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'An India-Pakistan war in future would be Armageddon'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
Bruce Riedel's latest book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back

'Indians need to think clearly about what kind of future they are going to have with a Pakistan that has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, and more terrorists per square mile than any other place in the world.'

Erstwhile Central Intelligence Agency veteran Bruce Riedel speaks to's Aziz Haniffa in an exclusive interview.

Two years after the publication of his acclaimed Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, Bruce Riedel -- the erstwhile Central Intelligence Agency veteran who spearheaded US President Barack Obama's strategic review on Afghanistan and Pakistan -- has published a new book, Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.

Riedel, a Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution, a leading Washington, DC think-tank, in Avoiding Armageddon -- which was released February 26 -- holds nothing back in explaining the challenge and importance of managing America's affairs with these two emerging powers and their toxic relationship.

He argues that South Asia is critical to American national security and that the volatile relationship between India and Pakistan -- two nuclear weapons-armed States that have fought four wars with each other and gone to the brink several other times -- is the crucial factor determining whether the region can ever be safe and stable.

Riedel, who has advised four American Presidents on the region, acknowledges that the horrific terrorist attacks in Mumbai on 26/11 -- to which he devotes the first chapter of his book -- is the heart of his argument.

Reidel spoke to's Aziz Haniffa in an eloquent and exclusive interview in Washington, DC.

>What prompted you to write this book? What would you say to critics who could ask what's new here since Deadly Embrace?

This book tries to study the American relationship with all of South Asia. Deadly Embrace focused on the US-Pakistan relation. This tries to take us a step further to the broader American relationship with both India and Pakistan and to a certain degree also with Afghanistan.

The subject of American interaction -- American engagement -- with South Asia has elicited surprisingly few in-depth studies.

The Indo-US diplomatic relationship for example, has not really been studied aside from Dennis Kux's very good book (Estranged Democracies), but that's dated now. In trying to put the two together, no one has really done an in-depth study.

Secondly, every President in the United States now, since John F Kennedy, has been confronted with an India-Pakistan crisis of one sort or another and the last four US Presidents have been confronted with an India-Pakistan crisis with a nuclear dimension.

Nowhere else in the world do you have that kind of problem and this book tries to look in-depth at each one of these crises and looks ahead to how we can avoid having another one in the future.

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'The reason we have not gone over the cliff is the self-restraint of Indian PMs'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
A Border Security Force trooper at the border.

Was the title yours? I remember when we spoke two years ago, just after Deadly Embrace came out, you told me that it was Brooking Institution President Strobe Talbott who had suggested it and you thought it was really apt?

This was my title, but we spent a good deal of time fine tuning it. I believe to the Brink and Back is very important. It is not just how did we get to the brink, but how did we get back from the brink in each of these cases.

I presume you are making the case that this brink and the brinkmanship seems to be too often in recent years?

Absolutely. Since the early 1990s, we have been going to the brink of military conflict between India and Pakistan all too often.

We went over the edge in 1999 in Kargil. Fortunately, not too far over the edge that we could not pull back.

The reason we have not gone over the cliff is the self-restraint of Indian prime ministers (then Atal Bihari) Vajpayee and (now Manmohan) Singh.

It's remarkable, laudatory, the self-restraint that they have demonstrated.

(But) It can't go on forever.

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'Dark forces in Pakistan will do anything to sabotage rapprochement with India'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
Sukhoi-30 aircraft in action during an Indian Air Force exercise.

Critics could argue that titles with words like Armageddon is fear-mongering...

You can be optimistic and make the case that India and Pakistan, with American help, have decoded a formula to manage conflict. I hope that's true.

The odds are against that. The odds are more likely that we will face more crises as we have in the past and that sooner or later one of those crises is going to go over the edge if we do nothing.

What do I mean by that? If South Asians, Indians and Pakistanis, do nothing, the course they are on is sooner or later going to lead to war between India and Pakistan again.

They've fought four wars, and there's no reason to believe they are finished. If one thinks of what a future war between India and Pakistan would look like, it is Armageddon.

Before the most recent flare-up at the Line of Control with the killing of soldiers, both countries were moving somewhat toward a rapprochement.

You had even US lawmakers quipping that the US should ask India to help mend its ties with Pakistan that had taken such a dive.

Certainly the steps that we saw in the last year towards increased trade and contact between India and Pakistan were good things. The rupture in the last month illustrates again that just trade and goodwill is not enough -- you also have to address underlying problems between the two.

Now, we also have to recognise the fact that there are dark forces in Pakistan who will do anything, just anything, to sabotage this.

You mean the dark forces you wrote about extensively in Deadly Embrace?

Absolutely, and in which we saw vividly on display in Mumbai just a little over four years ago. Those forces haven't gone away.

If anything, I would argue, they are stronger today than they have ever been before.

