with India from a position of weakness. Cohen points out that such a policy is courting disaster, because “Pakistan is too nuclear to fail.” As Pakistan’s hand grows weaker, it becomes more reliant on nuclear weapons. The author concludes that Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability has proven to be a game changer for that country, as it provides a means of survival. India’s conventional military superiority over Pakistan continues to grow, but because of the nuclear standoff, India cannot make use of that superiority.
This is a time of decision for Pakistan, as it stands on the brink and must decide whether to rationalize its policies, abandon extremism and return to being a South Asian state, or continue to flirt with disaster. Cohen points out that many talented and educated Pakistanis have already concluded that the state has passed the point of no return. Seeing no future for themselves in Pakistan, they are “voting with their feet,” and moving abroad. Others, including some with Pakistan’s military establishment, have grown tired of the unremitting hostility. They have concluded that Pakistan cannot achieve the economic development it needs to survive over the long term without establishing a normal relationship with India. Businessmen in both countries have been urging their governments to move on trade. This has borne results in Pakistan, which, with the Army’s consent, extended Most Favored Nation status to India in 2013 and is liberalizing its visa and trade regimes.
The volatile situation in Pakistan makes it all but impossible to make long-term predictions. The window can only be extended out to five or six years at best. Overall, however, the author is not hopeful. Policy makers in both countries are concession averse and prone to cling to the status quo. Pakistani policy makers are being pushed by their circumstances to embrace more flexibility and could be more sympathetic to proposals to break the logjam. Indian policy makers remain cautious. Even if the process takes off, a simple event such as a spectacular terrorist attack against India can derail it.
I found the final chapter on “American Interests and Policies” to be among the most useful. This is where Stephen Cohen shows his value as an objective observer and demonstrates how useful a researcher at a think tank can be. I was particularly intrigued by his conclusion that “U.S. policy remains rudderless and the region’s history, including the still-relevant impact of the Raj, overlooked (Page 185).” I urge the reader to pay particularly close attention to the detailed policy recommendations that may be the book’s most valuable contribution.