Professor Cohen, to begin with, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an interview with Telegraph recently, said that Pakistan cannot progress if they continue to be obsessed with India in terms of the arms race and other issues. How do you read this, especially keeping in mind that your book tries to predict that the conflict between the two countries will go on to complete 100 years?
Well, the prediction is qualified. In the book I say, I am a qualified pessimist. But my hope is in the other direction completely. I hope that India and Pakistan normalise relations. I think Nawaz is correct, I have been writing for a number of years that Pakistan cannot move forward as a country without normal borders with its neighbours, especially India. The obsession with India has been a feature of Pakistan. Now they are coming out of that, not completely, but it is changing. On the other hand, there are many Pakistanis who’d like to break up the normalisation process, or peace process. Conversely there are many in India also, who do not want to see normalisation with Pakistan. They see Pakistan as a failed state or collapsing state and they don’t want to be associated with Pakistan. I can understand why, but I think in the long run, India has to have good relations with all its neighbours, and the most formidable competitor is not Pakistan, but China. But India cannot ignore Pakistan. It’s a country with enough nuclear weapons to destroy India’s amount at stake.
In the last few weeks, there has been an ongoing conflict on the border. In one of the chapters in your book, you speak about the policy of inaction in India, while on the other hand, as Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa said in TEHELKA recently, India tries to behave like a south Asian superpower, a wannabe United States of sorts.
I think the default action of any country is to do nothing. Although India has made many proposals for normalisation of relations with Pakistan, they have rejected most of them, and vice versa. Normalisation is desired in principle by both sides, except a minority on each side. But in normalisation with conditions, it’s easy to find reasons why the other side is not meeting your conditions. If you go into negotiations with this approach, you’ll never reach an agreement. I think they should act in those areas where they have common interests, one of them being Afghanistan. They view it as an area of rivalry where both share the British legacy, but here there is also an opportunity to cooperate. I disagree with the theory of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’. In the modern world, you can’t have enemies, when the enemy can destroy you overnight with a nuclear strike.
You’ve spoken about the US policy of de-hyphenating India and Pakistan, saying that there is a need to re-hyphenate them. Why so?
I have never thought the policy of de-hyphenation was a good theory for statecraft, because you can’t de-hyphenate relations with two countries who see each other as their worst enemy. Now you have to deal with the fact that they themselves are engaged with each other, you can’t ignore that. We tried to ignore that and I think it blew up on our face. We did play a role, I think several administrations did play a role in helping resolve the crisis. However, we should go beyond that and help or assist the process of normalisation. But we should not impose ourselves on either India or Pakistan or the process. India and Pakistan have to decide where we can play a useful role, where the Europeans can play a useful role, and we should stand ready to do that. It’s not our decision, it’s your decision, and Pakistan’s decision as to what the American work will be.
How real are the concerns and intentions of the leadership in terms of normalising the relationship? In India on one day, the PM wants to play it down, the next day the opposition says something, the media says something else and the Parliament passes a resolution which in a practical sense, doesn’t help. So, doesn’t it seem like taking one step forward and two steps back?
One step forward, two steps sideways, one step back. A lot of times, they’re going in circles. India chases Pakistan, Pakistan chases India, and nothing happens. I once had a meeting with Zia and he complained to me that Pakistan had proposed joint defense agreements with India and Nehru rejected it. In a sense, each side finds a clever way to reject the proposals of the other side.
I agree that political intention is not enough. The book argues that there are two ways to achieve normalisation. I won’t say peace, but normalization. One is that a group of strategists on each side get together and decide that normalisation is in our interest. That is the policy and people eventually go along with it. That hasn’t been possible. Each side wants normalisation on its own terms.
The other approach is bottom up. That is, the peace groups, the business communities believe in public popular pressure for normalisation, or hold candle light vigils on the line of control that create pressure on politicians and strategists. But that won’t work either. It has to be a combination of both, bottom up and top down. That has worked elsewhere. But you are never going to get five or six people in each country deciding to normalise relations without public pressure. And again, public pressure alone won’t make a difference.
