Stephen Cohen’s The South Asia Papers

First, strategic depth embodied second nuclear strike possibility, thereby meaning that Pakistan’s preference was not using first nuclear strike against India

Stephen Cohen’s The South Asia Papers

India’s future is hopeful whereas Pakistan’s future is perilous. This is the central idea of Stephen Philip Cohen’s book, The South Asia Papers: a critical anthology of writings, published by Harper Collins Publishers India in 2016. In 1998, Cohen became the only first full-time South Asia specialist at a Washington think tank. This opinion piece intends to discuss Cohen’s certain ideas expressed in the book.

Despite having educational background in political science, Cohen declares himself a historian-turned-commentator: from studying the Raj’s military history and “Hindoostan” to commenting on South Asia. The switch was less because of his expertise on South Asia and more because of the dearth of political commentators on South Asian affairs. The book lays bare the way the switch shackles Cohen.

Cohen claims that his journey to South Asia was to find answers to two questions, as mentioned on pages 2 and 3: “How do states manage their armed forces, rather than being managed by them? ... (and) How did a poor state manage its international politics?” Here, Cohen addresses to Pakistan without mentioning its name. To extend this idea further, Cohen writes on page 305: “Pakistan inherited the Raj’s military-dominant side, while India inherited the civilian-dominant pattern.” Here, Cohen overlooks two points. First, it was India that instilled insecurity in Pakistan by denying Pakistan its due share after partition under the ruse that the financial share would be used against India after Pakistan got stronger militarily. In fact, the formula of division of assets was not contingent upon any such presumptive condition. Second, the bureaucracy Pakistan inherited was stronger than the military. It was a civil servant from the Audit and Accounts department, Malik Ghulam Muhammad, who, in the capacity of the third Governor General of Pakistan (October 1951-August 1955) sacked Pakistan’s second and third prime ministers, Khwaja Nazimuddin in April 1953 and Muhammad Ali Bogra in October 1954. The latter was sent home by dissolving Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly (August 1947 — October 1954), when the Assembly curtailed the assembly dissolving powers of the Governor General. By doing the first intervention in the political affairs, Malik Muhammad heralded the possibilities for introducing a martial law through the doctrine of necessity, sacking elected assemblies and weakening the institution of the prime minister, under one subterfuge or the other.

Cohen thinks that after the end of the Cold War in 1991, multi-ethnicity offers a major challenge to the integrity of a state. Cohen writes on pages 151 and 152: “With separatist movements cropping up throughout the Middle East, Southern and Central Asia, and parts of Europe (in 1992), it is important to understand that ... the crisis of the multiethnic state, not the disappearance of communism, will be the most profound political event of our generation.” Here, Cohen overlooks the fact that multi-ethnicity was extant before the Cold War, even during the colonial era. Apparently, Cohen has tried to equate ethnicity with political distinctiveness, which is not the case. Even the former Soviet Union was not a multi-ethnic state that faltered; instead, whether a component state was ethnic or not, the Union was just multi-state in nature the disappearance of which made ethnic minorities wary of their survival and conscious of their identities. The co-habitation of ethnic minorities shoves them into taking refuge in Western-style democracy that also caters to their psychological need for the projection of their otherwise suppressed identities. The same is true for South Asian countries. In Pakistan, not only the idea of democracy but also the idea of federation keeps ethnic minorities mollified.

Cohen also claims to have been US trained in arms control and the logic of nuclear deterrence. Cohen writes on page 255: “(I)t has been argued that even the suspicion of (nuclear) escalation might lead to a nuclear strike, presumably by the weaker or more vulnerable of the two countries (in this case, Pakistan) since it would not want to risk having its small nuclear forces destroyed in an Indian preemptive attack.” Here, Cohen is oblivious of the fact that, in the 1990s, Pakistan remained infatuated with the idea of having strategic depth in Afghanistan. The obsession had two implications. First, strategic depth embodied second nuclear strike possibility, thereby meaning that Pakistan’s preference was not using first nuclear strike against India. Second, strategic depth ruled out the suspicion factor from nuclear escalation, thereby meaning that Pakistan toned down its nuclear initiative unilaterally. Now, Pakistan has achieved maritime strategic depth, though less feasible than its predecessor.

About Kashmir, Cohen writes on page 258: “Ironically, we can now [in 1995] see that Kashmir was less a Cold War problem than some in the region had thought.” Here, Cohen does not give any reference who told him that Kashmir was a Cold War problem. In fact, the Cold War papered over the problem of Kashmir and let it fester. On page 264, Cohen writes: “Nowhere in the Constitution of India does the term federal appear. But ...India already has a hierarchy of federalism, with some Union territories directly ruled from Delhi, and with some variation in the nature of the Indian states. Kashmir itself is the biggest variation; it has its own constitutional status in the form of Article 370.” Here, Cohen has failed to appreciate the paradox in India’s relations with Kashmir. That is, on the one hand, India offers its part of Kashmir a special status through Article 370, guaranteeing autonomy and self-rule while, on the other hand, India deals with its part of Kashmir as one of the “disturbed areas” to be handled by the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) of 1990, empowering the Indian forces (both army and police) to shoot and kill anyone with impunity on mere suspicion.

Cohen writes on page 287: “2016: I would now say that formal alliance (of the US) with either [India or Pakistan] is unlikely, but that engagement or partnership on specific issues is happening despite each state [India or Pakistan] regarding the other as a prime threat.” Here, Cohen has shied away from stating the future role of India in South China Sea as a strategic partner of the US, besides the repercussions of that role once the US decides to minimize its presence in the sea. Though Pakistan may be helpful in the western flank of South Asia and India may be helpful in the eastern flank of South Asia, the strategic partnership of either India or Pakistan with the US is not without cost, both explicit and hidden.

In short, the book exposes ignorance of Cohen towards South Asian politics, especially related to Pakistan, besides flaws in his analysis.


The writer is a freelance columnist and can be reached at