Avoiding Armageddon: A Review

By Donald Camp

Source: U.S. Embassy New Delhi's flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama pay respects at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi during a November 2010 visit to India. Source: U.S. Embassy New Delhi’s flickr photostream, U.S. Government Work.

Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan on the Brink and Back by Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution Press: Washington, DC, 2013, ISBN-13: 978-0815724087, 220 pp., Hardcover $21.58, Kindle $15.37.

Bruce Riedel’s comprehensive history of U.S. relations with India and Pakistan is two books in one. He builds on his decades of experience in the CIA and the White House to craft a personal history of that era, notably a thorough exposition of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai when he was President-elect Obama’s chief advisor on South Asia. But the guts of the book are a well-researched history of U.S. relations with India and Pakistan, beginning, cursorily, in the 16th century.

He focuses on the diplomatic and military relationship, and makes much of the personal relationships between U. S. presidents and the Indian and Pakistani leadership. The bulk of the book begins, as do most diplomatic histories, with partition in 1947 and the beginning of the Kashmir dispute.

Who knew though that Ulysses S. Grant was the first U. S. president to visit India, albeit in 1876 after he had left office? Riedel pointedly notes that Grant saw more of India than any president since then, on a Grand Tour to Bombay, Delhi, Jaipur, Agra, Benares, and Calcutta. He doesn’t need to say that the much shorter visits (day trips to Karachi and Delhi by Eisenhower in 1959 and LBJ to Karachi Airport in 1967, Carter’s trip to Delhi in 1978, Clinton’s five-day sojourn to India and five hours in Pakistan in 2000, Bush’s visit to both in 2006 and Obama to India in 2010) did not give any of our presidents the on-the-ground experience that would have informed their presidencies. Nikita Khrushchev, by contrast, spent almost a month touring India in 1955.

The personal relationships that sometimes helped but often hindered the relationships have a major role in this book. Nixon and Kissinger’s visceral dislike of Mrs. Gandhi and their bonding with Ayub Khan are well known. But Nehru and Truman were also a badly matched pair. Nehru wanted the United States to recognize the People’s Republic of China, and Truman wanted to mediate the Kashmir dispute. Riedel quotes Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson on Nehru: “one of the most difficult men with whom I have ever had to deal.”

The author’s personal insights are some of the best parts of this excellent book. While reviewing the Indo-Pakistani war over Bangladesh in 1971, Riedel discusses the intelligence analysis that convinced Nixon that Indira Gandhi intended to destroy West Pakistan, not just free the East. The analysis was shoddy work.  Riedel talked to then-CIA Director Helms just before his death and confirmed that the report was “flawed but too important to be ignored. He felt that he had not handled it well by highlighting it to Nixon.” Of such errors can policy be made. The intelligence report prompted the famous dispatch of the U.S.S. Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal in an unsuccessful attempt to intimidate Indira Gandhi and perhaps, Riedel speculates, to encourage China to enter the fray against India.

Another startling assertion is that Indian intelligence services were responsible for the enormous explosion that destroyed a Pakistani armory in Rawalpindi in April 1988, killing over a hundred people and rocking the city of Islamabad. Conventional wisdom has always been that it was an Afghan or Soviet operation, but Riedel reports that two Indian intelligence officers told him that Delhi carried it out as retaliation for Pakistani sponsorship of Kashmiri and Sikh separatists.

Riedel’s last chapter is devoted to policy prescriptions. Some are easy—get rid of the current Afghanistan-Pakistan structure in the U.S. bureaucracy and re-unite South Asia at State, the NSC, and at the Pentagon. Others are more far-reaching. Pakistan has unresolved border disputes with Afghanistan (the Durand Line) and with India (Kashmir). Both feed Pakistani territorial insecurities. Like other observers, he sees the current line of control in Kashmir as the logical permanent dividing line. India, he says, must take the initiative since —quoting Spiderman—“with great power comes great responsibility.” But, Riedel argues, the United States can leverage its new stronger relationship with India to push quietly for a modus vivendi on Kashmir that can transform the subcontinent. No president since Kennedy, he argues, has made this a priority. Riedel does not say it, but I will—this is the triumph of hope over experience. Yet, we must hope.

Mr. Donald Camp is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS. A version of this blog post first appeared at American Diplomacy which readers can find here


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