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NEEDLESS ALARM

Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back By Bruce Riedel, HarperCollins, Rs 499

The name of the book reveals all. The author, Bruce Riedel, has been an insider of the Central Intelligence Agency for a long time, and has been privy to various twists and turns, trials and tribulations that the United States of America has undergone for more than 25 years. Hence, the quality and the authenticity of the book can hardly be challenged or disputed, interpretations of events by the author notwithstanding.

The book begins with the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai that were wrought by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The banned terror outfit had the active help and participation of the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence as the “LeT recruits from the same areas where the Pakistani army recruits, indeed from the same families.” And the role model for this is the “old Mughal Empire of the 17th and 18th centuries, under which a Muslim minority ruled the Hindu majority and dominated the most of the sub-continent.” It, therefore, results in anti-British rhetoric, as the Western colonizers snatched from the Muslim rulers their power over the majority population of South Asia.

In this background, enter the super power, the US. If there is a fight between India and Pakistan, the global strategic interests of the super power are hurt. And post 26/11, any fire in Pakistan directly affects 80 per cent of the Nato supplies that travel through Karachi port to landlocked Afghanistan; this would result in the instant defeat of the US and a victory for the al Qaida and the LeT. The US, understandably, is worried as to how to deal with the “emergence of India and Pakistan as major world powers.”

The US’s quest for a firm foothold in South Asia began long ago, with President Harry S. Truman. However, successive presidents, from Eisenhower to Obama, found the area extremely hard to succeed in. This is essentially because of the diverse interests and aims of India and Pakistan. India, through the non-aligned movement, wanted to move independently through a bipolar world and try to create a niche for itself with the use of its soft power under Jawaharlal Nehru; Pakistan was not confident doing so owing to its smaller size and overall limited capability in comparison to India. Hence Pakistan’s rulers, who were soon dethroned by the military general, sought the assistance of a bigger and greater power than its neighbour India, to guarantee the country’s safety, security and sovereignty. And who could be better than the US? Naturally India disliked the permanent presence of a distant big brother in the vicinity.

Seeds were sown for long “Indo-US relations which were cordial but not close.” Nehru and Indira Gandhi were welcome to the US through diplomacy sans intimacy. Pakistani generals, on the other hand, were allowed to be “personal” guests and their requests for arms and aid were considered with utmost care. Thus, during the Bangladesh crisis of 1971, when Indira Gandhi visited the US to gain world “support for the Bengali people and India, she met a brick wall in the Oval office” of President Richard Nixon. Understandably the Americans failed in their assessment of Indira Gandhi’s mettle; “she ordered her army chief to prepare for war.”

Interestingly, the book reveals once again the American expertise in preparing false reports, such as those made by the CIA. Richard Helms, the then director of the CIA, reported “that Indira Gandhi had designs beyond East Pakistan and was determined to destroy Pakistan entirely in the war.” Nixon was elated and called it “one of the few really timely pieces of intelligence the CIA had ever given him.” Subsequent events made Helms concede that though “the report was inaccurate, it was too important to be ignored.” Does this report sound suspiciously like CIA and American reports on present-day Iraq, Syria and Libya?

Indira Gandhi simply “did not need America”, but she was “convinced that Nixon was her enemy, and she harboured suspicion that the CIA was determined to assassinate her.” Her suspicion intensified after the “hero of Bangladesh’s independence struggle, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was murdered in a bloody coup in 1975 that she believed was orchestrated to punish her for the 1971 war.” In October 1974, however, the then US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, was sent to India to “repair the damage of 1971 and acknowledge the past errors.” Indira Gandhi remained unimpressed.

Fast forward to the 1980s and the 21st century; the US realizes that it is “fighting a proxy war with Pakistan in Afghanistan.” Yet, little can be done because it is the geography of Pakistan which dictates every need and makes it indispensable even at the fag-end of the imminent US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “Pakistan is the key to attaining our objectives in South Asia”, maintains Riedel. On top come the “geography, demography and history” connecting Afghanistan with Pakistan in which India appears to be too big to fit in the larger American scheme of things.

Thus, the present and future “game changer in South Asia for the US is the India-Pakistan relationship. The rivalry between the two big powers in the subcontinent is the most important driver in the region’s politics and security, and managing that rivalry is the key to US success in the region.” Any failure to get it right could “lead to disaster — a war between two nuclear states.”

Riedel’s book is extremely readable, but it is an out-and-out perspective of a CIA insider who may be factually correct but is needlessly alarmist; perhaps to intimidate smaller powers, put fear into them and make them toe the line, so that they remain supporters of — and are controlled by — the great super power, the US.