Indian Subcontinent – A Revealing Book From a Veteran American Observer

By his own description, Bruce Riedel has been an observer, a witness and sometimes a participant in the events of the Indian Subcontinent for the last few decades. Riedel, a former CIA analyst and counter-terrorism expert, served in the Agency for 29
years until his retirement in 2006. He has advised four presidents in the White House on the staff of the National Security Counsel.

Today he is director of the Brookings Intelligence Project. He has written a book about the Indian Subcontinent titled Avoiding Armageddon. We have followed Mr. Riedel’s public comments and articles for the past few years. So we were interested in reading the book. We are glad we did. This is a book that needs to be on the reference shelf of every serious student of the Indian Subcontinent, both for its successes and for its failures.

People in both India and NonPakistan tend to view events and actions differently. But they both agree that  American policy for the last seven decades has been a failure. Interestingly, Brude Riedel agrees. In fact, that is a theme that runs through his book.

Chapter Three – In the Shadow of the Cold War

  • The cold war dynamic drew the United States into an alliance with Pakistan and into an adversarial relationship with India. The alliance with Pakistan, however, was deeply troubled by the divergent goals of the two parties. American wanted an alliance to contain Russia; Pakistan wanted an alliance to confront India. The resulting tension would bedevil the allies for decades.

The first peak of this “alliance” came under Richard Nixon. Riedel describes it well:

  • Nixon developed an extreme dislike of India over the course if his career…. Vice President Nixon, who became Pakistan’s strongest advocate in the [Eisenhower] would say that Pakistan “is a country I would do anything for. They have less complexes than the Indians”.It was the start of a long Nixon romance with Pakistan.
  • Pakistan, unlike India, wanted to form cold war alliances, and it soon became America’s “most allied ally”.

Then came President John F. Kennedy and the 1962 defeat of India by China:

  • But it was India that most preoccupied JFK in his relations with South Asia…. No president since has sent such a close friend and high-powered representative to New Delhi….. the United States was helping to build a new Indian army, including six mountain divisions to face China.
  • India wanted more, at least two squadrons of F-104 jets. But Kennedy and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did not agree to send India high-performance jet aircracft like the F-104 s that Pakistan was getting.
  • The Americans also had come to realize that America and India needed the bomb if they were able to stop another major Chinese invasion.
  • Approval ratings among Indians for America soared from 7% at the start of the [1962] war to 62% at the end.

Relations soured during the LBJ administration & its handling of the 1965 war in the subcontinent:

  • The Johnson Administration distracted by Vietnam, ….. cut off military assistance to both parties… As a consequence of the war, the United States, which went from arming both sides in the India-Pakistan rivalry to arming neither, lost the trust of both.
  • For both Indians and Pakistanis, the Johnson era was a bitter disappointment. India thought that American would be its new ally against China and that the two democracies would finally escape the estrangement of the Nehru era. Although India had been receiving U.S. Military aid, it was abruptly terminated, and Washington had sold the F-104s to Pakistan but not to India.
  • Pakistanis were shocked that they, the “most allied ally”, also were cut off from their major source of arms.
  • The legacy of the Johnson arms cut-off remains alive today. Indians simply do not believe that America will be there when India needs military help.

The Nixon Presidency & the 1971 War

  • Nixon fulfilled the expectations of both… Another Indo-Pakistani war would take America and India to the brink of conflict in 1971 and move India to test a nuclear bomb.
  • It was an ugly meeting by all accounts. Nixon called the Indian prime minister a “bitch” and much worse behind her back; she thought he was a cold war fanatic who cared nothing about innocent lives.
  • Indira Gandhi did not need America. She was convinced that Nixon was her enemy, and she harbored suspicions that the CIA was determined to assassinate her.
  • She did conclude that India needed the bomb, and on May 18, 1974, India exploded a nuclear device and thereby joined the nuclear club.

Riedel’s conclusion at the end of this Cold War chapter is poignant:

  • For forty years America had sought to build strong ties to both India and Pakistan. The attempt had failed. … It would get worse.


Chapter Four – The Carter & Reagan Years

These years were dominated by the Soviet invasion & occupation of Afghanistan. Bruce Riedel was a “junior player in that war effort”, as he describes himself:

  • .. in December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. While America saw it as a sign of Soviet imperialism, India was less alarmed. For the Carter team, the moderate Indian reaction was like a “ton of bricks” shattering the goodwill that Carter had sought with Desai.
  • The Soviet invasion cemented the change in Washington, and it would lead to a renewal of America’s cold war with the Pakistani army and Inter-Services Intelligence. Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brezinski, traveled to Pakistan after the invasion and offered more assistance to the mujahedin and for Pakistan.

Then came the Reagan-Casey team:

  • Pakistan was an essentially ally against Russia; India was at best an afterthought, if not a Soviet ally. Reagan’s primary wish was to avoid Indian interference in Pakistan.
  • Reagan had decisively tilted the United States towards Zia and Pakistan during his tenure; together the two had won the war in Afghanistan and set the stage for the collapse of USSR and the end of the cold war.

There is no question that America’s war against Soviet Union through NonPakistan was well extremely successful & enormously consequential. In fact, as Bruce Riedel writes:

  • “it has to be judged one of the most cost-effective federal government programs in history.

