In an article published in Forbes—“Rearranging the Subcontinent”—the author Mr Robert D Kaplan starts with the profound observation that-‘the division of the Indian subcontinent may not be history’s last word in political geography’— thereby implying that the situation is in some kind of flux and may be resolved with changes. The fact is that a partition can be the last word if the partitioned countries want to remain separated and have no desire whatsoever to unite. This is the case in the Subcontinent today where India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have no desire to undo or change the partition that created them. In fact in the case of India and Pakistan the partition remains incomplete because India refuses to resolve Kashmir and other border issues so the only change possible is a completion of the process of partition in the interest of regional harmony and peace. Mr Kaplan also mentions the ‘history of many different spatial arrangements between the Central Asian plateau and the Burmese jungles’. The same can be said about many other parts of the world so why pick on the Subcontinent? The reason becomes clear later when it emerges that the real reason for the article is to focus on Pakistan. Mr Kaplan pays many tributes to India and calls it a status quo power forgetting the role India played in orchestrating the separation of Pakistan’s eastern part into what is now Bangla Desh. If India is indeed a status quo power then as the bigger country it should have no problem accepting and living with Pakistan—India has stated such a resolve but Mr Kaplan seems to think otherwise. Is he perhaps planting ideas?
Mr Kaplan rightly states that Pakistan cannot be considered artificial because of the thousands of years of civilizations in the Indus River valley that runs the length of present day Pakistan. Such civilizations also existed in the Ganges plain of India so of course these overlapped parts of today’s India and Pakistan—so what is the point? And of course the present day borders did not exist and if there were borders they did change through invasions and migrations. This does not mean that ‘what we see on the map today’ is superficial—what we see is actually firmly anchored in history and therefore there is permanence to the arrangement with no question of rearrangement unless an outside power intervenes in its own interest. This is a permanence that the people of the Subcontinent want because they, more than anyone else, know the suffering that externally engineered partitions create. So it is surprising to learn that Mr Kaplan is making some kind of case for changes in existing borders. However, once he homes on to his real target—Pakistan—the reason situation becomes clearer.
Mr Kaplan mentions past empires in the context of unifying the Subcontinent. Today one can see the signs of at least four past civilizations—the Mauryan Empire, the Sikh Empire, the Mughal Empire and the British Empire. Each of these waged wars, conquered territories and then, in keeping with the times, evolved strategies to secure their domain. The British did give the Subcontinent rail, road and irrigation networks as well as an administrative system. They also used a policy of divide and rule—especially after the 1857 mutiny against them—to exercise control. About other methods the less said the better. The infrastructure that the British built, and to which Mr Kaplan attributes the cohesion of British India, has been vastly improved over the years. Now there is talk of trans- border trade, pipelines, silk roads, expanded vast rail and road nets linking China, South Asia Central Asia Europe and South East Asia. The stakes are very high and Pakistan is at the centre of all these developments. Afghanistan cannot be left out and that is why today there is emerging cooperation between Afghanistan and Pakistan to resolve issues, end conflict and ensure stability. Afghanistan may have lost out on the infrastructure that the British gave the Subcontinent but they have no intention of losing out on the future possibilities and are in fact preparing for that.
Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan will permit the kind of negative influences that Mr Kaplan points out in his doomsday scenario for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran with thousands of years of civilization behind it is sure of its influence in a segment of Afghanistan and this has been an accepted fact for centuries—Iran is unlikely to join India and Russia in extending into Afghanistan as Mr Kaplan postulates. Nor will Russia get into such an act knowing the historical Central Asian spheres of influence in Afghanistan through which it has always worked except for the disastrous intervention by it in 1979. Mr Kaplan thinks that Saudi-Pakistan collusion might be a factor if Pakistan seeks inroads into Afghanistan to counter other external influences. Pakistan understands Iranian, Central Asian and Russian interests in Afghanistan and is confident of its influence and centrality in the future stabilization of Afghanistan that is in Pakistan’s interest. India could be the spoiler if it interferes in Afghanistan or encourages others to do so. By so doing India might undo the gains made in Afghanistan by the US and NATO and may well undermine Afghan democracy. That is a factor that Mr Kaplan and others should consider.
