Polaris A Takshashila Institution Blog on International Politics and Security

Can Peace Be Bought?

There is little to no likelihood that a peace deal between Washington and Rawalpindi will lead to any semblance of stability and security.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Pakistan today, and while some of the commentary surrounding the visit appeared to suggest that he had come to offer the army a deal, the tough talk looks to have continued unabated, with Biden deploring the reaction to Salman Taseer’s assassination.

But for a cogent, if contentious, evaluation of current U.S. policy, I should turn to Gautam Adhikari’s op-ed in yesterday’s The Times of India. The United States, Adhikari writes, has a new approach to the region:

The idea is to forge a regional peace with Pakistan’s cooperation. Joe Biden, the US vice president, will be in Islamabad soon to explain the new approach, which aims for a political solution to the Afghan conflict. The US has realised that the war cannot be won without the Pakistani army wiping out the shelter and support the ISI provides the Taliban insurgents. Since that won’t happen, why not buy peace?


If General Ashfaq Kayani agrees to cooperate with the new US approach after extracting all the goodies he can from the deal, the AfPak region might in fact witness some stability and apparent peace in the medium term. The Pashtun regions of Afghanistan will be effectively under Taliban control with the ISI promising to keep its wards on a leash; Kabul can have a token Afghan government while various warlords continue to manage the rest of the country.


The AfPak region, for better or for worse, will somewhat resemble a status quo ante bellum. In other words, it won’t be all that different from what prevailed in the decade preceding the outbreak of war in 2001. This time, the ISI-backed Taliban will effectively control a large part of Afghanistan while a weak Kabul will go along with the arrangement as long as it can persuade the Taliban not to take over the whole country. Pakistan will once again obtain space outside its borders to shelter radical Taliban as well as other potential insurgents. An international force will continue to guard Kabul while the Americans can see it all in the driving mirror as they depart. [The Times of India]

As Adhikari frames it, this calculus is premised primarily on political calculations, i.e. progress must be seen in time for the next presidential election in 2012. But there are deep problems with this logic. Can peace be bought? My colleague over at Pragmatic Euphony cites a Congressional Research Service report which suggests quite convincingly that it cannot. Second—and here I depart from Adhikari’s analysis significantly—what will that ‘peace,’ if attainable, look like? It is doubtful that it will look anything at all like the status quo ante bellum, for several reasons.

First, there is no guarantee at all that the Taliban are interested in settling for the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan minus Kabul. Having had a better deal in the 1990s and having now successfully outlasted the Americans, the Taliban will be more ambitious and on a stronger footing. Second, the United States will not be the same actor as it was in the 1990s when it alternatively ignored and (tacitly) cooperated with the Taliban. 9/11 has changed that much. And third, Pakistan today is not the Pakistan of the 1990s. It is far weaker economically and politically, particularly vis-a-vis a fast-rising India. This has made it more insecure and more prone to rely on asymmetric means to negate India’s natural advantages.

A final two questions must be asked from India’s national security standpoint. First, how much is the status quo ante bellum—a return to the Afghanistan of the 1990s—a threat to Indian national security interests? Recent conversations in New Delhi across a wide swathe of Indian expert commentators suggest that there is no consensus. But perhaps we should keep the IC 814 hijacking in mind as we consider the implications of a Taliban dominated Afghanistan. Second, is this a scenario that Pakistan will be content with? Again, this is highly doubtful. The second half of the 1990s, when the Taliban were dominant in Afghanistan, was also a period of Pakistani adventurism and assertiveness on its eastern frontier with India, even after its demonstration of a nuclear weapons capability.

In sum, even if a peace deal can be sold by the United States, and bought by Pakistan, there is little to no likelihood that it will lead to any semblance of stability and security, either for India or for the United States, Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Update: C. Raja Mohan writes in The Indian Express that Biden’s mission is twofold—to get Rawalpindi to articulate its long-term regional strategy and to reinforce the United States’ commitment to Pakistan. His analysis—a must read—can be found here.

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No Resolutions

A new year and, already, a lot to show for it.

