March Issue 2005

By | Arts & Culture | Books | Published 15 years ago

strobe-talbott-mar05When it comes to relations with India or the issue of Kashmir, some of our diplomats as well as politicians tend to lose their cool. But an incident that Strobe Talbott has recounted in passing in Engaging India: Diplomacy, Democracy and the Bomb, an intimate account of diplomacy between the United States and India after India’s nuclear tests in May 1998, is particularly disquieting. While the main focus of Talbott’s engaging memoir is his talks as the then deputy secretary of state with Jaswant Singh, India’s minister of external affairs, America’s involvement with Pakistan is unavoidably a prominent thread in the colourful tapestry.

So, reflecting on his experience of travelling between New Delhi and Islamabad — “always a bit like passing through the looking glass” — Talbott has compared the two mindsets. There are, of course, similarities, including “complaints about historical injustices, infringement on sovereignty, insensitivity to legitimate security concerns, and insufficient appreciation of how domestic politics made what Americans were asking difficult or impossible”. As for differences, the Pakistanis, in Talbott’s view, “seemed to wear on their sleeve an insecurity about the cohesiveness and even the viability of their own state, not to mention the durability of its democracy.”

It is in this context that Talbott has related what sounds like an improbable incident. “On one occasion, early in our dealings, a member of the Pakistani delegation exploded at our observation that his country seemed always to react in knee-jerk fashion to Indian moves. He rose out of his chair and lunged across the table as though he were going to strangle either Bruce Riedel or me, depending on whose neck he could get his fingers around first. He had to be physically restrained.” Hard to imagine!

Encounters such as this make Engaging India a highly readable and revealing book, giving us a close look at behind-the-scene action in the evolution of a strategic shift in relations between the United States and India. Incidentally Talbott had earlier been an accomplished journalist, having worked as Time magazine’s foreign correspondent, with special interest in the Soviet Union and then Russia for many years. He also knew President Clinton well — they were together in Oxford in the last sixties. It was Clinton’s confidence in him that gave his parallel track diplomacy such weight.

From June 1998 to September 2000, an extensive dialogue was conducted between the United States and India through Talbott and Jaswant Singh. During this period, they met 14 times in seven countries across three continents. In the course of this involvement, the US was able to play the role of negotiator during the Kargil conflict. In fact, the book has revealed for the first time the inside story of the then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington in July 1999. When the book appeared some months ago, headlines were made of how Sharif dashed to Washington uninvited and what transpired in his talks with Clinton.

Incidentally, in a discussion held at the Council on Foreign Affairs in New York in November last year, soon after the re-election of President Bush, Talbott had a lot to say about this eventful phase in Pakistan’s relations with the US. Though Nawaz Sharif does not come out too well in the book, Talbott praised Nawaz Sharif for his part in defusing the Kargil crisis that, in the American perception, had driven the two South Asian countries to the brink of a nuclear war. In his elucidation, Talbott recalled that Sharif “basically threw himself at the mercy of Bill Clinton and said, ‘Help. I’ve gotten — we are in a terrible fix; please find a way out.’ And President Clinton said, ‘There’s only one way out, and that is for you unconditionally to pull your troops back across the border, and then we’ll see what’s possible’. Sharif did that. I suspect that it was a contributing factor to his political demise — which was, by the way, almost his physical demise as well, in a military coup not too much after that.”

In many ways, the developments that have been recorded in the book in the aftermath of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan have been pushed into the background, at least for Pakistan, after 9/11. Since Talbott finished his book in late May 2004, he has briefly commented on President General Pervez Musharraf’s U-turn and also the shock defeat of the BJP in India. Besides, the US-Pakistan relationship is still under a cloud over the issue of nonproliferation.

In his concluding chapter, Talbott takes note of the A.Q.Khan affair and how President Musharraf deflected blame from the Pakistan government and military by focusing on Dr Khan. “Under what amounted to a plea bargain, Khan publicly apologised for his misdeeds, and Musharraf gave him a pardon. American government officials congratulated Musharraf and let him pretend that the Pakistani military establishment had not been complicit in Khan’s activities.”

