Book Review: Subcontinent Adrift

Muhammad Najm Akbar

Feroz Khan makes an argument upfront in his book’s title and the narrative’s concluding paragraph. He has structured his book to explain that argument which is that the futures of South Asia, the subcontinent, remain adrift. The subcontinent is adrift, he explains, because of strategic, geographical, historical, and socioeconomic reasons. The underlying theme in all these explanations is that India and Pakistan’s perceptions of each other remain mired in apprehensions of security or in fact insecurity, and deep distrust of each other. The momentum that these mutual suspicions generate is so solidly structured that any effort to deflect that movement and reconstruct the equation between the two countries falls flat on its face. To begin with, merely sustaining a workable relationship becomes an uphill task.

The book brings out a remarkable similarity in the security calculations that go into policy-making on both sides of the partitioned subcontinent.  Historically and culturally defined decision-makers, almost similarly trained and educated, accord similar weightage to defense preparedness, based on an equal level of distrust. The total absence of publicly known credible direct communication channels between the two nuclear neighboring powers further complicates this equation. Defense considerations claim the entirety of focus and monopolize the interactional framework. A complex, blood-stained, and strife-ridden historical burden subverts the pathways to the future.

For a reader in South Asia particularly and specifically in Pakistan, this book provides a unique understanding of the thinking in the security circles. Besides Pakistan, the author has rare insight into Indian and regional military doctrines because of his professional involvement in various US initiatives in the area.  He informs a general reader about all that keeps the army commanders in the region awake at night.  Pakistan and India have a growing appreciation of where the military establishments or the strategic enclaves, as the author calls them, stand in terms of civil-military relationships. This book focuses on the strategic enclaves of these neighbors, specifically how their armies look at each other and define their security doctrines.  This perceptiveness makes it a valuable addition to the security literature on South Asia.

Pakistani strategic enclave perceives India as an existential threat. According to the book, India has deployed nine out of her 12 corps on their western front facing Pakistan. Three-fourth of the Indian army is thus deployed within striking distance of Pakistan’s vital communications network because their military doctrine, the book tells us, remains Pakistan-centric. Pakistan army, therefore, maintains a perpetual level of preparedness ready to move into the battlefield at a two-day notice.

Defining Indian strategies, the author introduces the Sunderji doctrine, Cold Start and its variants, and finally the current emphasis on surgical strikes. These doctrines show how the two armies configure a response to their perceived level of threat and their neighbor’s capabilities. Sundarji doctrine is distinct in the sense that it applied to conventional warfare of the pre-nuclear age in South Asia. Both internally and externally, the Sundarji doctrine believed in an aggressive Indian posture to prevail over her resentful ethnic groups and neighbors weaker in terms of size, population, and economy. It envisaged that in case of a conflict, India could penetrate across the frontier,  sever Pakistan into two and destroy its nascent nuclear program.

The armies’ thinking about defense doctrines acquired a new strategic dimension in the late 1990s when both countries acquired defacto nuclear status. Between the two nuclear powers, mutually assured destruction has forced a revision of adventurous thinking. Kargil woke up the subregion to the nightmare that unlike other nuclear powers in the world a direct, conventional war between these two nuclear neighbors was not unthinkable. The author points out that the lessons both countries learned from the conflict were nonetheless unhelpful. They seem to have developed parallel understandings of conventional warfare between nuclear states (p. 129). India believed that it could conduct a limited conventional war to secure an advantage despite Pakistan’s nuclear capability. The assumption seemed to be that Pakistan will not resort to the nuclear option. Pakistan understood that Kargil remained contained because nuclear deterrence stopped India from expanding it horizontally. In a nutshell, in conventional warfare, the Indian side would refrain from resorting to total war fearing mutually assured destruction capacity.

The challenge for the defense wizards on both sides is to incorporate nuclear reality particularly ballistic missiles and TNWs in their strategies. The objective is that conventional warfare in the form of limited war, a counterinsurgency operation, or surgical strikes must secure an early and immediate advantage. Simultaneously,  it must not break out into total war and provoke the nuclear option.  

The acquisition of short-range tactical nuclear weapons has added to the mutually assured destructive capability of each side. These weapons have lowered the threshold of the possible use of the nuclear option. They bring down the nuclear threshold because a tactical nuclear weapon targets a particular zone, compared with the nuclear weapons of higher tonnage.  

The armies project their doctrines in multiple security documents and military exercises. They undertake these exercises either for drills or for intimidating and coercive purposes. Indian Brass Tack 1986-87, a manifestation of Indira and Sunderji doctrine, was coercive in nature. Later on, the Vajpayee government massively mobilized troops along Pakistan’s border for ten months following the attack on the Indian parliament. Pakistan responded to Brass Tacks with Zarb-e-Momin in 1989. Azm-e-Noo, beginning from 2009-2013 was a series of drills.