So, rapprochement, trade, people-to-people contact, those are the right things to do.

It's not going to be easy, and we should expect the fact that as we move forward on those things that the dark forces are going to try to sabotage the whole thing and they know how to do it.

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'India can't wish Pakistan away'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
A man with his face painted in the colours of the Pakistan flag, on the outskirts of Lahore.

Do you feel the Kashmir problem should be on the agenda?

All the issues have to be on the agenda, including Kashmir.

The good news on the Kashmir front is that surprisingly (then Pakistan president, Pervez) Musharraf and Dr Singh found a formula.

Musharraf, after he first tried small war, nuclear blackmail, terrorism, finally came around to diplomacy.

But unfortunately, his domestic constituency fell apart and I would say his sell by date, like a carton of milk, expired, just when we most needed him to sell the good deal at home.

We need to revive that formula. We need formulae that deal with Kashmir; you need people-to-people contact; we need transportation links; we also need a serious regional organisation for South Asia that can build a South Asia union akin to the European Union.

Has it gone back to square one -- that whenever you try to say that Kashmir has to be addressed too, India says no way?

How do you get over that hump and alleviate India's mistrust and suspicion of Pakistan's intentions, many of which are justified considering the terrorism fomented from Pakistan?

One of my main arguments in the book is that there is no American formula -- there is no made-in-America solution.

The last 70 years of American diplomacy illustrates that we can't resolve the problems between India and Pakistan for them.

Indians have to do that. Indians need to think clearly about what kind of future they are going to have with a Pakistan that has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world, and more terrorists per square mile than any other place in the world.

You can't wish Pakistan away. We can. We are on the opposite side of the universe. Indians don't have that luxury. You need a State in Pakistan that works and that doesn't send terrorists across the border to blow up your parliament, your financial capital, every couple of years.

Indians are going to have to figure out how they address this question of Kashmir. Americans can't do it for them.

We can help, but we can't do it.

So, the prescriptions at the end of my book are more for Indians and Pakistanis to think about in many ways than they are for Americans.

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'The Pakistani army leadership's focus remains India'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
Pakistani soldiers participate in a military exercises in the Cholistan desert, near the India-Pakistan border.

Coming back to the recent LoC incident, some commentators have said it is deja vu.

It seems to be the beginning of what seems to be the modus operandi of the Pakistani ISI you spoke about in Deadly Embrace -- to hark back to this kind of strategy that was used even the last time the US withdrew its forces from Afghanistan, the introduction of jihadis into India, etc.

Do you subscribe to that contention?

One can make the argument that a lot of the attention of the ISI and its partners like the Laskhar-e-Tayiba has been focused for the last four years on Afghanistan since President Obama increased the American presence.

But now since that presence is drawing down, are they going to start focusing elsewhere and back to the traditional enemy -- India?

We'll see. I believe there is reason to be worried that that will in fact be the case.

So, you believe that the Pakistani military's strategic depth modus operandi never disappeared; it was simply put on the back-burner?

I don't see any serious sign of a change in the strategic thinking of the Pakistani army leadership. Their focus remains India.

They have been distracted by the problems with America for the last couple of years, but the fundamentals of their strategic thinking have not changed.

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'A battle for the soul of Pakistan is under way'

Last updated on: March 6, 2013 16:27 IST
Jamaat-ud-Dawa supporters protest against Pakistan's decision to grant India Most Favored Nation trading status, in Lahore.

Are you convinced that the army and the ISI still call the shots in Pakistan, although it can be argued that for all of the problems of the civilian government -- corruption, intrigue and low effectiveness and control -- they still seem to be hanging in?

I believe there is a battle under way in Pakistan. I call it a battle for the soul of Pakistan.

On the one hand are the military and its supporters. We should be careful because the military is not a monolith.

But the dominant voice in the military continues to be India obsessed, continues to believe that a bigger nuclear arsenal and more support for jihadist groups is in the Pakistani national security interest, and they call the shots on national security issues.

But there are alternative voices in Pakistan, and they are louder today than they have been in a long time.

They think the course the country is on is leading to disaster -- a country that is being consumed by the terrorism that it helped to create.

One manifestation of this is that the (President Asif Ali) Zardari government is close to being the first elected Pakistani government, which will fill out a full term in office and turn over power to an election.

That's a big deal in Pakistan. That is a substantial accomplishment.

We, Americans, have a huge stake in the outcome of this fight. We want to see progressive forces prevail.

There is very little we can do to help them, but we definitely have an interest in seeing that they come out and change the nature of Pakistan from being a State dominated by the military to one with normal civil-military relations.

India has an even bigger stake in this outcome. Indian strategic thinkers need to figure out how India can help that happen.

Part II: '26/11 could happen again, even bigger and worse'