If you were, as an observer of the region, to look at the public pressure, between the two countries, is Pakistani public pressure more toward normalising the relationship vis-a-vis India?
It has changed enormously over the past eight to 10 years, fantastic change. I think most Pakistani civilians want a good relationship, and India is not demonised quite so much as it used to be in the past. But again, there are episodes and incidents which harden Pakistani concerns. They are failures of reciprocity. Ask how many visas have been given to Pakistani’s to come here, you will see the number is still very small. How many Pakistanis study here? Very few. So I think there are ways through which governments could unilaterally, make a difference. But bureaucrats are really unwillingly to do this.
But do you also agree with former Prime Minister Gujral, that the onus of improving relations lies with the bigger brother, in that sense, India?
That’s the Pakistani view. The first time I went to Pakistan in 1977, a Pakistani general said to me, we’re brothers, but India is the big brother and the big brother has the responsibility of making the first concessions to the little brother. But India has a psychology where it is not the big brother. It feels insecure and threatened by Pakistan and by China and by Americans too at one point. So India has an inferiority complex vis-s-vis Pakistan. So, in a sense, it’s difficult for India to make those kinds of concessions.
In the last one-and-half years, we saw enormous development on the economic front and on visas. I think they have already started issuing visas to businessmen who can go to multiple cities. Also there are talks about investments across the border. Do you see this as a realistic solution? And also, do you think the army has anything to gain from the economic benefits?
Well, I think the Pakistani army has realised, I think since Karamat was army chief, that the Pakistani economy was failing, that the Pakistani army could not sustain itself with the failing economy. So they see it in their interest to normalise ties with India. But they are worried about making political concessions on Kashmir and other things. Also, the Pakistani army is up to its nose in an insurgency against the Pakistan Taliban. So the army itself is reconsidering the priority of the India threat. Kayani has said publically, that while the Indian threat is a long term threat, the immediate threats are the terrorists in tribal areas where the army has lost a lot of people. So, there is a rethinking amongst the civilians and also the military. I think it’s in India’s interest to follow this and try to take steps which will encourage rethinking and redevelopment so Pakistan sees itself as a normal south Asian state and not simply as the enemy of India.
If the positive attitude from both sides continues, realistically when do you see a normalisation between the two neighbours?
I wish I could give you a date and a time. But I am pessimistic that this is going to happen. I hope I’m wrong, but unless there is some reconsideration on both sides, like economic and political reasons to rethink this, I don’t see normalisation taking place. On the other hand, I don’t see a major war between the two. Ironically, nuclear weapons make this inconceivable. Both countries have enough nuclear weapons now to destroy the other country. But they also have a war underneath the nuclear threshold, Pakistanis were the first to think of this, but now the Indians do it as well. But nobody knows who the threshold is on the other side. It’s impossible to determine precisely, so that’s why the debate that’s going on between India and Pakistan is an imaginary debate. We used to do it with the Soviets. But in fact when it comes down to the crunch, no politician can be assured by a military officer that the war will be kept limited. Nawaz learnt this lesson in Kargil. He was talked into Kargil by the military, by Musharraf and he didn’t trust the military after that. Now he pays more attention to what they say. I think he is trying to strengthen his team to deal with these issues, which is important for civil military relations in Pakistan.
We did see the Mumbai attack, but you mention that there is not going to be any large scale conventional wars. You also talked about Pakistan’s role in communal tensions across the country. We have seen a huge increase in communal tension in places such as Uttar Pradesh and other places where there is expected to be a polarization. Do you see any external hand in such communal conflicts?
It’s easy to blame an external hand for a lot of things. India used to blame America for these things. But I don’t know the evidence myself. You will have to talk to people in the Indian intelligence to get a better picture of this. Many Pakistanis believe that India is a country right for revolution, but I don’t agree with that. I think that Indian Muslims are content to be Indian Muslims. They have a better deal here then they would in Pakistan or in a separate state. So, I think in larger terms, that’s an exaggerated concern, but clearly in day-to-day issues, the Indian Muslims are integrated in Indian politics very well.