Nayan Chanda Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Great Power Intervention and Regional Stability in Asia: Conversation with Nayan Chanda, Director of Publications at the Center for the Study of Globalization, Yale University, 11/8/01 by Harry Kreisler

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The Great Powers in South Asia

After the tragedy of September 11th, what should we be looking at? Because of the actions of al Qaeda, there's a great deal of interest now concerning the Pakistan - India conflict, about the danger posed in Kashmir, the added danger because of nuclear weapons. With this perspective that you've developed as a journalist, seeing both the long-term problem and the short-term problem, help us sort out this geopolitical situation in South Asia today.

I look at South Asia as the unfinished problem of decolonization. Let me back up and say what I mean. It's that India and Pakistan were created as independent states when the British left the Indian subcontinent. India was periodically a unified state under different rulers, but India, in its current shape, was unified only by the British. The borders that the Indians and the British drew of India and Pakistan -- and Pakistan was supposed to be the home of the Muslims in the Indian subcontinent -- led to enormous bloodshed, as you know, in 1947 when Hindus killed Muslims in India, and Muslims killed Hindus in Pakistan, and there was a migration across the border around these two communities.

In the case of India, Jawaharlal Nehru was the leader. He was a very modern person, he believed secularism and democracy would be the binding glue for the country, because India had eighteen different languages, all the major religions in the world, and India could not be based on either religious identity or at one linguistic identity. So multiracial, pluralistic, and secular society was the model. That allowed India, despite its poverty and backwardness, to survive this last fifty-odd years.

But Pakistan's identity was based on Islam, and that identity received a big blow in 1971, when East Pakistan decided to secede and become Bangladesh. So the fact that these people were also Muslims, but they didn't want to stay within Pakistan and have their own state, was a big blow to the ideology that was dominating a ruling Pakistan. That made it even more imperative for Pakistan to stake its claim on the Islamic population in Kashmir Valley, because, "These people across the border are our Muslim brothers, and they're being oppressed by the Hindu India. Pakistan will not be complete as a nation unless we recover these Muslim brothers from Indian clutches." So recovering Kashmir became a more important national objective. Even when Pakistani soldiers take the oath after joining the Army, the oath includes the language which says, "We'll recover Kashmir." And so then that became a major element of conflict in the subcontinent.

The Chinese saw India as a large country with a population and economic resources, and manpower, bound to emerge as a rival of China. So supporting Pakistan to keep India off balance was a policy that appealed to them. Right from the beginning, the Chinese have been supporting Pakistan against India. That created a different dynamic in the region. So India had its own nuclear explosion in 1974. China started helping Pakistan to build its own bomb. And then India exploded its first bomb in 1998, and was followed by Pakistan. And then the Chinese have given Pakistan missiles and sold the missile technology. The Pakistanis also have gotten missile technology from North Korea.

So, basically, these two countries have developed nuclear weapons and missiles, and the issue at stake is still Kashmir. Underneath that is this question of national identity. India cannot accept that a part of its state, Kashmir, should be given away to Pakistan because the population there are Muslim. India has a Muslim population larger than Pakistan, and they are spread all over India. So if you accept the idea that because they are the majority in a state they should secede, then India will break apart. There will be a state where the Islamic population may be the majority. Should that state then secede from Indian union? India's secularism and democratic principle would receive a body blow if India accepted that. So that has now become the absolutely most difficult problem to resolve between Pakistan and India.

I guess the emergence in the nineties of the al Qaeda network, ultimately, by the end of the decade -- operating out of Afghanistan and maybe having its roots in U.S. support for the anti-Soviet struggle in Afghanistan -- adds even more fuel to this fire. Tell us a little about that.

Afghanistan is the same story. Afghanistan was created by the British, the current border. It's an artificial border. Afghanistan has Pashtun people, who are over 40 percent of the population; then you have Tajiks and Hazaras. These minority populations were ruled by a king who had a loose arrangement -- there's a tribal congress called Loya Jirga, which met annually, and the king discussed with these tribal chieftains as to what policies the government should pursue, and people basically ruled themselves. The government control was very minimum. But then, the king's cousin wanted to grab power, and he plotted and bypassed the king and called Afghanistan a republic.

Now, democracy cannot be created out of thin air. The population, economic development, were not ready to have democracy. So, basically, the country fell apart. Then emerged the Communist Party and tried to create a socialist identity for Afghanistan. They failed miserably. Russians came in, in support of the Communist Party, to take control of Afghanistan, which led the Americans to come in and support the different Afghan groups to oppose the Russian invasion. And Pakistan was, of course, extremely keen to have a client state on its border with Afghanistan. So Pakistan's intelligence services, backed by the United States, created Mujahedeen and eventually Taliban. "Taliban" means students, and these students were trained in Muslim schools, madrasas, in Pakistan. They were indoctrinated with one ideology, that is, of the Koran and creating a pure Islamic state in Afghanistan. That state is an Islamic state, whose purpose is essentially to advance Islam, nothing else. And so that provided the ideal host for the al Qaeda network. The al Qaeda network tried training people for an internationalist operation. Terrorists were trained in camps in Afghanistan to be sent to Kashmir. So violence levels in Kashmir shot up in the last five, six years, because the Pakistani groups, as well as Sudanese, Palestinians, even Chechens were trained and sent to Kashmir to blow up buildings and kill people, to force the Indian army to abandon Kashmir to the Pakistanis.

