Stephen P. Cohen

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke with South Asian political and security expert Stephen P. Cohen about his latest book, Shooting for a Century: The India Pakistan Conundrum, Pakistan’s democratic transition, the issue of Kashmir, and the ongoing diplomatic and security challenges in Afghanistan.

By Sanjay Kumar for
Stephen P. Cohen
Stephen P. Cohen

“For Indians to say that there is no change in Pakistan is simple ignorance. Islamabad is discussing hard how to find a way out of this mess. There is a lot of change taking place in Pakistan.”

Stephen P. Cohen is not so much an individual as he is an institution. With more than five decades of expertise on South Asia, the American political scientist is an authority on the region. His research and works have offered a new perspective to understanding one of the most volatile regions of the world. His seminal work, The Idea of Pakistan, gave new insight that helped policymakers frame strategy, and he remains hugely influential in the region.

Cohen’s latest book, Shooting for a Century: The India Pakistan Conundrum comes at a time when the perennial South Asian rivals are inching back to the dialogue table. In this work, Cohen considers the “historical, cultural and strategic differences that underpin the hostility,” and argues that the enmity will continue for some time yet. He also explains how the hostility between India and Pakistan keeps Afghanistan destabilized and why it is important for New Delhi and Islamabad to cooperate in stabilizing the Hindu Kush.

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke to Cohen, now a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, during the latter’s recent visit to New Delhi.

What did you mean by “Shooting for a Century?”

I wanted to emphasize the likelihood of the conflict between India and Pakistan reaching one hundred years. It’s already gone on for 67 years, so a century would be 2047, which is not that long now. I wanted to make the point that in terms of conflicts in the world this is one of the longest, if not the longest conflict in the world.

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This is one of the two longest disputes in the world, the other being the Israel-Palestine dispute which came about in the same year when the conflict in the Indian subcontinent began in 1947.

So despite all the efforts being made to normalize relations, you’re not optimistic that there will be any kind of reconciliation between the neighbors?

Not in the short term. In 67 years they didn’t do that and they will not do it even in another 35 years. After looking at the considerations and factors at work it is hard to be optimistic. The peace community exaggerates their power and the war community exaggerates the likelihood of another war between the two countries. I think its going to go on like this. It’s not the conclusion I like personally. A senior Indian official tells me that he hopes I am wrong and I also hope that I am wrong. But hope is not policy, and we need policy. There are policies which could be pursued by both countries and others which might bring normalization. Others call it peace; I prefer to call it normalization.

Until a few weeks ago it was looking as if India and Pakistan were moving towards normalization, but now it seems there are forces working overtime to jeopardize peace efforts. What do you make of that?

It’s not overtime; it’s fulltime. I think there are forces both in India and Pakistan that oppose normalization. We know who they are. My book discusses that. The critical issue is that in both countries many people would like to see a normal relationship, but both sides have conditions for that. But the condition is that the other side should do something.

India wants Pakistan to do something to control state terrorism before moving ahead with the normalization process. Pakistan wants India to do something in Kashmir. So it’s conditional on both sides. There are always good reasons why the conditions have not been met.

There are always a few groups in both countries who would like to see the other country destroyed or fractured. Some Pakistanis believe that this is going to happen to India. Some Indians believe that Pakistan is an unnatural state and will not survive. So between these groups the two countries missed many opportunities. I don’t see that changing at all.

In your book, you hold India responsible for the state of affairs on the subcontinent.

I hold India responsible partially. India’s policy in Kashmir provides legitimate world concern about the state of affairs there. It’s not simply Pakistan but the world’s concern. India has trouble in Kashmir. Indians write about that. From the Pakistani point of view the biggest condition is that they want India to treat it as a disputed territory. India cannot accept the condition of a plebiscite. Indians believe that Kashmir made the choice to be with India and by and large this is true. By and large the Kashmiris that I know will be happy to stay in India. But they are not happy with the conditions in Kashmir.

You have to distinguish between different Kashmiri groups: Ladakhi, Hindus and Valley Muslims. They have different views about staying with India. You have Ladakhis and Hindus who are quite comfortable in Kashmir. Pakistan, I think, exaggerates wildly the treatment of Indian Muslims and their misperception of Indian Muslims is very grave. That has always been the case, but there are enough instances that justify their apprehension. Ayodhya was one and the Bombay riots in 1993 were another, showing that Hindu-Muslim relations in India are far from perfect.

