June 19, 2021
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Stephen Philip Cohen

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Stephen Philip Cohen

Good morning. The lights were off for awhile and guess if we had turned the air conditioners off then we would have resembled the situation in both Islamabad and New Delhi these days — no lights, no electricity, very hot.

From an American perspective, there have been three major regional problems that have bedeviled American policymakers. These are negative interests.

The first has been Kashmir. Right from the very beginning the United States was engaged in the Kashmir issue. We made a significant attempt to solve it in the '50s — the Eisenhower Administration was deeply involved in negotiations. Then the Kennedy Administration made a major attempt to bring India and Pakistan together in some kind of dialogue on Kashmir. By 1964-'65, we had really given up on Kashmir and since then there's been no significant American initiative on Kashmir.

The other issue is the question of nuclear proliferation. This was a growing concern in the Carter Administration. The Reagan Administration looked at it. The Bush people followed it. I think American policy really made this the central focus, America made this the central focus of American policy in the Clinton Administration and the policy then evolved into the phrase "cap, roll-back, and eliminate" nuclear weapons. That really guided our policy towards South Asia, towards India and Pakistan for a number of years.

More recently, of course, there is the war on terrorism which has not only brought our attention to South Asia but our forces to South Asia with the unique situation of American military forces being in both India and Pakistan at the same time and our relationship with those two countries has been changed. We regard both as allies in this war on terrorism even though they have strong disagreements between each other.

There are of course many positive interests and I don't want to leave the impression that our interests in South Asia, especially India and Pakistan, are negative. There are a lot of positive interests. These have to be balanced, of course, with our concerns.

The evolution of the so-called war on terrorism in South Asia has made us vulnerable to pressure from both India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis for many years have argued that a nuclear war in South Asia could take place over Kashmir and Kashmir was officially declared to be the flash point of South Asia by several American administrations. So the Pakistanis have argued that America must put pressure on India to resolve the Kashmir dispute, or at least to get the Indians to talk about Kashmir.

After 9/11 the Indians took that argument and turned it inside out. They argued that terrorism was the leading possible cause of war in South Asia, that Pakistani-supported terrorists in India and Kashmir could trigger war between India and Pakistan which could then lead to nuclear detonations by one or both countries, and of course we've seen India putting tremendous coercive pressure on both Pakistan and the United States for the past five months by military buildup which I think is now beginning to recede. I think there's still the chance of a war, but clearly India has just announced that its navy is going to be pulled away from Karachi and it's allowing Pakistani air flights. So I think the risk of war is probably dropping.

India refused any role in South Asia, rejected any role in South Asia, but in 1999 it accepted an American intervention in Kargil where we put tremendous pressure on Pakistan.

I think the U.S. has really three options in South Asia from this point onward. The first is the traditional policy, the good old fashioned simply love them and leave them policy. We left South Asia in 1965 after the India-Pakistan War. We left it in 1972 after we intervened briefly on the side of Pakistan in the war between India and Pakistan. And we left it again in 1989 after the first Afghan war. All things being considered, this is probably what we would do. All other things being considered, it's probably what we would do again. There don't seem to be any vital American interests in South Asia, that is nothing of direct threat to the United States except for possibly events that might occur in Pakistan.

Kargil brought us back into South Asia and really there was a chill towards India. We didn't ignore Pakistan completely, but we saw the Clinton Administration then the Bush Administration begin to see India as a rising Asian power, did not see much value in a relationship with Pakistan.

The war on terrorism of course transformed that perspective and Pakistan became a front line state in the war on terrorism, not only for the war in Afghanistan but clearly for the evolution of Pakistan or the deterioration of Pakistan into a state which was itself the source of international terror. And as we've seen the [Guidian Ebb], the other day in fact, has been trained in Pakistan partially, and Pakistan has been a transit point and a training center for a number of al Qaeda and other radicals.

So the first option really was to pull out. The second option was to remain engaged but tilting towards India. A third option really is to engage India and Pakistan but ignore Kashmir. I think that's where the Administration seems to be heading. As long as we need Pakistan as an ally in the war against terrorism clearly there will be a military relationship and a political relationship with Islamabad, and this Administration still sees India as a rising major Asian state.

So I think at the minimum we're going to have a closer relationship with India, the beginning of military cooperation possibly even nuclear cooperation in the future. As the Indian economy revives, the hope that there will be much greater U.S.-Indian economic ties. And in the case of Pakistan there is the promise, although not yet the delivery, of significant economic assistance to Pakistan to help rebuild this infrastructure. There could be, and I underline the could, after the elections in Pakistan in October there could even be renewed military assistance to Pakistan if that's the price the Pakistanis want in order to keep their cooperation and keep American forces in Islamabad.

So the third option I think really, and most likely, is to engage India and Pakistan as best we can but ignore Kashmir.

The fourth option has been one that has been raised periodically and it's been rejected by successive American Administrations, and that is to add Kashmir to the mix. To attempt to bring India and Pakistan if not to the bargaining table at least to a process by which they can deal with the Kashmir issue in one form or another.

