The Pitfalls of Peace

Michael Krepon suggested watching the movie “Seven Days in May” starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Ava Gardner as an object lesson – The consequences any leader who choose to walk down the path of peace would face. While Seven Days and the hit series 24 that depict the possibility of coups may be exaggerations, a military presuming itself to know better than the civilian leadership, be more patriotic, more acutely aware of the price of peace is not so out of place even in a country with rock solid constitutional norms like America. General Douglas Macarthur rocked the boat on this one (though its direct relation to the nuclear issue is contested) and General Curtis LeMay came to the edge of fraying civil-military relations during the Cuban missile crisis, and with the benefit of hindsight we can conclusively say his actions would have led to a Soviet nuclear strike.

This begs the question: what would happen in South Asia if a peace deal were actually to be struck? I rule out bilateral nuclear disarmament for the simple reason that given the Pakistan-India-China triangle that feeds into the Russia-China-USA triangle, a peace deal is far more likely than a deal to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Politically both countries are more or less in the era of coalition governments, polarised around two opposing parties – essentially weak governments. As coalition politics go – one can assume like with all things South Asian, the opposition will oppose while in opposition, and embrace when in power. We have seen this with drone strikes in Pakistan and with several controversial contracts like the Dabhol Power Project in India, where the opposition railed against them, but once in power embraced or tolerated what had happened.

But India and Pakistan are fundamentally feudal democracies. In India this has meant inordinate power rests with bureaucrats while in Pakistan the army has assumed much more extensive powers. As Sir Ivor Jennings, a British era civil servant, predicted presciently in 1952 that the net result of partition was not a Hindu-Muslim divide, but rather that Pakistan got the army and India got the bureaucracy and these would hang around their necks like a noose. Going by experience and given the Augustan nature (everything revolves around the emperor – but if an emperor is weak the mandarins go off in a tangent) of the Indian Government, any prime minister capable of making peace will also be someone capable of cracking the whip with the mandarins back home.

The military though is a big unknown. Certainly India’s early leaders kept a tight leash on it fearing the coups endemic in developing countries, and doubts have persisted amid the political leadership right upto 2013. How much of this is paranoia and how much of this is real is something that simply isn’t documented well enough to come to any judgement. While on one hand I can personally recollect a handful of seriously scary speeches I’ve heard from some of our top commanders (on military issues – never politics), I have also observed how completely subordinated to civilian authority they are, and kept completely isolated from any aspect of governance and decision making – even security decision making.

For India a peace deal has no significant geopolitical negatives. In fact some of the more innovative solutions I’ve heard (river in lieu of land: give up upper riparian rights on one additional Indus tributary) circumvent the asymmetry of tangibles (land is a tangible, peace is not) that will plague any solution. The worst possible scenario is a continuation of terrorism which India has more or less inured itself to.

The Pakistan army on the other hand looms large in any calculus and has grabbed power on several occasions. But here they would also have a solid case as Pakistan faces a far harder geo-strategic dilemma if it signs a peace deal. For a long time it relied on the United States to achieve qualitative superiority over India’s military and simultaneously on China as a quantity filler and strategic counterbalance in case of a conventional collapse. In effect these were the two pillars of Pakistani security.

Now If it stops being India’s foe, its utility to China is lost. At a time when containing China is the big game, its utility vis-à-vis India to the US is already eroding. At the same time its primary “utility” value to China is by keeping India off balance and the only tool Pakistan has to do this are sub-conventional actors. Yet it is these same sub-conventional actors that are slowly pushing Pakistan and the US towards near total geo-strategic divergence. “Peace” though an intangible in India has massive tangible fallout on Pakistani security as long as they continue to see India as “the enemy” and seek external balancing.

As an Indian though I would ask the question – would a coup in Pakistan really matter? We after all believe that Pakistan is a military state with the façade of civilian governments every now and then for cosmetic effect. In fact a deal with a military dispensation – though lacking in legitimacy, will be far more enforceable than any concluded with a civilian dispensation. But then again said military dispensation might just chicken out and get a civilian government to take over in time to disavow the deal in a later coup.

But then again I’m Indian and quite probably biased.


Posted in , China, Culture, Deterrence, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Negotiations, Nuclear, Nuclear Weapons, Pakistan, Peace, US

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

Abhijit Iyer Mitra

After his B.Com from the University of Madras he pursued a career in the corporate world before turning to academia. He holds a Masters Degree in International Relations from the School of Political & Social Inquiry at Monash University, and is pursuing his PhD. He served as research assistant on several projects all under the aegis of the Centre For Muslim Minorities & Islam Policy Studies at Monash (2007-2010). He is a Programme Coordinator at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and currently a Visiting Research Scholar at Sandia National Laboratories. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not represent any institutional or national position. His primary research is on limited wars and nuclear thresholds, but his interests include, military transformation, defence planning, procurement and offsets, infrastructure, governance and Historical Patterns of Conflict in Democracies. His spare time is spent traveling, cooking, flying microlight aircraft and scuba diving.

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2 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of Peace

  1. Thanks for writing this, Abhijit.

    This is one of my favorite movies. Great actors, great chemistry, great plot, if one will allow the screenwriters artistic license. US and Soviet leaders weren’t about to agree to complete nuclear disarmament (the premise on which the movie’s plot unfolds), but even partial deals during the Cold War were seen in some quarters as the prelude to appeasement, if not abject surrender.

    I think about this movie when I consider how hard it is for Indian and Pakistani leaders to reach a settlement over Kashmir. Most of us can privately agree what the outlines of a settlement would look like — if one will ever be reached. But what would happen to the leaders who would agree to such a settlement?


  2. Thanks for recommending this movie to me Michael! Can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before.

    Personally – and this is a hunch I suspect any Indian leader who signs a deal will meet the same fate as Yitzhak Rabin, and Mohandas Karamchand (though he didn’t hold political office) – That said the fanatic Hindu fringe has proven notoriously incompetent at assassinations and terror plots – unlike Sikh and Tamil extremists as well as whoever killed Benazir Bhutto. On the other hand like the 25th May Naxalite attack that wiped out the entire congress leadership in Chattisgarh state, the Indian security apparatus can be relied on to breach standards, procedures and protocols and make life easy even for incompetent assassins.

    I suspect though for a Pakistani leader if he is civilian he would face a coup, if a military leader a colonels coup – there was certainly a lot of talk about that following the Abbottabad raid, and both would face the wrath of extremists, who seem much better armed and organised than anything I can see here

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