After India had carried out its nuclear tests on May 11, 1998, a concerted attempt was made by the US to keep Pakistan from doing the same. We get many glimpses of how Pakistan’s diplomats dealt with the US mission that also included General Anthony Zinni, the then head of the US Central Command. Talbott was a little surprised that the meeting with General Jehangir Karamat was less contentious though the gist of it was the same — a ‘no’ to American persuasion. But it is Sharif’s portrayal that is dramatic in its human dimension.

What the Americans got from him “was a Hamlet act.” Talbott felt Sharif was genuinely feeling torn but was rather pathetic. “I knew him a bit from earlier encounters. Diminutive and roly-poly, he had a pleasant round face and a diffident, eager-to-please, even fawning manner. It was hard to see how he had come out on top of a rough-and-tumble political system.”

At one point in the meeting, Sharif asked everyone but Talbott to wait outside and they were alone, Talbott gave him a handwritten note from Secretary Albright, urging him to hold firm against those clamouring to test the bomb. “Sharif read the note intently, folded the paper, put his head in his hands for a moment, then looked at me with desperation in his eyes. At issue, he said, was his own political survival. ‘How can I take your advice if I’m out of office?’ If he did as we wanted, the next time I came to Islamabad, I would find myself dealing not with a clean-shaven moderate like himself but with an Islamic fundamentalist ‘who has a long beard.’”

This reference to the possibility of Islamic fundamentalists taking over calls for a diversion. Sharif made that comment in May 1998. Now, after 9/11 and Pakistan’s frontline participation in the war on terror, the present government gives this impression to the Americans, when they press for more meaningful democratic reforms, that if Musharraf is dislodged, the religious extremists would take over.

In his lecture to the Council on Foreign Relations, Talbott recalled that Sharif was terrified all the time, “not of me or of the United States, or for that matter of India; he was terrified looking over one shoulder at Rawalpindi about the military and what they were up to, and looking over the other shoulder at ‘the bearded ones’ as he called them. And he used to say to me, ‘Don’t put so much pressure on me’. He says, ‘If I give in to your pressure, the next time you come here you’ll be dealing with somebody with a beard’. Well, of course, in due course, the next time I came the person we were dealing with had a small military moustache.” Expectedly, this drew laughter from the audience.

In the same lecture, Talbott characterised Pakistan as an internally and externally insecure state, without a clear widespread critical mass of confidence about itself, its identity and its role in the world. Talking about attempts on Musharraf’s life, he said that “there is a deep bench in the military leadership there, so that a post-Musharraf leader would probably be more similar to Musharraf than different”. Asked if he meant a post-Musharraf military leader, he said: “It certainly would be a military leader.” Then, what about this impression that the fundamentalists almost constitute an alternate government?

Talbott has another citation of this issue in his account of Clinton’s visit to South Asia. He notes that Musharraf had fended off American exhortations that he quickly restore democracy by saying that he would not stay in power any longer than required. “When told that it would be difficult for Clinton to visit Pakistan with so little progress on any of the issues that mattered to the United States, Musharraf warned that a presidential snub would ‘strengthen the hand of the extremists’ — essentially the same argument that Nawaz Sharif had repeatedly used with me in seeking American leniency before and after the Pakistan nuclear test.” But, of course, this comment relates to a period before 9/11.

Engaging India is mostly about India, to be sure. However, any diplomatic dialogue between the US and India would have to consider complications presented by both countries’ relationship with Pakistan and China. Considerable attention has been devoted to the peace process in South Asia, providing insights into American involvement in this process. There are repeated references to the Kashmir issue. There is this sense that its resolution has become more urgent after the nuclearisation of the two countries.

