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Robert Kaplan on the Hindu-Muslim problem within the India-Pakistan problem

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

HH: Whenever an amazing story breaks out somewhere around the globe, we try and find The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan, because he has been most places that news occurs, and he’s usually been there in the company of the United States Military. The outbreak of violence in Mumbai is no different. If you saw his Atlantic Monthly article last week, he talked about Behind Mumbai. Welcome back, Robert Kaplan, good to have you on the program.

RK: Thanks. It’s a pleasure to be here, Hugh.

HH: Now give us some sense of how familiar you are with Bombay, otherwise known as Mumbai, and with the tensions between India and Pakistan, Robert Kaplan.

RK: Yes, well first of all, I wasn’t there with the military. I was there doing a new project on the Indian Ocean. I spent a month in Gujarat, which is in northwestern India, it’s on the Pakistani border. It’s also on the border with Maharashtra State, which includes Mumbai. And I went there a month ago, a month and a half ago to look at Hindu-Muslim tensions. And basically, here’s what’s happening. This is not some ancient dispute. You know, the tensions in India between Hindus and Muslims are sort of a recreated modern hostility. As both groups go through a search for roots in this bland, global civilization, a globalization in India has made Hindus more nationalistic, Muslims feeling more part of a world Muslim community. And I think that because of these tensions, every day that goes by after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, where there is no communal rioting, is a victory against the terrorists.

HH: Now it’s interesting…

RK: Let me just make this point.

HH: Go ahead.

RK: One of the many things the terrorists wanted to do was to ignite inter-communal disturbances in India. They want to bring down the Indian state just as they want to bring down the Pakistani state.

HH: Now I want to walk backwards and unpack that.

RK: Sure.

HH: But let me begin with the latest developments, which is of course India is making a series of demand upon Pakistan which Pakistan really cannot meet…

RK: Yeah.

HH: …like the surrender of twenty different suspects, et cetera.

RK: It’s very familiar, it sounds familiar if you’ve covered Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In these kinds of disputes, one side makes demands that the other side can’t meet, and wants the maximum from the other side but the minimum from itself.

HH: And so what do you expect to happen in the near term in the aftermath of this slaughter?

RK: Well first of all, it’s interesting that both the Secretary of State and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs both are going to the region immediately, which means they’re very worried. What they want to avoid is a war between India and Pakistan, because there have been Indian-Pakistani wars in the past going back to 1947, but this would be the first time when both states are fully nuclearized. And again, the more we find out about these terrorists, the links with Pakistan get closer and closer. It seems that they came by ship from Karachi, across the Arabia Sea south, so the very definition of chaos in a way is to have a state whose civilian government has no idea what its intelligence service is actually doing.

HH: And that’s what worries us.

RK: And that defines Pakistan.

HH: So Robert Kaplan, when you step back, and having just spent thirty days there…

RK: Yeah.

HH: …is there a demand among the Indian rank and file, the average citizen, as there was in the United States after 9/11…

RK: Yeah.

HH: …for a strike back? It’s almost an uncontrollable rage when things like this happen.

RK: Well, I cannot say, because I left the day, you know, just by coincidence, I left the day before the terrorist attack.

HH: Oh wow.

RK: So I simply cannot say. I think…but from what I can gather, the thing about India is that everyone is always complaining about their own government the way that we do here. After all, it is a democracy. And I’m sure one of the passions that have been unleashed is they want more accountability, and they want more security in the future from their own government, which may deflect somewhat their calls for revenge.

HH: Okay, I’m talking with Robert Kaplan. When we come back, I’m going to ask him to explain a little bit about the lingering and indeed now growing tension between these two states, Pakistan, a state that seems to be going backwards, India, a state that seems to be advancing confidently into the future, economically, militarily, contrasted with Pakistan, which seems to be regressing on every stage. Robert Kaplan is my guest, I have linked his story from the Atlantic on Pakistan and on India, and he’s also a senior fellow at the Center For a New American Security. If you are looking for any kind of book that you want to read on the region, on any part of the American military, I’d recommend to you for Christmas or any holiday giving Robert Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts or Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts. Both books are available at I have linked both of those books as well at

– – – –

HH: Before the break, Robert Kaplan, I noted that to me, sitting here in the safety of the United States, it looks like Pakistan is a state that’s regressing, India a state that is just booming and moving forward. Is that part of the problem here, that Pakistan’s got country envy?

RK: Yeah, it’s…let me fill that out a bit. India’s got an economic growth rate of 7.5% even in the coming year, even despite the economic turmoil around the world.

HH: Wow.

RK: Our economy’s going backwards. India’s is still going forward. That’s how dynamic it is. India has software entrepreneurs, it’s got a whole Diaspora with a political power base in the United States. Pakistan sees the world darkly. What people in the Pakistan military see, Hugh, is they see a United States that’s increasingly tied to India, increasingly pro-Indian because of the power of the Indian immigrant community in the United States, because of the vibrancy of India’s democracy which Pakistan envies, because of, you know, because of a lot of things. And so it sees, and this nuclear deal with India is yet another indication from the Pakistani point of view that we are indelibly pro-Indian, and that what Pakistan fears is that if we get lucky and say capture or kill Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden, all of that raison d’etre for being in Afghanistan, for being on the Afghan-Pakistan border, will evaporate.

HH: That’s fascinating.

RK: That what we’re really interested up there is a manhunt for a few individuals. So they see our interest in their country as temporary, and our alliance with India as permanent and forward thinking. So they are a very lonely country from their point of view.

HH: Robert Kaplan, is that fair? From your assessment of, you know, most Americans I know don’t walk around thinking of themselves as either pro-Indian or pro-Pakistani.

RK: I know.

HH: They think of themselves as being pro-everyone who’s pro-freedom and who is our friend.

RK: But that’s not how policy works. That’s not how the elites think. Because these issues are not dealt with at the level of Main Street in Omaha. They’re dealt with at the level of maybe 5,000 people in New York and Washington. And increasingly, and lobby groups here and there, and increasingly, America finds itself leaning more and more on India. And here’s the big kicker, Hugh. It sees India as the perfect balancer against a rising China. India’s perfect for us. It’s democratic, it’s building its navy by leaps and bounds to compete with China’s navy. We don’t have to do anything for India. We just have to let it expand militarily, and it will peacefully balance against China. So there are all these reasons for us to be pro-India.

HH: Now you are one of those people whom left and right both respect your judgment. It’s been non-political, you’ve been a guest of Bush in the White House, I’m sure you’ll be a guest of Obama in the White House if he’s smart. If you had ten minutes with the President-elect…

RK: Yeah.

HH: …what would you tell him he’s got to know about Pakistan and India, and what we’ve got to do about Pakistan and India?

RK: Well, what he’s got to do, I think, is having just a special negotiator for Arab-Israeli problems is not enough. We also need a towering presence, a special negotiator close to the President and the incoming Secretary of State who can shuttle permanently between Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi to kind of sort out this mess over the Afghan border, over Kashmir, a lot of places. This is not going to be an easily solved problem. It’s going to require a permanent diplomacy. You know, Joe Sisco, who’s dead now, who was back in the days when Henry Kissinger was Secretary of State, Joe Sisco was an assistant secretary of state for Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. And Joe Sisco once said you need activity for the sake of activity in the Middle East. Even if your negotiations aren’t leading anywhere, you have to keep them talking. You have to keep going at it, because if you pull away, you’re going to get violence.

HH: Well tell us, inform the audience what is the resolution in Kashmir? I had Douglas Frantz on yesterday…

RK: Yeah.

HH: …and you know, he’s a very smart guy about this, and it just doesn’t make any sense to Americans that it’s been partitioned for sixty years.

RK: Yeah.

HH: They’re still blowing each other up. What’s the end game there?

RK: Well, the end game may be some sort of internationalization, some U.N. force, some Blue Helmets made up of troops from the other side of the world.

HH: Wow, that’s fascinating.

RK: You know, Canadians or some other face-saving compromise for both sides, because basically, if there’s an independent Kashmir, in a way, that’s very scary for Pakistan, because then why not an independent Baluchistan? Or an independent Sindh. There are these movements inside Pakistan for things such as this.

HH: Oh, interesting. Now last question, Robert Kaplan, you write about the BJP, which is the Indian People’s Party.

RK: Yeah.

HH: It’s one of the several Hindu nationalist parties over there. Ought the West to be alarmed at the rise of that party, because it seems to me like after Mumbai, they’re certainly going to progress before they regress.

RK: Yeah, in fact, I spent a month doing a profile of the Hindu nationalist movement and one of its leaders. This is a movement that actually goes back to the 1920s, but it’s seen a lot of growth in the 1990s in the period of the globalization of the Indian economy, as middle class Hindus acquire wealth, become more insecure because of this wealth, and there’s this drive to go back to roots, to rediscover their own history. So as I said at the beginning of the interview, there’s increasing inter-communal tensions between Hindus and Muslims that have nothing to do with ancient hostilities, but it’s a very modern tinge to this.

HH: Wow. Robert Kaplan, when we have more time, I look forward to a longer conversation about what’s ahead. You’ve managed to find yourself once again at one of the fault lines in geopolitics ahead of the fact of the eruption. Thanks for spending some time talking to us about it. Kaplan’s books are available at I’ve also linked his Atlantic Monthly article there as well.

End of interview.

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