Polaris is back after a lengthy hiatus, reeling from an overflowing e-mail inbox and plenty of news in what has proved a busy off-season. To make up for lost time, a few short takes on certain developments in the interim.

Discussing the End State

This end-of-year report in the Washington Post by Karin Brulliard and Karen DeYoung shows the continuing frustrations Washington is having with the Pakistan Army and its chief, General Ashfaq Kayani. Part  of the problem, in their reading, relates to time frames. “Kayani wants to talk about the end state in South Asia,” Brulliard and DeYoung quote an unnamed U.S. official as saying, while U.S. generals “want to talk about the next drone attacks.” But isn’t an appropriate end state exactly what the United States should be after? And it should help if that is what the general wants too. After all, it is only once both end states are compared that the massive gulf in means and objectives between Washington and Rawalpindi becomes apparent.

Nuclear Bazaar…or is it a Silk Route?

There has been a lot of welcome commentary on Pakistan as a source of proliferation to China, possibly with the United States’ tacit acquiescence. K. Subrahmanyam’s piece on the subject is here. The United States’ knowledge of A.Q. Khan’s activities and unwillingness to stop it has been documented, as has Pakistani proliferation to China, with Simon Henderson writing two years ago in the Times:

[A.Q. Khan's] team was … the recipient of a gift from China of a design for an atomic bomb and enough highly enriched uranium for two devices, after Beijing decided to back Khan to jump-start Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I remember being told about China’s nuclear generosity by an outraged British official in the 1980s. I later asked what Beijing had received in return. It was an enrichment plant. The plant is at Hanzhong in central China. C-130 Hercules transports of the Pakistan air force made more than 100 flights to China carrying centrifuge equipment. Beijing needed the plant, not for bombs but to fuel its nuclear power plants. Centrifuge technology is good for both levels of enrichment, hence the current concern that Iran’s nascent plant at Natanz has a military purpose. China could not make the Pakistan-supplied centrifuges work properly, so replaced them with Russian centrifuges. What happened to the Pakistani centrifuges? A good question. They were not returned to Pakistan.

China’s Long Military March

As U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates visits China several developments in China’s military modernisation have increased in salience. First, much has been made of the DF-21 anti-ship ballistic missile, or “carrier buster” as it is sometimes referred to in the popular press. Second, China has confirmed the flight testing of its J-20 stealth fighter, much sooner than U.S. intelligence had predicted. On at least the first score, some of the hysteria may be overhyped. The U.S.S. George Washington – the aircraft carrier deployed in the Pacific – travels at over 30 knots, and covers a relatively small space, which makes it easier to defend against incoming ballistic missiles, particularly in the terminal/reentry phase. As such, in the long-run, China’s development of stealth fighters may, in fact, be the more worrisome for regional security and stability.  As a frame of reference, India, for its part, is here, which is pretty pitiful given the fact that it has been subject to far less stringent military technological restrictions than China.

On a Lighter Note…

Having just returned from India, I found that the dominant policy debate raging in New Delhi was not between realism and idealism, between liberalisation and autarchy, or even on whether Binayak Sen committed a crime or not. It’s between Munni and Sheila. No surprise, as much is at stake. Best practices (“Shilpa sa phigar, Bebo si adaa”) or exceptionalism (“My name is Sheila…main tere haath na aani.”)? Demands (“Paisa, gaadi mehnga, ghar. I need a man who can give me all that.”) or deliverables (“Cinema Hall hui…tere liye.”)? Market access (“Kaise anaari se paala pada…bina rupaiye aake khada“) or building brand value (“I know you want it, but you never gonna get it. Tere haath kabhi na aani.”) Clearly—as our friends at the Economist would say—India is at a crossroads.

Wrong Said Fred

In his latest op-ed, Mosharraf Zaidi only furthers Pakistan’s narrative of victimhood.

I have been fortunate enough to enjoy several insightful conversations over the past week with U.S. government officials and respected members of the Washington think tank community on the national psychosis that afflicts Pakistan, specifically the narrative of victimhood that appears to serve the interests of Pakistan’s ruling elite while justifying policies that appear to go against its national interest. Thanks to my colleague at The Filter Coffee, I just came across a new piece by Mosharraf Zaidi, one of a new wave of liberal Pakistani commentators, that perfectly captures this unfortunate narrative. Zaidi has for some time been among the most articulate critics of the Pakistani military, so his op-ed signals a particularly worrying trend. I will address his major points one at a time:

Every time Pakistan has been in a jam with India, the US has chosen to look the other way.