Mr Kaplan, makes no mention of the US role in creating the Afghan Resistance that morphed into the Taliban and attracted Al Qaeda into first Afghanistan and later Pakistan. Had he done so then the Afghan refugees exodus and the three decades of violence with blowback into Pakistan’s western, south western and urban areas would have been easily understood. Mr Kaplan rightly quotes Professor Jakub Grygiel to make the argument that protracted violence and conflict have negative consequences for all those involved directly or indirectly. This is the lesson of history. After 25 years in Viet Nam the US left in disarray and their enemy survived. After 13 years the US and NATO have left Afghanistan and their enemy has survived. So Mr Kaplan is spot on with his observation that 30 years of externally stoked violence in Afghanistan has had a destabilizing effect on Pakistan. Contrary to Mr Kaplan’s assertion that this raises the question of the viability of Pakistan this actually indicates the resilience of Pakistan and its resolve to stabilize itself. His assertion that it also raises, ‘by association’ the question of the ‘continued existence of current hard and fast borders of India’ is also flawed because it actually reinforces the need to keep those borders ‘hard and fast’. And again Mr Kaplan errs in calling Bangladesh a ‘weak and artificially conceived state in almost never ending turmo’l because in spite of the machinations that brought about its existence and India’s shadow over it Bangladesh not only survives but is fast consolidating.
Finally Mr Kaplan devotes a substantial part of his article discussing a mythical scenario conjured by him of a Pakistan that is in his words-‘disintegrating’. Conceding the geographic reality of Pakistan he questions its reality considering the vast spread of Muslim demography. This notion could be applied to all Muslim states and the conclusion would be that this in no way undermines their statehood. He then states that—‘the specific borders of Pakistan only work to the extent that Pakistan is well governed, with responsive bureaucratic institutions, and possesses a civil society that reaches into tribal hinterlands. But that is demonstrably not the case’. In fact that is exactly the case. Pakistan has demonstrated resilience and staying power. It has done so in the face of external interference, the blow back from the Soviet and US interventions in Afghanistan and the efforts to undermine and destabilize it from within by exploiting its transient weaknesses. This is no mean achievement. If Pakistan is objectively studied and analyzed today then one would not be looking at the decay of Pakistan or its disintegration that seems to so fascinate Mr Kaplan. He relies on unnamed ‘Balochistan and Sind leaders that he met on a trip through the area some years ago’ and who told him that ‘they would prefer over time a closer relationship with New Delhi than with Islamabad’. This is the only peg on which Mr Kaplan can hang his argument for Pakistan turning into ‘a rump state of Greater Punjab’. Pakistan has problems but Pakistan is functional and Pakistan is taking steps to resolve its problems. Mr Kaplan needs to visit again (if he is given a visa!) and he needs to see through unbiased eyes and talk to the right people. The conclusion that he would reach could be vastly different unless the idea is to propagate a certain point of view.
Mr Kissinger may be right in his optimistic assessment of India (quoted by Mr Kaplan) but India has a long way to go. It is dogged by insurgencies, caste issues, horrendous poverty around islands of prosperity and a rising hard-line intolerant and extremist Hindu nationalism. It has exploitable vulnerabilities. Afghanistan has a government and it has fragile institutions. It is dependent on external financial and economic support. It has the Taliban, now linked to the Taliban fighting Pakistan and with both looking at the IS even though Al Qaeda is still around. So, yes, Afghanistan ‘truly matters’ as Mr Kaplan says. So does a stable sovereign Pakistan. South Asians know these realities and it is in their interest to work together and respect existing borders and not to listen to advice to the contrary. Pakistan has also learnt through hard experience that allies can sometimes be hidden enemies and that is why Pakistan’s focus in on governance and internal stability and it is now orchestrating all its institutions to achieve these goals.