Stephen Cohen, Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum. (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2013).
Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, The Siege: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel (New York: Penguin, 2013).
In many aspects, India and Pakistan are not exceptional. Like so many other former European colonies, they struggle to reconcile modern borders with ancient identities. Elites govern at the expense of ordinary citizens. Foreign countries feature prominently in their economic and political activities, especially as India and Pakistan seek to compete at a global level. In this light, India and Pakistan seem no different than the many postcolonial states scattered throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
What makes India and Pakistan special, however, is how much they hate each other. Despite numerous fits and starts at rapprochement, the countries have reconciled little in the nearly seven decades since independence from the British. Instead, they have moved in the opposite direction, strategically crafting national identities and policies along a singular concept: rivalry.
In Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum, Stephen Cohen, the Brookings Institution's South Asia scholar, partially blames this rivalry on the British. The British crown assumed direct control in 1858 over the subcontinent, and did more damage in "1947, when it partitioned India and decamped." The most glaring example of colonial error is what happened to the princely state of Kashmir, where a Hindu prince ruled the largely Muslim state. At partition, "Indian princes were advised by the British to choose either India or Pakistan...and the rush to force them to join one or the other ignited several significant conflicts." Kashmir remained part of India, despite its Muslim majority, and the rest is history, or rather, rivalry.
Since independence, however, India and Pakistan have sustained and deepened the rivalry to be just as culpable as the British. Today the two countries have three wars between them, a game of proxies inside Afghanistan, and a nuclear arms race, as well as a smattering of disputes over territory, water, and trade. Cohen thoroughly explains these problems and ironies, offering several explanations: a clash of civilizations, a competition between secular and Islamic states, territorial disputes, power politics, "psychological abnormalities," and the influence of outside powers."
Instead of favoring one explanation for the rivalry, Shooting for a Century opts for all of them, accurately conveying just how complicated India-Pakistan relations are. But the real strength of Shooting for a Century is its ability to detail the often-enigmatic psychology of the conflict in both Indian and Pakistani minds. For example, Cohen bluntly states that one of Pakistan's "India problems" is its belief that India wants to wipe the Pakistani state out of existence. Among India's "Pakistan problems" is lingering resentment towards partition; one Indian scholar calls it "one of the ten modern catastrophes." It is no wonder that the Pakistanis see India as an existential threat.
Cohen's juxtaposition of Pakistani and Indian perspectives suggests both sides are actually two faces of a single entity, both divided and unified, albeit unhappily. By taking this approach, he invokes a historical sense of togetherness that is often neglected in the discussions of the conflict.
For example, Cohen writes that "the Islamic Sufi tradition was especially attractive to South Asian Hindus, and many Hindus and Muslims traditionally prayed in each other's mosques and temples." He reminds us that most British Indian army generals believed "the division of India into two states was not really necessary."
This Janus-like existence is proof that the legacies of colonialism and the trauma of partition still linger, not just in the form of anger, but also as sadness, fear, and regret. Indian political psychologist Ashis Nandy has eloquently described this paradox: "Pakistan is what India does not want to be... both a double and the final rejected self... the ultimate symbol of irrationality and fanaticism."
Shooting for a Century offers a thorough and balanced analysis of a discussion that is chaotic, confusing and overly biased. Yet the book offers no new ideas. Ironically, Cohen spends most of the book detailing the intractability of the conflict, claiming chances are high it will never be resolved, only to include a chapter on "Prospects." But rather than detailing actual options, the chapter offers more fodder for why normalization will fail. It is at this point that Shooting for a Century becomes repetitive, and the continued onslaught of reasons why India and Pakistan hate each other begin to fatigue the reader.
Cohen does acknowledge that a "qualified optimism is emerging on both sides (and enthusiasm among Pakistanis), especially after the decision in 2012 to accept Indian trade terms." But while this is a small opening, it is not the opening needed to unlock the other conflicts between India and Pakistan. Trade normalization alone will not fix everything because, as Cohen points out, any prospect of major breakthroughs can easily "be blown apart" by serious miscalculations, faulty foreign interventions, or terrorism. There are too many spoilers between India and Pakistan for one facet of their relationship to become an all-encompassing solution for peace.
In the end, Cohen's chapter on prospects offers none at all. Cohen mentions dialogues between former policymakers and civil society organizations, backchannel discussions between government officials, and foreign efforts to normalize, but concludes that none of them will work. Instead, he makes a prediction: trade openings will reduce tension, but a "hurting stalemate will continue." "Cautious movements towards dialogue" will persist, "punctuated by attempts on both sides to press unilaterally their advantage in Kashmir and in international forums."