That is not exactly true. In 1965, the U.S. chose to stop arms supplies to both India and Pakistan following the outbreak of war between them. In 1971, Nixon infamously sent the U.S.S. Enterprise to the Indian Ocean in a bid to intimidate India. In 1999, the U.S. interceded diplomatically. None of this exactly squares with Zaidi’s assertion that Washington chose to “look the other way.” Of course, the question must also be asked: who caused those “jams” in the first place? Is it that easy to forget Operation Gibraltar, the flow of refugees from East Pakistan, or the calculated crossing of the Line of Control?

Pakistani complaints about how it is treated by the US have come to constitute the very foundation of Pakistan-US relations.

Why is that the case? Zaidi doesn’t bother to explain.

The US-India relationship, in the epic words of Right Said Fred has “legs that go on for miles and miles.” India’s place in the American calculus is stable, sustainable and deep-rooted. Why? Primarily because American interest in India is driven by qualities that India wants to be known for — trade, commerce, innovation, creativity, and enterprise. The dominant narrative of India in the US is one of economic potential and hope. Pakistani envy at the strong roots of this organic relationship is understandable.

Peculiar cultural reference aside, Zaidi fails to explain what Pakistan should be doing about this. Getting its act together would be a good start.

America’s interest in Pakistan is not driven by qualities that any country wants to be known for — terrorism, poverty, instability and conflict. The dominant narrative of Pakistan in the US is of insecurity and fear.

Again, whose fault is this?  It would also be immensely useful to hear Zaidi’s insights on what constructive steps could be taken to alter this dominant narrative.

However, there are limits to the utility of this depth. US-Indian defence cooperation, which has steadily increased over the last decade, is approaching something of a new dimension.

I may not fully understand what he is driving at here, but there appears to be a contradiction between these two sentences. There are limits to the utility of a good relations for the United States with India, but it is now hitting a new phase of long-term strategic commitment? If so, why exactly has that changed? Might that offer useful lessons to Pakistan, which has been clamoring for much the same?

Those planes aren’t being bought to assert air superiority over Nepal or the Maldives. Those noses mostly point westward, to where I live along with 180 million Pakistanis. They make me nervous. I can only imagine how nervous they make the boys in khaki in Rawalpindi. That nervousness has been at the beating heart of Pakistan’s behaviour in Afghanistan, in Kashmir, and allegedly in other places where former or current proxies of Pakistani policy have struck.

Rather conveniently, Zaidi makes no mention of the 800 lb gorilla in the room: China. Of course not, because that would discredit the notion that India is unhealthily obsessed with Pakistan.

Some of the insecurities Pakistan harbours are natural, and will not go away. Forever the smaller nation carved out of what Sardar Patel lamented was the vivisection of Mother India, Pakistan needs to sustain an out-sized influence in the region in order to construct a national narrative of stability and security.

Power disproportionate to Pakistan’s size is its due, he argues. Well, power is no one’s due. But say that some states were somehow entitled to greater power, their accretion of influence would only be stabilizing if they were status quo powers content with their possessions and their regional environs. Pakistan, as Zaidi himself suggests, is not. Pakistan’s “out-sized influence” would, in that case, likely be destabilizing.

It is fundamentally counter-productive to Indian national security. We have already seen the impact that Pakistani insecurity, whether real or imagined, can have on India, on the region, and beyond. If US-India defence cooperation stimulates further insecurity in Pakistan, why should we expect anything different?

This section is truly fascinating. Zaidi acknowledges that some of Pakistan’s insecurity might be imagined. He also acknowledges that Pakistan has used this insecurity to hurt India. But he concludes that under these circumstances India should not defend itself, but rather assuage Pakistani concerns. That could quite easily be construed as a threat: give in to our demands, or else.