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So if you are looking for excuses for a bad relationship there are plenty of them. This is very much like the cold war between Arabs and Israel. There is always a good reason not to be on talking terms.

How do you look at the recent democratic transitions in Pakistan? Can we see some potential in the conflict torn country?

It’s a positive. Good elections no matter who wins are a necessary but not sufficient condition for normalization. Nawaz Sharif is very much in favor of normalization; there is no doubt about that. You have to persuade the rest of Pakistan to go along with him. Most Pakistanis I have spoken to are in favor of good trade with India, they want free mobility across the border, and they want to do business with India. The army in Pakistan has veto power over policy on India. The army has, however, itself come around to the idea of doing business with India. I don’t see its position as inevitably negative.

Do you see democracy stabilizing in Pakistan?

It’s a process. There are some parts of Pakistan that are run by authoritarian leaders but on the whole Pakistan is moving in the direction of democracy. Most Pakistanis want to see democracy. Army guys also want democracy, but effective democracy. They don’t want fake democracy. They don’t trust civilians to govern the country effectively. They also don’t trust civilian relations with India. But they cannot govern the country well, they know that.

How serious is the threat to Pakistan from jihadist elements? Do you feel it is existential?

Not right now, but I am worried about the trend. If things go badly in Afghanistan in containing Islamic extremism, the contagion is going to spread to Pakistan, and if it goes badly in Pakistan it can spread to India. I do think there is going to be a new domino theory. The old theory was related to communism spreading from Vietnam and sweeping to the West. The new domino theory says that Islamic terrorism spreads from one Islamic country to another. The tie between jihadis in Pakistan and jihadis in Afghanistan and the idea of defeating Americans are current among the Islamic groups. Pakistan is the number one target, then Afghanistan, then after that Indian Muslims would be the target. I don’t think that is realistic on their part. I think they exaggerate their strengths.

You have quoted Indian leader Mani Shankar Aiyar as saying that both India and Pakistan can fight jihadi terrorism together.

He’s right. Aiyar is one of the leading peace advocates. One thing that is common to both countries is that both are dealing with Islamic extremism. The problem in Pakistan is that on both sides of the street they are supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. But this support for Islamic extremism has come back to haunt them; they now know that the tiger they were feeding has come to eat them. Pakistan is debating this issue very intently. The Pakistani Taliban are the same people whom Islamabad was supporting in Afghanistan, and now they are the big threat to Pakistan itself.

For Indians to say that there is no change in Pakistan is simple ignorance. Islamabad is discussing hard how to find a way out of this mess. There is a lot of change taking place in Pakistan and they are debating the issue very seriously.

How do you see India and Pakistan clashing and collaborating in Afghanistan?

I see a general failure on the part of all the countries including the U.S., or those led by the U.S., to appreciate that one of the reasons why India and Pakistan are after each other in the subcontinent is that they share the same strategic legacy of the British Raj, and so both compete in the same space, including Afghanistan. The British had the same problem and the Mughals also fought for the same strategic space.

India and Pakistan share the British legacy in Afghanistan. Both India and Pakistan see Afghanistan as their strategic space. That means they compete with each other. Nobody has proposed – and I think America should have done – that the two countries sign an agreement to cooperate. An attempt should have been made to bring them together in Kabul.

We did two things wrong in terms of Afghanistan. First, we didn’t cooperate with Iran; we saw them as an evil country, an axis of evil even though Iran cooperated in rounding up the Taliban. Second, we listened to Pakistan, which said that India should be excluded from Afghanistan. We should have made up our own minds.

In the future we should encourage India and Pakistan to cooperate in Afghanistan. Both can join to train Afghan soldiers and police. India has been doing a great job in helping in civil economic reconstruction and training of security forces of Afghanistan. But by training security forces, India is competing with Pakistan which is supporting the Taliban.

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I can see the future as Americans pull out of the war-torn country. I can see a series of civil wars in Afghanistan – some supported by Pakistan, some by India, some by the Afghans, and some by the Iranians. The tragedy of Afghanistan will continue.

If India and Pakistan find a way to cooperate in Afghanistan it would be a win situation for all stakeholders.