Both armies have also been heavily engaged with domestic security situations. Examples on the Indian side are deployments in Kashmir, and actions against Naxalites and Khalistan movements. In Pakistan, the army has been active against insurgency in Baluchistan, security situations in Swat valley, and erstwhile FATA. Two major examples are Operation Zarb-e-Azb, 2014, and Operation Radd-ul-Fassad, 2016.

The author rightly points out that army doctrines are peacetime deliberations of cool-headed planners with various motivations. Once the war begins, however, “in the fog of war,” the controlled movements the two sides envisage could undergo radical changes because of the political decision-making, the situation on the ground, or the reaction of the other side.

While these are serious considerations that define the military mindset in a subcontinent adrift, an interesting aspect of the book is that simultaneously it gives us an idea about what I would call the futures in the past.  The past and the future are distinct times, but the literature helps us visualize the futures in the past, the moments when those futures didn’t exist as concrete facts. In all probability, those futures had been as unpredictable as the future is now for us. Whatever happened in 1949 was the future in 1947. 1965 was the future in 1962, India then had been waging a war on its frontier with China.

This aspect of the book captures the peace process with its promising moments and frustrations. The author emphasizes how detrimental it has been for the two sides not to have peace. As a result of conflict between them, he writes, “… Pakistan has been unable to harness its full national potential…. has abandoned its national aspirations because it is preoccupied with competing with India….While India despises the meddling of external powers in South Asia, Pakistan embraces them as strategic partners and willingly rents itself to others (imperiling its own sovereignty in the process) in order to protect itself against India.” (98). He emphasizes that Pakistan, he emphasizes, “… has exhausted itself economically and strategically in its bid to balance against India. It faces economic difficulties and severe ethnoreligious challenges in forging national unity” (p. 192).

The Indian leadership and Pakistan’s civil or military rulers have engaged in various initiatives to overcome this situation. He reminds us of the disappointments which followed these peace initiatives either because of the security situation, political indecisiveness, or the subversive actions of sub-conventional forces. This history forms the basis of his realistic assessment of the future of the subcontinent, adrift.

There are, however, also reasons in the book that permit readers to interpret those futures in the past and the way forward they predict a bit differently. There are dark moments in history spread over millennia. We are looking at three-fourths of a century of that past. It is possible to delineate within them untouchable redlines and possible areas of growth. Indira doctrine has probably so far been the darkest moment of these seventy-five years. Not only that she unleashed tremendous violence against civilian populations within India but also dismembered Pakistan. If we consider it as an outlier, the other periods do not seem that monolithic in the sense that they convey some hope as well. There is, for example, at least a workable understanding of Pakistan’s right to exist. India, for example, unlike Afghanistan, did not oppose Pakistan’s membership in the United Nations. Kashmir was the first armed conflict between the two nations. India took it to the United Nations because they recognized that it was an interstate dispute. They signed the Karachi Agreement in 1949 because they admitted that Pakistan was another country. Nehru visited Pakistan to sign the Indus Water Treaty because India recognized that downstream at given points those rivers entered into the territory of another country. Once the Indira doctrine had her lust somewhat satisfied, she sat down with the Prime Minister of another country named Pakistan and signed the Simla Agreement on July 2, 1972.  Article four of this agreement, upheld since then, clearly commits the two neighbors not to alter unilaterally the status of the line of control. Following Simla, the two countries also reached an agreement on the return of 90,000 prisoners of war to Pakistan.  Rajiv Gandhi realized the repercussions of the Indira doctrine and pulled back from the aggressive posture. He visited Pakistan in December 1988 and signed with a civilian Prime Minister of Pakistan the Agreement on the Prohibition of Attack Against Nuclear Installations and Facilities. The parliaments of both countries ratified it by December 1990. The agreement commits India and Pakistan to “refrain from undertaking, encouraging or participating in, directly or indirectly, any action aimed at causing the destruction of, or damage to, any nuclear installation or facility in the other country.” Under the agreement, India and Pakistan inform each other on the 1st of January of each calendar year of the latitude and longitude of their nuclear installations and facilities and whenever there is any change.