The bitter truth is that there is no weapons system that the US can sell, no assurance that the US can provide and no warm embrace that the US can grip either country with that can make a transformational difference to national security in either Pakistan or India.

Another contradiction in this passage, and a particularly large one at that. If U.S. arms sales or security guarantees do not provide security to one side or the other, then why such a hue and cry about U.S. defense relations with India? And by the same logic, why should the U.S. not simply halt military aid to Pakistan? At least India is paying for its military hardware itself.

That transformational change in South Asia can only be achieved through the realisation and pursuit of a natural alliance, much more organic and productive than the one India and the US pursue with each other. This is the natural alliance between Pakistan and India — two countries with shared language, culture, food, faith, and history. Two countries that are certainly on different trajectories, but that, by dint of geography and circumstance, share a common destiny.

This is just pablum.

Obama’s visit to New Delhi is a welcome sign that the US government is not oblivious to India’s importance. However, India’s true arrival as a global power will not be marked by any country’s leader visiting India. Instead, it will be marked by the reception an Indian leader gets in Pakistan. Only when Pakistan welcomes an Indian Prime Minister to Islamabad and Karachi with the kind of pomp and circumstance that Obama will be afforded in New Delhi and Mumbai will we know the true measure of India’s soft and hard power.

I had earlier challenged the notion that peace between India and Pakistan is a prerequisite for India’s realization of its great power ambitions. After all, we are still waiting for Barack Obama to be greeted warmly in Havana, or Hu Jintao to have the red carpet laid out for him in Taipei.

My only area of agreement with Zaidi’s piece is his objective of fostering better relations between India and Pakistan. But as long as commentators as informed and as inclined as he is are willing to support arguments that do such a disservice to India-Pakistan relations, U.S.-Pakistan ties, and Pakistan itself—by blurring the historical and political context, side-stepping inconvenient facts, and failing to properly ascribe responsibility—that objective of lasting stability in the region will be all that much harder to attain.

Are Democracies Inherently Better at Defeating Insurgencies?

Authoritarian regimes are marked by ideologies and principles that are ultimately self-defeating.

In an interview with the BBC, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, an icon for liberal democracy after his glasnost and perestroika policies in the 1980s unwittingly brought an end to communism in his country, asserts that the United States cannot win its current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan: “Victory is impossible in Afghanistan. Obama is right to pull the troops out. No matter how difficult it will be.” Gorbachev is—not surprisingly—drawing from his own experiences as leader of a country fighting an insurgency there, in a campaign that had lasting impacts on Afghanistan, its region, and the Soviet Union itself. However, such comparisons between the Soviet and American experiences are illusory.

Why exactly did the Soviets lose in Afghanistan? There are multiple explanations, of which four stand out, each with its own distinct lessons. First, as many now argue, Afghanistan, being ‘the Graveyard of Empires,’ was simply unconquerable as a result of its physical and human terrain and always will be. Second, as the “COIN-dinistas” believe, Soviet military failures were largely to blame. If only they had got counterinsurgency right, the outcome would have been in their favour. A third view is that external support—Pakistani sanctuary and training, Saudi funding, and U.S. military support (including, specifically, Stinger missiles)—was the primary cause of the Soviets’ defeat. And finally, some argue that Soviet withdrawal was based on a conscious decision by Gorbachev to extract the Soviet army, making it a matter of political will.

We can dismiss with the Graveyard of Empires thesis, informed only by the Soviet experience and that of the British in the first Anglo-Afghan War (that the British returned, and that their objective was a buffer zone, are often conveniently forgotten). But, taken together, the other three arguments suggest that the Soviet Union lost primarily for another reason: it was an autocracy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that democracies are at a disadvantage against insurgencies. Democracies prefer the use of firepower over manpower-intensive small wars. The costs of fighting insurgencies, as ascertained by voters, outweigh the benefits. Democracies may also be hampered—if justifiably—by human rights concerns and public opinion, which is often against war of any kind.  Some, such as Michael Engelhardt, writing in 1992, have concluded that regime type is not a factor. Comparing the performance of 10 countries, split evenly between democracies and non-democracies, in 25 conflicts, he argued that regime type makes little difference to the success or failure of campaigns against insurgents. Nevertheless, there is enough about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, as compared to the American experience in Iraq, to suggest that democracies actually hold the advantage.