This brings us to the current situation. When the Indian government heard the news of what happened in the New York, there was, of course, at a popular level, a great sympathy and anger at this tragedy because, after all, many Indians died. There were 250 Indians, people of Indian origin, who died in the World Trade Center. At the same time, the Indian government saw, finally, that the Americans would realize what we have been going through in Kashmir over the years. And maybe Americans will now cooperate with us against the terrorists -- because the Indian government has been pressuring the U.S. for many years to declare Pakistan a terrorist state for supporting these groups based in Pakistan, and the U.S. didn't do that. The Indians never expected the United States to carry its war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan and attack the Pakistan-based Islamic groups, which operate in Kashmir.

In your recent writings, you have focused on the possibilities of nuclear weapons being used intentionally or unintentionally by the states in the region, especially Pakistan, because of the security, because of the incapacity of any kind of international regime to monitor them, and because of the weakness of the regimes. What is the way out of this situation, given the present volatility?

This is a problem which doesn't have an easy answer. The problem is very acute. Pakistan has almost ten different institutions, research labs as well as plants, where nuclear material is produced and nuclear weapons assembled. And [in] Pakistan, of course, the whole thing is done in secrecy. Even the United State officials tell you that they know very little as to what exactly Pakistanis have done and how many weapons do they have. The estimate is that they have are over twenty-five warheads, which can be put on a missile or carried by aircraft. And these weapons are kept, apparently, in different locations with the nuclear material and the mechanical part kept separately, according to the Pakistanis, in order to maintain safety. But one doesn't know for sure that is the case.

Secondly, the fact that Pakistani scientists, Pakistan intelligence services have [included] many supporters of Islamic fundamentalism, supporters of Taliban, makes this institution even more dicey, because one doesn't know whether these peoples' loyalty is towards the state of Pakistan's security or is towards the Islamic notion of going after the infidels, and perhaps providing them with the ultimate weapon.

The fact that al Qaeda has been trying to obtain nuclear weapons is pretty well documented. In the court case in New York [involving the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center], it came out that that has been one of the targets. So in view of al Qaeda's desire to obtain nuclear weapons and in view of the fact that the Taliban has a lot of [support] in the Pakistani establishment, the theory is that there could be pilferage of nuclear material from these plants. The other theory is that if the American war in Afghanistan drags on, and more and more civilians are killed in these bombing raids, the emotion in Pakistan is already very high, it could reach a point where the army may be called up on to suppress the people or the army may turn their back on this order and might, with the help of the Islamic fundamentalist elements in the security and intelligence services, mount a coup. And if these extremists take over the government, then all the nuclear installations fall in their hands. That is also an option or a scenario which frightens people in Washington.

What do you think would be the reaction, first, of the Indians, and then of the United States, if that were to happen? Would one or the other go in to try to take possessions of the weapons, before they fell into the wrong hands?

This is what people speculate. Now, there has been a time, in 1991, immediately after the Israelis went and bombed Iraqi reactors, the Indian air force actually did a study as to whether they could do something about the Pakistani nuclear plants. They decided against it, for the simple reason that while the Iraqi nuclear reactor had not gone critical, so when the Israelis bombed it, it did not release any radiation, Pakistani reactors had gone critical, and any Indian bombing would release radiation. But more significantly, that would open the way for Pakistanis to retaliate and attack India's nuclear reactors near Bombay, which would create absolute devastation. So India looked at the consequences and decided against. And the situation now is even worse because you have many more facilities and much more nuclear material in store in Pakistan. So to go and bomb them would, basically, start a nuclear war between the two countries.

One gets the sense that these two discussions, one of the aftermath of the Vietnam War and [the other about] this situation, are both instructive about the limits of the great power game, and the dead end that it leads us to, in terms of resolving conflicts within countries or regional conflicts. What does that tell us about how we will solve some of these problems -- specifically, this conflict between Pakistan and India in South Asia?

I have no answer to that. The issue that arises in my mind is that both of these cases -- in India and Pakistan, and what happened in Cambodia -- show the limits of superpowers, because their so-called clients have minds of their own. They do things that the superpowers may not like, but [the superpowers] have to live with the consequences. The Khmer Rouge were absolutely rogue elements, and the Chinese were embarrassed later on, and they couldn't control them. But the Chinese built them, in the same way as Pakistan has built the Taliban. And yet, now, China is joining up with the United States and saying that the Taliban has been supporting and training some Islamic groups in China, who are opposing and who want independence from China in the Xinjiang province.

A theorist of international relations would say -- and one theorist comes to mind: Kenneth Waltz -- that regimes basically want to survive, and therefore they will not take that last step to nuclear war. Therefore. that there can be a kind of stability when both sides in a conflict get nuclear weapons. But I guess the question that you're raising now in this discussion, and that the world is confronting, is that when you have non-state actors who are either religious cults or broad transnational movements that represent one strain in a religion, there is a real danger that we really haven't thought through and we really don't know how to handle.

Absolutely. I think the big difference that the situation now since September 11th is the thought that, normally, in any conflict, the opposing side wants to kill each other, but survive, in order to savor the fruits of victory. But when you have people who are willing to die, they don't want to savor the victory themselves. That willingness to die creates a whole new dynamic. And that, the world has to come to terms with. We have to decide how to deal with that. That activity makes the threat of nuclear terrorism or bioterrorism much more severe, because people who are handling that are not afraid to die, because they think they are going to go to heaven. And that fearlessness about one's own self-preservation creates a totally different situation.

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