There is an interesting aside on Kashmir. After Pakistan’s nuclear tests, Talbott spoke to the then Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov. They spoke in a mixture of Russian and English. Primakov was deeply rattled at what he saw as the very real possibility of nuclear war in the subcontinent. He said that the US and the Russian governments must try anything that would “stop this craziness” even if it meant plunging together into the “accursed issue of Kashmir”, with or without China. This prompted Talbott to resort to a pun in Russian: Kashmir — kashmar. “Kashmir is a nightmare”. Primakov said: “Our nightmare, not just theirs.”

There are several excerpts relating to Pakistan that underline the American point of view on political developments in the country. It would be interesting to look at Pakistan, also, in the mirror of observations made by the Indians. Though the Americans were talking to India on nuclear weaponry, Pakistan remained a heated issue. To take just one image, Talbott tells of how, when Pakistan came under discussion, Jaswant would either sigh or shake his head wearily, as though he had been diverted into an area that was neither pleasant nor germane in discussions between two ‘major powers’. “As far as India was concerned, Pakistan was not just India’s sibling but its twin — ‘we are born of the same womb’, said Jaswant. However, from the moment of its birth, Pakistan had gone terribly and permanently wrong. He did not take seriously — or at least he did not want me to think he took seriously — the chance of a nuclear war between India and Pakistan, a relatively small, incurably troubled, and incorrigibly troublesome country that dreamed of a parity with India it would never attain or deserve. China was a power and a threat worthy of India’s strategic attention, not Pakistan.” This, in fact, is a reflection of the bias against Pakistan in the Indian mind.

Kargil stands out in the book’s allusion to Pakistan. There is an entire chapter, entitled ‘From Kargil to Blair House’. A significant and disputed revelation in the book is that one the eve of Sharif’s visit, “we learned that Pakistan might be preparing its nuclear forces for deployment.” Sharif left for Washington in a hurry. He did not have the time “or perhaps did not have enough support from the Pakistani military” to arrange for an aircraft and boarded a PIA flight that would make a special stop at Dulles Airport to drop him and his retinue off. “In addition to his advisers he was bringing his wife and children with him. That news caused us to wonder whether he was coming to seek an end to the crisis or political asylum.”

Apart from the dynamics of the dialogue between the US and India, Talbott’s book gives us some exciting human touches about the leading characters. Jaswant, understandably, strides across the book. Talbott’s asides on Clinton are very instructive. We get some hints about his reading habits. We can imagine how frightfully busy the American president must be. For example, he took a catnap on a sofa in a small study during the break in his talks with Sharif. Before this break, after Sharif “had run through the Pakistani version of half a century of conflict in South Asia, Clinton decided to respond with a history lesson of his own. He drew from John Keegan’s The First World War, which he was reading.”

At the outset, Talbott records Clinton’s fascination with India “since I first knew him.” There is an account of Clinton’s New York meeting with I.K.Gujral, then prime minister of India. “He raved about a book he was reading — India from Midnight to the Millennium by Shashi Tharoor, then a senior aide to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan — and sought Gujral’s advice on a reading list to help him further prepare for the trip he hoped to make to the subcontinent the following year.”

Finally, Talbott’s amazement over democracy in India: “Indian democracy has always been a mystery bordering on a miracle, not so much because of how it works as because it works at all. In many respects, India seemed destined, even designed, never to be a democracy, or to fail if it ever tried to become one. For centuries it was a victim of invasion from the north-west. Then it was the large colony of a small island off the coast of Europe. Its independence coincided with a bloody and divisive conflict over partition. Its hierarchical, caste-based social order was — and will be as long as it lasts — at odds with the very idea of political equality. Its economic order permits the acquisition of fabulous wealth alongside abject poverty on a massive scale. Add to those factors the uninspiring record of other countries that broke free of colonialism after World War II only to wallow in authoritarianism for decades afterward, and Indian democracy would have seemed far from a sure bet in 1947.”

The question one asks oneself is: Why has democracy failed to take root in Pakistan?

Ghazi Salahuddin is a respected senior journalist in Pakistan. He currently works with the daily The News and the Geo television network.