To begin with, the Soviet Union suffered from a centralized decision-making system and woefully dysfunctional civil-military dialogue. This resulted in a fatal disjuncture between its means and goals in Afghanistan. At a December 9, 1979 meeting, Brezhnev and his senior advisors decided to invade Afghanistan with the narrow objectives of effecting regime change and supporting the Afghan Army against rebels. In the lead up to the invasion, Chief of General Staff Nikolai Ogarkov and KGB officials in Moscow and Kabul questioned some of the Politburo’s assessments, but their concerns were systematically ignored. Things only went bad from Moscow’s standpoint in late February 1980.  With the Afghan public, even in Kabul, in open revolt of the Soviet occupying force, and the Afghan military performing terribly against rebels, Moscow directed the 40th Army to perform offensive operations against insurgents in the countryside. Yet the Kremlin did not sanction an increase in troop numbers or develop a new strategy to correspond to the shift in goals. Comparisons to Vietnam in this regard are terribly deceiving. Moscow consistently wanted Afghanistan to be a limited war involving a light footprint. Troop levels never exceeded 120,000, and the name used to describe the force in Afghanistan—“Limited Contingent”—was more appropriate than most such euphemisms.

Second, Soviet Marxist ideology was fundamentally incompatible with Afghan culture and values, in a manner that democracy is not. The rebellion that resulted in Moscow’s intervention in Afghanistan erupted in Herat in March 1979, following the zealous introduction by the communist government in Kabul of secular reform programs. These included the banning of Islamic lending systems and dowries, and the forcible conscription of soldiers. It was also the Soviet disdain for ethnic and religious differences that made them underestimate the motivations of the Afghan mujahideen and also fail to take advantage of the natural cleavages in what proved to be a fractured Afghan resistance movement.

Third, the Soviet approach to dealing with the Afghan insurgency was one-dimensionally militarily focused, reflecting little regard for public welfare. To keep their own casualties low, they relied on air assault operations, which resulted not just in wanton death and displacement, but also destroyed the resource base they were supposed to protect and develop. The Soviets also used chemical weapons, including nerve and blood agents. The results of these strategies were predictably devastating: the standard of living in Afghanistan plummeted, 75 percent of communication lines were destroyed in four years, and the country went from being a net exporter of food to a net importer. In all, 1.3 million Afghans were killed, 5.5 million were made refugees, and another 2 million were displaced internally.  While in no way justifiable, the civilian suffering inflicted by U.S. and NATO forces today offers no comparison.

Finally, it was not so much that the Soviets made operational errors—after all, what military does not?—but that their system of governance lacked the benefits of self-correction afforded liberal, democratic states. Soviet military doctrines were inflexible, and easily predictable to insurgents, but they failed to improvise because they were reluctant to disperse authority.  The bulk of Soviet soldiers were draftees with no training in mountain warfare provided with heavy equipment and inappropriate field gear, but there were few attempts by Moscow to remedy any of this. The USSR’s emphasis on programmatic operational procedures and its military’s poor tradition of delegating responsibility were key components of its military’s ethos that could serve it well in conventional wars or invasions, but not in prolonged counterinsurgencies. Furthermore, over 60 percent of Soviet troops became seriously ill during their tours in Afghanistan, often from hepatitis or typhoid, due to inadequate sanitation and medical facilities. This was avoidable, worsened morale and only made a manpower-intensive task more difficult. In large part, the absence of self-correcting mechanisms was due to the lack of public accountability. Four years after the invasion, the official Soviet press had reported only six dead and wounded; in fact, by then, over 6000 Soviet soldiers had died. Contrast all this to the fundamental reorientation of the American military over the last five years, resulting in no small part from public criticism and intense media scrutiny following failures and casualties in Iraq.

