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NON-FICTION : The price of myopia

Non fiction article

By Abhi KumarPublished 4 months ago 3 min read
NON-FICTION : The price of myopia
Photo by Maria Lupan on Unsplash

In a few sentences, Feroz Hassan Khan’s remarkable book Subcontinent Adrift: Strategic Futures of South Asia sums up Pakistan’s strategic culture and thinking, stating that Pakistan tends to view everything through an India-centric lens. Pakistan sees itself as the underdog and India as the hegemon itching to inflict a major military defeat on Pakistan.

At the same time, Pakistanis view their armed forces as the heroic vanguard against Indian and foreign encroachment and are generally sceptical of their elected civilian governments — four times in 75 years, civilians have welcomed the military’s seizure of power. They also view the state’s nuclear arsenal as a monumental feat of national resolve that has guaranteed its survival against a determined enemy.

Khan has had a long career in the Pakistan Army, serving in the strategic planning division and retiring with the rank of brigadier. He teaches at the United States Naval Postgraduate School in California and is the author of Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb.

In his new book, which offers an insider’s account of how Pakistan’s strategic decision making went awry almost from day one, Khan writes that Pakistan remains fixated on “seeking parity with its mightier neighbour” which, in turn, remains fixated on reducing Pakistan to “West Bangladesh” — a term coined by the late Stephen P. Cohen of the Brookings Institution, who taught and inspired a whole generation of South Asian scholars.

Khan’s book makes it clear that Pakistan was an experiment in the creation of a nation. Other than religion, there was no glue to hold it together. He writes that the army stepped in to save the nation from failing but, in my opinion, that is a fallacy, since the country broke up on the army’s watch in December 1971. Quoting Cohen, Khan writes that the army was successful in preventing the civilians from governing the country, but not imaginative enough to transform the country into an Asian tiger.

India exploded five nuclear bombs in May 1998; Pakistan followed up with six bombs in the same month. Khan states that nuclear weapons have not prevented the two countries from going to war, but they have contributed to an arms race that has seriously hurt the economic development of both. Furthermore, the “triggers that could set off a major military crisis under the nuclear shadow continue to multiply.”

The author argues that Pakistan sees everything through an Indo-centric lens, while India remains engaged in an arms race with China without worrying about how its armaments programme is creating paranoia in Pakistan. Each is engrossed in brinkmanship of the highest order, hoping to force the other to blink first.

According to Khan, the army holds the national reins of power, directing all major economic, military, technological and foreign policy decisions. Pakistan remains obsessed with seeking parity with India and, in the process, has “exhausted itself both economically and strategically.”

A surprising omission, though, is any reference to how the army has smothered the development of civilian institutions, thus crippling the realisation of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dream of a secular democratic republic. Indeed, as Khan notes, the genie of religion let loose under Gen Ziaul Haq forever changed the country’s body politic.

Professor Scott Sagan of Stanford University introduced me to Khan when he was visiting the campus and I handed him a reprint of my paper that had just appeared in a British military journal. It was a critique of the army’s performance in its wars with India and, to my surprise, Khan took it with a smile.

We met again at the two Stanford conferences that Khan cites in his book. The intent of these conferences was to find ways of diffusing the tension between Pakistan and India that had been triggered by the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament. At one point, some one million troops were deployed on the border. This was very worrying, since both countries had demonstrated their nuclear weaponry in May 1998.


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