He offers a few other scenarios worse than this one, and in the end, none lend themselves to optimism. He dismisses as insignificant the ongoing efforts to collaborate on energy, the environment, and accepting the status quo in Kashmir. The plethora of negative results leaves the reader unclear as to Cohen's real view of the future, though the range of outcomes is clear: bad, worse, or cataclysmic.
While Cohen could have written a more succinct book with a sharper argument, his reasoning is right on the mark. In addition to his telling portrayal of the conflict's psychology, he gives an accurate picture of how other countries have played a prominent role in the India-Pakistan rivalry, a dynamic that has complicated and often prevented attempts at peace.
During the Cold War, Pakistan accepted millions of dollars in U.S. aid to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, while India became a mouthpiece for nonalignment and other socialist principles. The Americans and Soviets were able to use India and Pakistan in their cold war fight, while the Indians and Pakistanis used their external allies to strengthen conventional military capabilities against the other.
This game of "high strategy," as Cohen calls it, persists today in Pakistan's relations with China and the United States, which serve as a hedge against India, and India's growing economic links with Afghanistan and Iran, which have the added side effect of worrying the Pakistanis.
Blaming the Americans
Cohen begins the book by blaming the British and ends it with blaming the Americans. In the final chapter on "American Interests and Policies," he writes, "the Obama administration failed to develop a South Asia policy that would have encompassed both India-Pakistan relations (including Kashmir) and the grinding war in Afghanistan." It did not help that the American special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP), Richard C. Holbrooke, was persona non grata in India, where "Indian officials were so irritated with his mandate that they made it inconvenient for Holbrooke to visit New Delhi."
India didn't want Holbrooke to insert himself into its issues with Pakistan, which it viewed as strictly bilateral. But Holbrooke was keen on taking a regional approach - something that the Pakistanis themselves welcomed. Pakistan has always wanted the United States to serve as mediator in its conflict with India.
The India policy apparatus within the U.S. government was also keen to keep Holbrooke out of their space - any combination of "Af-Pak" with India meant India policy would play second fiddle to Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were more vital and urgent to American national security interests.
Cohen's statements are factual, but they lack significant background details. I was privy to many of these details when I worked with Holbrooke from 2009 up until his death, first on Secretary Clinton's policy planning staff and then on the White House national security staff as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Holbrooke finally made it to India in July 2010. By that time, he understood that getting it right in Afghanistan meant that India and Pakistan had to start talking -- and President Obama and Hillary Clinton agreed. Holbrooke wanted to host a "quadrilateral" dialogue between the United States, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan that would be similar to the trilateral dialogue he had initiated between the United States, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the only way, Holbrooke thought, to fix Afghanistan, where India-Pakistan tensions bolstered local conflicts.
Despite minor fits and starts until the day Holbrooke died in December that year, the talks never happened. Part of the problem went back to what Cohen calls American "organizational pathologies," such as the creation of the SRAP office, which was debilitating for South Asia policy as a whole. It led to "segmented and uncoordinated policymaking," in which offices covering India and Pakistan in the State Department and White House were unable to reconcile opposing viewpoints, became overly turf-conscious, and took on client-like relationships with the countries they worked on. But the quadrilateral dialogue also failed because India did not want to be part of a dialogue with South Asia's "problem children." Instead, it wanted a dialogue with the United States about them.
There was another reason the Indian government couldn't be too forward leaning on any dialogue with Pakistan: the 2008 Mumbai attacks. Cohen describes the attacks as "designed to disrupt the dialogue," and that's exactly what they did. The memory of the attacks lingered, and lethargic legal systems in both countries meant justice was slow. In 2013, India eventually sentenced to death and hung Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving attacker.
But the case against Pakistani facilitators involved in the attacks still lingers in the Lahore High Court. Pakistan's "deep state" -- the security establishment that comprises the military and intelligence agencies -- bears some of the responsibility. For decades, Pakistan's security establishment has nurtured, patronized and utilized Lashkar-e-Taiba and other militant groups to compete with India and gain influence in Afghanistan. As for so many other terrorism cases, Pakistani civilians and law enforcement shy away from investigating the LeT for fear of their safety. The Pakistani prosecutor investigating the attacks showed up dead in 2013.