The Soviet Union lost in Afghanistan not despite the fact that it was a military superpower, but because it espoused a set of ideologies and principles—inherent in its social and economic policies and structures at home and abroad—that were ultimately self-defeating. There are lessons for India here, some of which are obvious: insurgencies cannot be defeated by bullets alone and there are inherent benefits to showing respect for local social and cultural norms. Beyond that, the media and public criticism need not always be considered an inhibiting factor, but rather part of a feedback loop. And finally, fidelity must be maintained between means and goals, even if the latter shifts over the course of a campaign.  That, in turn, requires a healthy civil-military dialogue, and appropriate checks and balances in the policymaking structure. That may sound simple, but it is surprising how often it is overlooked.

Big in Japan

CEPA could mark an inflection point for socio-economic relations between India and Japan.

There is considerable excitement, for the first time in several years, about the Indo-Japan relationship.  Everyone knows that plans are always easier than planning. But in theory, the just-concluded Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (CEPA)—the full text of which has yet to become available—marks an inflection point for socio-economic relations between the two countries. Covering trade in services and goods, the agreement reportedly abolishes customs duties on 90 percent of Japanese exports to India, and 97 percent of Indian exports to Japan over the next decade. The agreement is still subject to approval by Japan’s legislature, the Diet, and has yet to be formally signed by the two countries.

There’s more. According to the Hindustan Times, a memorandum on visas, also just concluded, will facilitate business travel between the two countries by lengthening the durations of standard business visas. Short-term employment has also been simplified, as has immigration to a country that has been notoriously averse to migrants. If all of this lives up to its promise, this could provide significant ballast to the relationship and hasten India’s integration into the East Asian economy.

India’s young population complements the declining workforce of several developed economies, notably Japan and Europe, as does India’s growing demand for educational opportunities with established institutions the world over.   That these complementarities have not always been taken advantage of either by India or its potential partners is unfortunate. It appears that attempts are now being made to remedy this, even if belatedly, and the recent India-Japan deals represent a blueprint that could readily be followed in India’s bilateral relationships with other major industrialised economies.

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Alternate Realities

10.21.2010 · Posted in Pakistan, U.S. Foreign Policy, Uncategorized

It’s easy to speak nice in public, but the United States and Pakistan can’t sweep all of their problems under the carpet.

A few hours ago, I sat through a mind-boggling session hosted at the Brookings Institution (my erstwhile employer) featuring Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke and USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah. The three were there ostensibly to discuss the ongoing U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue and the bilateral relationship more broadly. Despite the best efforts of moderator Steve Coll, the discussions were often bland to the point of being farcical.

Qureshi, speaking first, outlined the many problems Pakistan faces. But pretty soon, the accusations and demands began to flow: The people of Pakistan had contributed as much as they could to flood relief efforts (a clear response to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in Brussels last week). Pakistan needed more aid in reconstruction efforts after the floods. Widespread public hostility towards the United States was due to Washington’s historic support for dictatorships over democratic movements. Pakistan desired an FTA with the United States. Although committed to fighting terrorism, Pakistan’s sovereignty was inviolable (Qureshi even used the words “core interests”). Washington must improve its public diplomacy efforts both in Pakistan and at home. And finally, the tragic killing of innocent Kashmiris by Indian security forces required international condemnation and intervention. In the subsequent discussion, Qureshi several times highlighted Pakistan’s commitment to democracy and its “shared values” with the United States; clearly that had been identified as a way out of tough questions on Pakistan’s behavior and orientation.

Holbrooke and Shah spoke almost solely about the various initiatives underway to support Pakistan, politically and economically. Holbrooke claimed there was no longer talk of a ‘trust deficit’ between the two countries and that the absence of an exact strategic alignment between the two was understandable. A few elbows were subtly thrown, but were easily lost in all the talk of increasing goodwill: “We work with Pakistan because of Pakistan itself,” not just because of Afghanistan, Holbrooke said, clearly indicating where the United States’ regional problems were centered. Holbrooke also hinted of some tension immediately after the failed Times Square bombing. Perhaps more peculiarly, Holbrooke took more pot shots at the Bush administration than he did at Islamabad, claiming that there was no real aid, no public diplomacy initiatives and no sustained senior-level engagement with Pakistan before the Obama administration came into power. Close followers of the relationship would realise that these assertions took certain liberties with the truth.