 After Rajiv Gandhi, the Inder Kumar Gujral doctrine opened a new era of hope. True, in the Chatham House speech, reference page 79 of the book, he didn’t include Pakistan by name. On page 82, however, we learn that he initiated constructive engagement with Pakistan through Composite Dialogue Process that covered eight different areas including the most difficult one. We also learn that although this distinguished son of Jhelum survived only for one year, his legacy endured. In the 1990s, he ordered to cease covert operations in Pakistan and to demobilize the assets that had been developed to pursue them (p. 160). His BJP successor, Atal Bihari Vajpayee did not change that policy. Only under Modi, did the policy of covert actions against Pakistan reach a new level. Two of his successors, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, another scion of Pothohar, on the opposite ends of the spectrum of Indian politics, chose to sustain the political momentum Gujral had generated. Vajpayee remodeled the Gujral doctrine, incorporating some of the Nehruvian elements. He had the most outstanding tenure in terms of India-Pakistan relations in the sense that he seemed resolved not to let the actions of sub-conventional forces disrupt the peace process. In February 1990, he came to Pakistan riding a bus and signed the Lahore declaration with PM Nawaz Sharif. The agreements that the two prime ministers at that time signed were remarkable in terms of renewing mutual assurances, particularly reiteration of the Simla agreement provisions on respecting each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inviolability of their borders including the line of control. The first setback that he faced immediately after the Lahore agreement was the Kargil conflict. It was the first armed conflict immediately after the nuclearization of the subcontinent. It posed serious questions about how de facto nuclear powers might react in a time of crisis. He overcame that shock and invited Pakistan’s military ruler to visit India for the Agra summit. It did not go very far but after the attack on the Indian parliament, he made a third effort. By that time, he had lost his government. We also learn that the Congress government opted to open a backchannel with General Musharraf which we understand from the author fizzled out after he left office in 2008. We have seen a second BJP Prime Minister in living history going in the opposite direction of his first predecessor but to give him credit where it is due, he also made it to the home of a Pakistani Prime Minister to share a personal celebration. Instead of a bus, he came in an aircraft.

We learn from the book that India seeks to culturally and economically isolate Pakistan. On page 39, the author says, “India abstains from anything that would link it culturally to Pakistan including trade routes as a punitive policy to isolate Pakistan.” The author refers to India’s preference for the Iranian port of Chabahar for overland links to Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and the broader region. It is a complex issue. India has developed a constructive relationship with Iran. They have opened up the Chabahar port to destinations in Afghanistan. India, however, granted Pakistan the most favored nation status in 1996. They revoked it in 2019 only after the Pulwama attack which the book mentions. It had been a unilateral concession because for various reasons Pakistan had not reciprocated. Unlike the India-Pakistan situation, India-China trade, totally insulated against the strategic tensions, thrives. The volume of their bilateral trade has been increasing substantially, year over year, despite the balance of trade overwhelmingly favoring China.  

At the moment, the futures that adrift traverse a security-centric mindset that strategic enclaves on both sides have anchored in the past. There are zero layers of people-to-people contact between intellectuals, academia, artists, scholars, religious communities, and divided families. Relations in fields such as trade, economy, and culture are also absent. These channels are indispensable to mediate, moderate and transform perspectives on the future.

While conflicts belong to the past and endure in the present, conflict resolution happens in the future. The unpredictable future might offer new dimensions and sooner or later parties to the conflict realize that the past is irredeemable. Peace initiatives failed in the past, but several combinations of leaders on both sides project a degree of resolve to persist. The future might have a more assertive contribution from them. Narendra Modi would not be in power in the most populated democracy in the world forever. The regional parties in India which constitute a formidable counter-force in Indian politics will find a way one day to assume a greater role at the center, with or without a leading role for the Congress. Pakistan might begin to seek an increasing degree of comfort in the TNWs or its strengthening equation with China. It might also reach a level of consequential input of elected leadership to decision-making on security matters and realize that ignoring the civil society and the economic equation with India does not serve its long-term security interests.

The subcontinent cannot go back to a moment in its history of 100 or 75 years ago and change it today, yesterday, or tomorrow. The subcontinent adrift has to move ahead. Peace has to occur for the millions of souls struggling to find a way out of bulging social and economic development issues. South Asia, Ahmed Mushtaq prays, must focus on peace and justice, unadulterated milk, and potable water for her children:

امن ملے تیرے بچوں کو اور انصاف ملے

دودھ ملے چاندی سا اجلا، پانی صاف ملے۔

Cambria Press has published the book and also sells it beside other providers.

Published by

Najm Akbar

I have remained focused on the interface of history and policymaking while pursuing graduate studies in history at Fresno State, developing on three years of my education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (MA 1995, MALD 2011). While teaching Urdu between 2005-2018, or holding diplomatic assignments between 1981-2002, the intersection between these two processes has been the mainspring of my personal, professional and intellectual pursuits. This platform would continue that endeavor.

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