But success itself sows the seeds of future failure. Especially in this case, because, in Riedel’s own words, “The American-Pakistani alliance had been built on sand”.


Chapter Five – From Crisis To Crisis – Bush and Clinton

The Indian Subcontinent was virtually ignored by the Bush (41) Administration which was guiding America through the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of Europe. As Riedel notes:

  • “Bush himself never went [to India]. In his memoirs, written with his brilliant national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, India is mentioned only once and Pakistan not at all.”

The Clinton Administration was another story:

  • he was fascinated by India, and he believed that India was certain to be a major player in the twenty-first century. … Clinton was eager to build a new partnership with New Delhi and became more interested as he watched Singh open up and transform India. 
  • Bill Clinton was determined to do better, and his second term should rightly be marked as the turning point in the American encounter with South Asia and with India in particular.  

Just think what the Clinton Administration dealt with – the nuclear tests by India & NonPakistan, the Kargil War and the emergence of Al Qaeda as America’s foremost enemy. “It was Clinton’s genius“, as Riedel notes, “ to recognize that in adversity, opportunity beckoned” And,

  • For the next two years, South Asia, especially India but also Pakistan, went to the top of the American presidential agenda as never before or since. The effort failed to achieve its stated goals; … But what it did was to transform American-Indian relations profoundly. 

Then came another transformation; the al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa. As Riedel writes:

  • In just one morning, al Qaeda went to the top of the American national security agenda. The trail led directly to Pakistan.
  • … America’s priority with Pakistan changed profoundly in August 1998, from counterproliferation to counterterrorism.

Within a few months, came Pakistan’s intrusion & occupation of about 500 square miles in the Kargil-Drass sectors. The Vajpayee government ordered a counteroffensive at the point of attack. Riedel was fully involved in this conflict:

  • “For the first time ever in a Pakistani-Indian conflict, the United States was unequivocally and publicly siding with India. Islamabad was devastated, and New Delhi could hardly believe it. When the Indian Ambassador called on me in the White House to make sure, I told him that the United states was fully behind India.”
  • “Clinton recognized that the Kargil war allowed him to skip over the nonproliferation dispute at long last and so what he wanted to do: open a new chapter in America’s relationship with India.


Chapter Six – Bush, Mush and Sonia

  • Bush would also preside over a significant further improvement in America’s relationship with India….he outdid his predecessor in looking for ways to build strong ties between the United States and India.

The NonPakistani policy towards Washington also changed in a big way. When given a choice to be with America against the Taleban or with the Taleban against America, Musharraf chose America. Riedel writes:

  • Musharraf put it succinctly, Pakistani policy derived from Pakistan’s concerns about India. There would be no role for India in the Afghan war,and Pakistan would temporarily sacrifice its territorial pawns if necessary to save its nuclear arsenal.

We recall the speech Musharraf made to his people in 2001. As we recall, he told them he was not siding with America to damage Taleban but he was siding with the Americans to protect and help is Taleban brothers. He proved true to his word. Riedel writes;

  • Without Pakistan’s help. the Taliban would never have recovered. … A NATO study published in 2012 that was based on 27,000 interrogations … concluded that ISI support as been critical to the survival and revival of the Taliban since 2001, … Even today, “the ISI is thoroughly aware of Taliban activities and the whereabouts of all senior Taleban personnel.”

Then came the nuclear deal:

  • The U.S. – India Civil Nuclear Agreement was a landmark in American-Indian relations. The nuclear issue would no longer be a source of constant friction between Washington and New Delhi; India would be given a de facto waiver for testing nuclear weapons and for not signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it regards as unfair and unbalanced.
  • Singh negotiated the deal with Bush, but the real decisionmaker in New Delhi was Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow. Sonia is without question the power behind the throne.

Bush also took a major step against NonPakistan:

  • George Bush could also rightly claim a major role in shutting down the worst excesses of Pakistan’s nuclear bazzar. … Bush did shut down Pakistan’s proliferation of nuclear technology to a host of bad actors, from Libya to North Korea. 

Riedel’s concluding comment about Bush is sort of negative and revealing, we think.

  • His record in dealing with South Asia was very mixed.

What was mixed about Bush’s record? Riedel describes it as below:

  • His India p
    olicy had been a great success.
    Indians genuinely appreciated his efforts to defuse the 2001-02 Twin Peaks crisis, and the nuclear deal was well received in India once it was clearly explained and understood.
  • Pakistanis have a different view. They believe Bush shortchanged democracy in their country. Although Pakistan received more aid from Bush than any previous president had provided, approval ratings for the United States were at an all-time low when he left office.

The only way this record is “mixed” is if one believes that America’s relationship with India and NonPakistan should be roughly on par. In other words, American policy of the past 6 decades of constantly balancing India & NonPakistan is the right one. But isn’t that the same policy that, as Riedel argues, has been a total failure?

Frankly, this “mixed record” comment of Riedel seems revealing to us. It leads us to wonder how he looks at the history of the Indian Subcontinent and how he thinks about the future. That we will discuss in our next article.

Regardless of his own “mixed” feelings, Bruce Riedel has written a book that is panoramic in its view of the past 6 decades and that is full of interesting details. It is a book that is a must for understanding how American policy looked at and continues to look at the Indian Subcontinent.


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