Notably absent was any talk about disagreement or divergence, whether about reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan or the disruption of terrorist activities in Pakistan by U.S. aerial strikes. Both issues have produced tensions in recent weeks and clearly all is not well in the relationship. Qureshi and his colleagues are perfectly willing to produce their wish list and say what the United States should be doing. The question remains why Washington is reluctant to do the same?

The Party of No?

The Democratic Party is projecting emerging powers as the bad guys. That’s a mistake.

Elite supporters of the Democratic Party like to portray themselves as more internationally-oriented than their Republican counterparts, and on many occasions this distinction is deserved. After sweeping into Congress in 1994, many Republican legislators proudly proclaimed that they had never had need for a passport. The Tea Party movement—with its muddled sense of foreign policy—can be expected to be similarly inward looking. Sadly, the Democratic establishment now appears to be competing with them in a race to the bottom. Several recent examples highlight this worrying trend.

First, President Obama chose recently to go after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents big business interests in Washington, suggesting it was acting under the harmful influence of foreign funds.

In a variation on that theme—with an argument that emerging powers would benefit from U.S. economic decline—former New York Governor and current CNN pundit Eliot Spitzer wrote:

We had better face up to a stark and uncomfortable reality: The clock is running out on our status as the world’s dominant political and economic power. Platitudes, make believe, and hoping it will be so are not going to carry us any further.

We have three weeks to make this choice. Because if we end up with a Congress and a White House that fail to re-chart our course over the next two years, it is clear who the winner will be. It will not be the person sworn in as president in 2013. It will be China, Brazil, and India. They are loving every minute of this. [Slate]

And then, there is this campaign advertisement:

As presented in all these cases by the Democratic Party, American big business is working at the behest or urging of sinister foreign governments in China, India, Brazil and Russia to co-opt and ruin the U.S. economy. This is, at the very least, disingenuous, and gives the sense of a Democratic party that is no less—and perhaps more—isolationist than the caricatures of the Republican Party and Tea Party movement that are so often portrayed.

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Cutting the Gordian Knot

The dominant U.S. narrative on Pakistan and Afghanistan still boils down to India.

To get a taste of the deep problems afflicting U.S. thinking towards Pakistan and Afghanistan, read New York Times White House correspondent Helene Cooper’s recent article on Pakistan policy as a work of logic.

[C]an the war [in Afghanistan] succeed if one of [the] two principal allies [of the United States] is in cahoots with the enemy?…The enemy, of course, is the Taliban. And the allies are the Pakistani and Afghan governments…But Pakistan has also been accused of pulling its punches in that fight, because it fears the day when a strong Afghanistan might align with India…[A]gain because of India — the Pakistani government wants to make sure that its historic allies, including the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network, will be deeply entrenched in any efforts to reach a political settlement that would involve power-sharing in Afghanistan…[T]he Haqqani network has a lot of American blood on its hands…So given all this, the logical thing to do might be to focus on the Pakistan-India problem. After all, if you remove Pakistan’s fears of India as a threat, maybe the Pakistanis will stop working against American interests in Afghanistan? Not so fast. “It’s unfixable,” said C. Christine Fair, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. “That’s why we’ll be working on this for the next 50 years.” Professor Fair argues that because India is on the ascent, and will be even stronger militarily and economically in 10 years than it is now, the Indian government has no reason to negotiate seriously with Pakistan over the host of issues that bedevil the two adversaries now, when it can throw its weight around much easier later. “If there was an easy way out of this, someone would have figured it out,” Professor Fair said. “But I don’t think it’s possible to untie this Gordian knot.” [The New York Times]

In Cooper’s reading, Pakistan’s ambivalence about U.S. efforts in Afghanistan is due almost wholly to India.  Ergo, fixing the India-Pakistan problem is the key to ensuring Pakistani support for U.S. efforts. This broadly captures conventional thinking about the issue in Washington.

