Subcontinent Adrift: Strategic Futures of South Asia
By Feroz Hassan Khan
Cambria Press: August 2022
Review by Jon P. Dorschner
To start, it’s important to understand that the author, Feroz Hassan Khan, a retired Pakistani Brigadier, served as the Pakistani Army’s Director of Arms Control and Disarmament Affairs. This differentiates Khan from the generals who command troops in combat. He is an intellectual general who is currently a Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. Since his retirement, Khan has published a number of articles on South Asian arms control and related matters and a book Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb (Stanford Security Studies 2012).
He is the latest of many authors to tackle the Indo-Pakistan conflict, which has continued with periodic starts and stops since the two nations won their independence from Great Britain in 1947. If you are not a South Asia specialist and plan to read only one book on this subject, I heartily recommend this one.
This book is qualitatively better than most others that often focus more on the South Asia policies of the United States, Russia, China, and other powers rather than on the two states involved in the relationship. Khan, by contrast, maintains a laser-like focus on India and Pakistan without getting sidetracked. Khan deals only with the subject at hand and does not get bogged down in detailed analysis of the international system, the internal politics of world powers, or the maze of South Asian domestic politics. He keeps his work short, and easy to comprehend.
Khan’s military background and intimate knowledge of the internal dynamics of the Pakistan armed forces and Pakistani civil/military relations has given him a valuable and unique insight uncommon among authors from academia or journalism. South Asian military culture and its Byzantine complexity is almost incomprehensible to the outsider. Khan’s unique perspective and succinct writing style allows the non-military reader to cut through the fog and see the issues clearly.
Khan’s sincere attempt at objectivity separates him from many writers who tackle India-Pakistan issues. As a retired Pakistani general this must have been difficult for him to accomplish, something I believe he would be the first to acknowledge. Despite this, Khan tries to explain the internal variables that have prevented India and Pakistan from resolving their dispute, normalizing their bilateral relationship, and overcoming the “drift” that has persisted for so many decades.
The principal variables he identifies are: cognitive bias, strategic enclaves, and ethno/religious nationalism.
Khan asserts that cognitive bias is “seldom supported by rational interpretation of history, and imputes evil intent to the other in any disagreement.” (page 2). He says that this phenomenon is the result of constant tension and frequent military conflict. While it permeates the thinking of both Indians and Pakistanis, it is particularly prevalent among the military personnel of the two countries. He points out that the long separation of the two countries has reinforced cognitive bias in generations of Indians and Pakistanis who have had no contact with each other.
Cognitive bias has been exacerbated by the presence of religious nationalists in both countries. In Pakistan, the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq, who ruled the country 1977 to 1988, abandoned the liberal tolerance of Pakistan’s founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah and instead worked to transform Pakistan into an intolerant state. Under Haq, Pakistan began providing covert support to Islamic extremist groups, which then launched terrorist attacks first in Kashmir and then throughout India.
The government of Pakistan has long clung to fictitious denials of this policy. In a breath of fresh air, Khan acknowledges what everyone already knows, stating “the strategy subsequently backfired. The jihadi outfits once trained for sub-conventional wars turned their guns on their erstwhile benefactors. As a result, the Pakistan army has spent the last decade and more battling an insurrection of its own making (page 47),” causing billions of dollars in damage to Pakistan’s economy, tying down some 250,000 Pakistani troops, and causing 75,000 military and civilian casualties. Khan asserts that Pakistan has learned its lesson and is wrapping up its support for these groups.
As a retired Pakistani military officer, Khan had to tread softly when addressing these subjects. He refrains from dutifully repeating the official Pakistani line, while insuring that he cannot be painted as an apologist for India. By refraining from descriptions of the grisly terrorist attacks by Islamic militants against India — which already have played widely in media accounts around the world — he manages to keep his Pakistani audience.
Khan provides valuable insight into the Pakistani thought process. He asserts that Pakistan has been condemned by the United States and the international community for its covert support for Islamic extremists, while India has escaped criticism for its own support of terrorist groups launching attacks against Pakistan. Khan repeats Pakistani allegations that Indian intelligence agencies support a long-simmering independence movement in Baluchistan and colluded with Afghan intelligence to provide support for Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a brutal and violent Islamic extremist group that has declared war on the Pakistani state.
Khan states that:
“Terrorist attacks did not only occur in India but caused mayhem all over Pakistan as well. Hundreds of grisly suicide attacks on the security forces, military bases, hotels, and bazaars (including for example, the Islamabad Marriott Hotel in 2008, Karachi Airport in 2014, and the Peshawar Army Public School in 2014). (page 25),”
Khan points out that while the Pakistani government and military embraced Islamic extremist groups, Pakistan’s Islamic political parties fare poorly at the polls and have failed to form a government in Pakistan. He compares this to India where the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been in power since 2014. Khan says that this has been an enormous game changer for the Indo/Pakistan relationship, as “Under Prime Minister Modi, India seems to be on a similar trajectory to that of Pakistan under Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, (page 209),” and “Should an equally emboldened ultra-right leadership emerge in Pakistan that matches the regime in India, the region’s worst political nightmare would come true. (page 217).”
Another principal variable enabling the subcontinent’s drift is the existence of what Khan calls “strategic enclaves” in both countries. He defines these enclaves as self-interested groups within the Foreign and Defense Ministries, and the leading politicians surrounding the heads of state. Khan claims that these enclaves are committed to maintaining the status quo and have deliberately sabotaged peace and normalization efforts. As a result, the Indo/Pakistan relationship has been a roller coaster. The two countries genuinely try to overcome their differences only to see their efforts come crashing down. Time and again ongoing initiatives are stillborn following a gruesome terrorist attack launched against India or a conventional India/Pakistan military confrontation such as the 1999 Kargil war.
Having detailed the factors underlying the persistent drift in Indo/Pakistan relations, Khan turns his attention to the future. In his analysis there are three possible outcomes, which he calls “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
The good option requires an enlightened leadership in both countries that perceives the inherent danger of continued tension and conflict. Over time, the inherent imbalance between India and Pakistan will only increase. India has benefitted immensely from its closer ties to the United States, and has used this leverage to gain valuable military assistance. In turn, this has enabled the Indian military to rapidly integrate state-of-the-art military technology. Pakistan has tried to keep up by increasing its reliance on its Chinese ally, but this will not be enough. Pakistan cannot continue to drain its economy by engaging in an ever-expanding arms race with India. The onus is thus on Pakistan to resolve the conflict and turn its attention to political stability and much-needed economic development. However, Khan believes that as long as the Modi government remains in power, it will reject any Pakistani overtures.
Under the bad option, India and Pakistan will embrace a perpetual mini-Cold War. Their international border will become a new iron curtain. Their militaries will remain in perpetual alert ready to fight on a moment’s notice, while the introduction of ever more deadly weapons and the prospect of rapid escalation increases the prospects for a calamitous nuclear exchange.
Under the ugly option, India refuses to engage with Pakistan and waits for it to collapse. Under this scenario, Pakistan becomes a failed state and has no option but to come with hat in hand and acquiesce to whatever terms India dictates. This would be Pakistan’s worst nightmare, as it would be reduced to a subservient state. Khan concludes by dismissing this as a non-viable option, and says that Pakistan is resilient and has learned how to ensure its continued survival and sovereignty.
A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner currently teaches at the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the University, he was a career Foreign Service Office from 1982 until 2011, serving in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and Washington. Jon earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona, has taught South Asian studies at the university level and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects.