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The Atlantic’s Robert Kaplan reports on Pakistan and Indian tensions growing

Tuesday, March 31, 2009
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HH: Joined now by The Atlantic Monthly’s Robert Kaplan. He’s got a great article in the current issue of The Atlantic on the new face of India, India’s New Face. Robert Kaplan, welcome back to the program, great to talk to you.

RK: It’s a pleasure to be here, Hugh.

HH: Well, we’re talking on the day of another major terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan. Let’s first get your reaction to this, and what it tells us that we didn’t already know, or maybe what it doubles down for us about Pakistan.

RK: Well, there was, there have always been terrorist violence in the northwest frontier of Pakistan, in Peshawar, all around that area. There’s also been terrorist violence in Baluchistan, in Quetta, and in the Sindhi city of Karachi on the Indian Ocean. But when you start seeing terrorist attacks in Lahore, in the heart of the Punjab, then you have to worry about the stability of the Pakistani state, because the Pakistani state is very much organized like Yugoslavia before that state collapsed. You have essentially a Punjabi military condominium that rules over Baluchistan, Sindh, the Pushtun northwest frontier province, so that Punjab was always the heartland of the country, just as Serbia was the heartland of Yugoslavia. And you had a Serb-dominated army essentially ruling the other republics. So when you start to see terrorism in Lahore, you should get very worried.

HH: Now when Yugoslavia collapsed, of course that country did not have nuclear weapons.

RK: That’s true.

HH: What do you see is happening here? What’s the Pakistani military doing?

RK: I don’t see Pakistan collapsing in any cinematic way where there’s a New York Times headline that says Pakistan collapses. It doesn’t work like that. What I see happening, or what I’m worried about is that you will get increasingly ineffective government from the civilian, democratically elected top, whereby the president, Asif Zardari, and the prime minister, Mr. Gilani, can’t really do much, so that the opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is actually more powerful than the elected president and the elected prime minister. And at the same…and this creates a kind of stasis where nothing gets done, and the military fills the vacuum. And as the military fills the vacuum, because it has no choice, you get an upsurge in Baluch separatism in the south, because the Baluch, the Sindhis see the military as a kind of Punjabi conspiracy. So in total, what it means is an increasingly weakened state with more terrorist attacks, and that makes it that much harder for us to succeed in Afghanistan, because of the organic connection between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

HH: Is it possible, Robert Kaplan, that Pakistani elites begin to recognize they can never do a deal with the terrorists and the extremists and the Taliban elements, and that they…

RK: No, no. In fact, here’s the problem, Hugh. It’s very fundamental. When we demand that Pakistani intelligence agency, known as Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, when we demand that this Inter-Services Intelligence directorate sever all links with the Taliban, we’re essentially telling the Pakistanis that you can no longer think according to your self interest, because here is why Pakistani intelligence has deep links with the Taliban. The Pakistanis know that at some point, whether we succeed or whether we fail in Afghanistan, in either case, we are going to leave. We may still have 10 or 20 thousand troops, but the bulk of our forces will leave. And Pakistan, that will leave Pakistan alone with an Afghanistan on its border, and Pakistan needs to have a continual, organic links with all elements in Afghanistan, especially because it’s fighting a proxy war there against India. Remember, the Pakistanis don’t want to make the same mistake that we made in the early 1990s when we severed all of our links with the Mujahedin, and others in the Afghani political spectrum after the Cold War was over, the Berlin Wall fell, and we just left, left all our networks, everything to just dry up. The Pakistanis will not make the same mistake. They will never sever their links with the Taliban.

– – – –

HH: Robert Kaplan, you quote an eminent historian in this article as saying that never, that the Hindu-Muslim divide in India is worse than at any time since the partition. And you know, the partition was marked by this horrible civil war in which hundreds of thousands of people died, I believe. That means are we on a powder keg in India?

RK: No, not quite. What this historian means is that the tensions below the surface are worse than ever, but we don’t have the political situation whereby a state is going to be bifurcated, as what happened when the British left India. It just means that people are very sullen about it, Hugh.

HH: There is a lot of ethnic violence, though.

RK: Yeah, all right.

HH: So that’s what the clear…

RK: They’re just very sullen, they’re separating out into their communities. As I write in the piece, globalization has been this insipid, against this insipid effect of globalization, Hindus and Muslims both have rediscovered their oneness, their culturalness. And you see it. India no longer has a kind of unifying myth the way it had during the early decades of Congress Party rule. When India had a separate moral identity as a country that had withstood British colonialism with non-violence, that is still there, but much less so than it was. And replacing it, filling the vacuum, has been Hindu nationalism, and a kind of worldwide Muslim resurgence.

HH: Robert Kaplan, what’s very interesting, I’ve been spending a few hours with Thomas P.M. Barnett about his new book Great Powers. In fact, he’s back on tomorrow to conclude that series of conversations. He’s very bullish on India. And I saw none of the darkness that I see in this article. My goodness, I didn’t know about…

RK: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in India. I don’t know how much time he’s spent. I’m not totally dark on India. I’m writing about a dark man. This is a profile of one person. There are a lot of reasons to be bullish about India. But there’s also reasons to be very, very wary.

HH: There is, for example, the rape of these, the city. I can’t even pronounce it.

RK: Ahmedabad.

HH: Tell people about that. It’s stunning.

RK: In 2002, people hear about atrocities in India, their eyes roll. But this was something special. In 2002, you had hundreds, thousands of Muslims who were beaten, raped, set afire by Hindu nationalists in the city of Ahmedabad, which is the main city of the province of Gujarat, where Gandhi is from as it happens. And the chief minister of the province, who is partly responsible, paid no political price for this. He’s a Hindu nationalist, and has gone on to be re-elected and re-elected. This was an atrocity that was, it was like a European pogrom against the Jews. It was that kind of an atrocity. And it stuck in the minds of Indians, Muslims and Hindus, both, so that the words 2002 Gujarat means something similar as like 9/11 New York City.

HH: Also like Kristallnacht is what I thought it might mean.

RK: Yeah, yes.

HH: And tell us about Modi, if I’m saying that correctly.

RK: All right, in Narendra Modi, is the most charismatic Indian leader to emerge since Indira Gandhi. He is partially a great CEO, Gujarat, in northwestern India on the Arabian Sea, works better than any other state in India. There’s less corruption, it’s more efficient, it’s easier for foreign businessmen to make investments and do deals. Infrastructure is better, you can travel throughout the countryside. It looks poor and raggedy, but there is electricity, there is running water. This is the good side of Modi. The bad side is he’s a Hindu chauvinist who openly dislikes Muslims, and who as I said was partly responsible for the pogrom kristallnacht against Muslims in 2002. And what’s really significant about that is despite all the opportunities he’s had to apologize, to make up for it, he’s refused. He’s spurned every opportunity. When I interviewed him, I gave him several opportunities to say look, those were very unfortunate events, I wish I could have done more, I should have done more. No, nothing.

HH: Now in terms of that, is that leading to a larger base for him to operate from? Or is he going to become like Pen in France and isolated?

RK: Well, it’s an interesting question. It’s helped him in Gujarat, because Gujarat has more tense, has tenser relations between Hindus and Muslims than you find elsewhere in India. The inter-communal divide is really bad in Gujarat. For Modi to succeed nationally, he would have to temper his image. He would have to in some way, shape or form make amends for what happened in 2002, or else it would be very hard for him to attract a number of, you know, a number of voters nationally. But what his real appeal, though, what really gives him an attraction, is that India’s now being compared more and more with China, and less and less with Pakistan, which is an indication of India’s success, as your guest tomorrow will point out. And as Indians become compared more and more with China, there’s a deep frustration. And that frustration is that Indians are frustrated that China is authoritarian, but it’s well-governed. Government makes things happen in China. It builds roads. It builds infrastructure of all kinds. Good things happen in India in spite of the government, not because of it. Indians at a certain level yearn for a strong figure who will be less corrupt, who will make things happen on the ground, make government a positive element, a dynamic element in society. And that’s where Modi has appeal.

HH: Quick question as we’re running out of time, Robert Kaplan. Are you going to turn this into a book about India?

RK: It’s going to be a book on the Indian Ocean.

HH: Wow, I’m looking forward to that. Robert Kaplan, always a pleasure. I have linked the profile from The Atlantic at Hughhewitt.com. You’ve got to read it.

End of interview.

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