But there are deep, deep problems with this line of reasoning. First, a lot of Pakistani actions against U.S. interests, as Cooper herself describes in the article, have nothing at all to do with India. This would include the recent closing of the border crossing at Torkham in response to cross-border strikes by the U.S. military and the virulent anti-Americanism that persists despite generous American support. The argument that India is the only factor guiding Pakistani behavior—Cooper writes,  “Pakistan, for its part, defines its national security interests as revolving around India, its nemesis in a tangle of disputes that have proven intractable for six decades. Every step that the Pakistani government takes is seen through that prism”—is faulty. India is a convenient excuse, and there are many reasons to believe that Pakistani behavior would be no different even if India were not in the picture.

A second problem is, if Pakistan indeed believes that Indian belligerence is its primary problem, then why has it been so reluctant about seeking a lasting peace agreement with India and a normalization of relations? The current Indian government has demonstrated a willingness to risk its domestic popularity to achieve that end. But that question is rarely asked, let alone answered.

Finally, the assertion at the end of India having no reason to negotiate seriously with Pakistan is deeply, deeply misleading, both empirically and rationally. What explains India’s continuing with the peace process despite repeated provocations and persistent efforts to undermine talks by Islamabad and Rawalpindi, not to mention Pakistan’s reluctance to crack down on terrorist groups explicitly targeting India? Why has the Indian army disavowed its own Cold Start doctrine and retained a defensive military posture to its west? If India seeks a stable regional environment that is conducive to its economic growth and development, is it not in its interest to seek a normalization of relations with Pakistan?

The lesson of Alexander and the Gordian Knot is that the simplest solutions are not always the most obvious.  Washington should be slicing through this problem, not disentangling it.

The Rocky Road to Chinese Democracy

10.07.2010 · Posted in China, Democracy

Wen Jiabao suggests that China will gradually democratize. Should we be holding our breaths?

The Chinese blogosphere is apparently aflutter right now as a result of Premier Wen Jiabao’s remarkably candid interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN. Here Wen tries to allay some of Zakaria’s concerns about Internet censorship (ironically, this interview was reportedly censored in China):

What Wen has to say about the prospects for democracy in China is also causing considerable waves:

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China. [CNN]

Wen’s words will no doubt encourage those outside China who have an optimistic reading of the country’s political future. Proponents of this view, basing their assessments on the experiences of such countries as Taiwan and South Korea, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines, argue that once China’s citizens acquire a certain level of wealth, they will demand greater legal protection and accountability from their government. This in turn will encourage political reform, more openness, and, eventually, democracy. Just what level of wealth will trigger such political reforms is the subject of debate.

Going by IMF data, Taiwan  saw its per capita GDP go from $7521 to $13,376 when it underwent democratic reforms between 1989 and 1996 ($8985 to $16078 based on PPP). South Korea’s democratic transition took place between 1987 and 1993, during which time its GDP per capita rose from $3445 to $8422 ($5459 to $10147). For Indonesia,  the corresponding figures between 1997 and 2004 are $1184 and $1188 (due to the Asian Financial Crisis, this was actually $2572 and $3005 based on PPP). And for the Philippines the figures are $533 and $2011 in 1986 and 2010 ($1376 and $3726).

These four cases of Asian democratic transitions coinciding with rising wealth suggest a large GDP (PPP) per capita window between $1376 and $8985 when democratization began, with an even wider window of between $3005 and $16078 when it ended. China’s per capita GDP last year was $3735, and when adjusted for purchasing power parity it was $6778. Based on these trends, China’s democratization would be expected to begin between 1995 and 2012 and end after some time after 2003, possibly well after. Going by the nominal GDP per capita data, the window would be expected to be between $533 and $7521 for the start of democratization, and between $1188 and $13,376 for its end. For China, this suggests democratization beginning between 1995 and 2016 and concluding after 2003.

So going by the optimistic view of China’s political development, one should already expect to see signs of democratization, with 2012-2016 being towards the later end. This suggests one of three possibilities. The first is that there will be greater political liberalization in China over the coming decade. The second is that China bucks the trend and manages to stave off democratic reforms for one of a number of reasons (good governance, more repressive measures, etc.). The third possibility is that the entire framework of democracy arising out of prosperity is flawed, and that economically liberal and wealthy societies can persist, even if uncomfortably, within authoritarian political structures. In that case, the democratization of China is by no means a foregone conclusion.