With God on Their Side
In contrast to Cohen's thorough and academic portrait of India-Pakistan relations, The Seige: 68 Hours Inside the Taj Hotel gives readers a more visceral picture of how violent the rivalry truly is. Cathy Scott-Clark and Adrian Levy, veteran journalists familiar with South Asia, document the repercussions of Pakistan's deep state in a play-by-play account of the 2008 Mumbai attacks, painstakingly piecing together security camera footage from the Taj Hotel, the testimony of the lone surviving attacker, Ajmal Kasab, and survivor accounts. Levy and Scott-Clark succeed in introducing us personally to the people who died and were injured, and the police officers and government officials who failed in their rapid response. Readers will finish the book knowing what it felt like to be there, smelling the smoke and hearing the gunfire.
The Seige forces all of us to understand the visceral and violent nature of the never-ending India-Pakistan rivalry. When attackers Ajmal, Ismail, Shoaib, and Umer hijacked an Indian fishing trawler while traveling from Karachi across the Arabian Sea, their Pakistani handlers told them to kill Solanki, the Indian captain they held hostage. "Ajmal looked at Ismail: ‘Kill him?' he whispered, shaking." They cut Solanki's throat, closing their eyes to conceal their horror: "They had stepped over a threshold. All of them were blooded." Levy and Scott-Clark present a group of attackers who are themselves scared of the true face of terrorism.
Just as shocking as the raid itself are the chapters tracking the footsteps of David Headley, the troubled Pakistani American who performed the reconnaissance, and the lives of the LeT militants who conducted the attacks. Headley's religious fundamentalism and his mixed ancestry, half-American and half-Pakistani, demonstrate the worrying potential for radicalization in the United States. The poverty and disenfranchisement that Kasab and his fellow attackers came from in Pakistan is even more worrisome for India. Given its troubled economic trajectory, Pakistan will always have plenty of Kasabs wanting to fight India - no matter how scared of blood they really are.
Finally, groups like LeT will always find a way to get God on their side. What they offer the Kasabs of the world is hope their own families and country have denied them, best exemplified by the parting blessing Kasab's Pakistani handler gives him: "May Allah make true everything you wish for in your heart."
When it comes to the involvement of the Pakistani security establishment in the Mumbai plot and more broadly in terrorism, The Seige calls LeT a "tangled ball of wool" that created "cover for the machinations of the deep state." This is where the narrative disappoints, leaving the reader wanting more analysis, nuance and background on the Pakistani deep state behind the Mumbai attacks.
Levy and Scott-Clark raise controversial and important issues, such as Pakistani army membership in LeT and Headley's relationships with Pakistani intelligence, but they do not offer deeper insights into the nature of these relationships. For example, which parts of the Pakistani military deal with LeT? How high up the chain of command do the relationships go? Does LeT ever resist Pakistani directives? The reader becomes more aware of these problems but not much smarter as to their answers.
In all fairness, answering these questions may be beyond even Levy and Scott-Clark, who prove themselves to be worthy investigative journalists. While the Pakistani military's involvement in creating and nurturing LeT and others similar groups is an open secret, Levy and Scott-Clark would be hard pressed to get anyone to admit this on the record.
Just as Levy and Scott-Clark paint a vivid picture of the life of the Pakistani militant, a parallel narrative on developments within the Pakistani security establishment would have filled in the gaps. Such an account would show that changing patterns in terrorism are redefining some perspectives within the Pakistani security establishment towards LeT and similar organizations. The nontraditional targeting of Americans and Jews in the Mumbai attack is only one example of LeT's broader mandate being more closely aligned with al Qaeda - something Pakistan's deep state fears immensely. In this case, Shooting for a Century does a better job of analyzing the conundrum Pakistan is in; Cohen believes that the threat of Islamic terrorism in both countries could potentially bring India and Pakistan closer together.
The Seige is a fast-paced read, and while it sometimes lingers far too long on the minutiae of the raid, that description is also the book's strength. The reader experiences the attacks with the same sense of terror and confusion that the people of Mumbai did.
Mumbai residents were the eventual casualties of a bilateral relationship gone awry. Shooting for a Century offers the intellectual arguments behind those dynamics, while The Seige stands out powerfully as a narrative about the tragic impact of terrorism on people - states, perpetrators, and victims alike. Like the India-Pakistan relationship itself, the books represent two separate and psychologically traumatized parts of the same complicated and violent story.Shamila N. Chaudhary is senior advisor to Dean Vali Nasr at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the White House National Security Council from 2010-2011. Follow her on Twitter: @ShamilaCh.