The elements of a process which would allow us to do this are now in place. We do have close relations with both India and Pakistan, closer relations with both than we've had for many many decades. There's good reason to expand our relationship with India. It's important that Pakistan be retained, that we retain our relationship with Pakistan. We don't want to see it deteriorate any further as a state.

Finally, there's a whole array of Kashmir proposals on the table. I won't go into these. Certainly Navnita Chadha knows these much better than anybody else around here, but there are a whole series of proposals that have been floated about Kashmir for many decades.

But what are the spoilers for any new American initiative? Whether it is a peace process or simply a slightly elevated form of diplomacy. I think there are three.

In India, the Indian hawks want to destroy Pakistan. This has emerged now in the past five months. The voices that were very quiet in India about Pakistan have now come out in the open and it's a substantial constituency in India for the destruction of Pakistan, or for the transformation of Pakistan into a pliable, subservient state to India. In other words destroy the Pakistan army, eliminate Punjabi dominance, really to create a revolution in Pakistan, and of course the Indians would like us to do that on their behalf. I don't think the Administration is quite prepared to take on that task.

In the case of Pakistan, Pakistani hawks want all of Kashmir. If they can't have Kashmir they want to continue to bleed India. As far as they're concerned, the true ultra-hawks in Pakistan, they see India as an artificial creation and they see this kind of Islamic pressure on India as clearly weakening the Indian state eventually leading to its destruction.

So both India and Pakistan are on the extremes, I think. The radicals or hawks or militant, whatever you want to call them, who would like to break up a peace process, who do not want to see a step by step normalization of India-Pakistan relations which might or might not include Kashmir. Again, here the analogy with the Middle East I think is very appropriate where you get people on both sides who question the legitimacy of the other side.

I think the third obstacle to a more consistent and coherent American policy towards South Asia, including possibly Kashmir, really is in Washington itself. No American Administration has thought of undertaking the larger task of addressing South Asia as a whole. I think that when asked, I think before the war on terrorism most people in the Bush Administration would probably have said this is too much for us. It's not where there are vital American interests.

Furthermore, besides a lack of interest in the region, although certainly it's been elevated since 9/11, furthermore there's a practical question of the time available for policy. It's clear that this Administration is trying to juggle many balls at the same time. They're trying to pursue a peace process in the Middle East that has collapsed; they're trying to prepare for a possible war against Iraq; they're certainly fighting a war against terrorism. In a number of different countries around the world, while the popularity is very high, they know that this could be [evanescent], and I think that adding a South Asia peace process to this mix may be simply too much for them.

So it could be that even with the best of intentions this Administration or any American Administration would find it simply too much of a burden to take on another region and the problems of another part of the world.

Let me stop there.

James Steinberg: Before you do, Steve, maybe you could say a word about you think if the U.S. were to pursue that option what would the substantive content of a U.S. mission —

Stephen Philip Cohen: I think substantively, my own view, and I've shifted my opinion on this, is that we should fairly early move towards a position of accepting the Line of Control as essentially the final line between India and Pakistan.

This is something that the Indians privately have said they would accept. Publicly they reject it. And the Indian hawks in fact would like to see all of Kashmir. They'd like to see all of Pakistan in a sense either destroyed or weakened.

So if America made this proposal that the Indians have privately made, India would certainly reject it initially. But in the long run might come to accept it. The bigger problem would be in Pakistan. I think Pakistani public opinion and Pakistan especially among the hawks really sees Kashmir as one of Pakistan's [raisson] [inaudible]. Pakistan's support for Kashmir is one reason why Pakistan exists. To me that view is suicidal. That Pakistan stakes it future on Kashmir or getting Kashmir. Pakistan itself is going to be a questionable proposition.

But another part of an American plan besides coming out with some view of Kashmir should be, I think, massive significant economic assistance to Pakistan because I think Kashmir needs this kind of assistance to rebuild its civilian institutions. An expanded military relationship with India. And to me, as the track went ahead, I don't think there would be a security problem. I think that India could grow militarily and Pakistan, but as long as Pakistan began to modify its position on Kashmir or accept essentially what has been the Line of Control, the international border for the past 53 years, I think that the Indians would regard the situation as satisfactory.

Indians don't want to be bogged down in South Asia. They'd like to play a larger Asian role. The first of the Asian [factors] to reform their own economy. But that's a separate policy brief.

I think a package sponsored by the Americans plus other countries, and I do think that other countries have to be involved with this. Certainly the Japanese, the Chinese, our close allies in Europe, all of these countries really have to be reading from the same text to make a credible peace process, as is the case more or less in the Middle East. You can't have different major powers going in different directions, then India or Pakistan would defect and be able to turn to others to get out of it. So I think it has to reach a larger, I won't say global, but a process which was seen by most of the major allies and Russia and China in pretty much the same way.

James Steinberg: Thank you Steve.


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