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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Power Dynamics: India, Pakistan and the US

GVS invited Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia program at the Wilson Center and also deputy director of the Asia program, for an exclusive interview. Kugelman is a leading commentator on South Asia who has become a household name in the educated parts of the region generating controversy every time he comments on South Asian issues, both in India and Pakistan.

Editor GVS talks with Michael Kugelman

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Michael, how do you really feel when every time you comment, either you please people in India or you please people in Pakistan?

Michael Kugelman: I guess I could take it as a compliment that a lot of people on both sides of the LOC are paying attention to what I have to say. I actually see it as a reflection of the state of India-Pakistan relations; there is so much polarization. When both sides see someone like me, who is an outside analyst, there is a hope that I will take their side. That does happen to a great extent, but I do not know how successful I am. I studied both countries very closely for quite some time, and I try to be relatively level-headed and balanced in terms of how I look at both, but given how things are these days, I think there is a preference for many that someone like me would side with one over the other because that is how it works. Sometimes, I have to step away from it all, especially on social media, when the crossfire gets to be a bit too much.

I have embraced social media, and I think that there is a lot that is positive about it in terms of using it as a platform to get the word out about one’s views. I would say that I have started to hold back a bit more over the last few months, especially because I think, in both countries, certainly in Pakistan, the environment has become particularly polarized. I have an interest in a lot of different issues in terms of what’s happening domestically in both countries. Social media is an opportunity to sound off and to speak one’s mind, as long as you keep it respectful and civil.

Read more: US offers help to Pakistan in dealing with TTP threat & India

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Why do you think that polarization has increased between India and Pakistan?

Michael Kugelman: I think in terms of polarization, it is much more intense domestically, both in India and Pakistan, than it is between India and Pakistan. We have heard the latest war of words from leaders in both India and Pakistan in recent weeks, but I would argue that things have actually been quite worse at different times, even going back to the Pulwama-Balakot incident. Before that, there have been plenty of times in my view when there has been more bitterness in the relationship than there is now. Not that it is in a good place now, but I do think that the border truce that was concluded by India and Pakistan nearly two years ago brought down tensions a bit to the point that each country could focus on other matters.

If you look at the domestic state of play in both India and Pakistan, that is where I really worry about the polarization. I think that the reason for that is actually the social media effect and the power of certain personalities, who themselves have very strong voices and strong views and use social media to propagate their views. I think this is more of a problem in India. The rhetoric is very sharp and dangerous at times, and I think that plays into the polarization as well. I actually think that if I want to think of the best way to describe the India-Pakistan relationship now, I would say that it is for sure in crisis. Polarization may not be the right word to use there. I think that is much more applicable when looking at the politics, the broader narratives, and the discourse playing out domestically in both countries.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Do you think that there is something happening at the base level of the politics and society in both countries that is contributing to the polarization?

Michael Kugelman: In India, what we have seen since Modi took office is this phenomenon of Hindu nationalism becoming a much bigger priority for the BJP than it had previously been. I think what is even more significant and certainly troubling is the rhetoric, which includes hate speech, and we know that there have been a few leaders who are either members of the BJP or tied to it who have openly called for violence to be used against Muslims. These actions are not condemned from the top. I think that certainly encourages this very dangerous type of rhetoric that goes beyond polarization and runs the risk of really serious communal tensions and communal violence. So, this is certainly something to be concerned about. Part of the issue is that when outside critics bring attention to these things that are going on, there is this sharp pushback from supporters of the government, which is sort of a challenge in itself.

In Pakistan, I think that we are seeing a phenomenon that has been in play for quite some time, and I think that politics has been polarized for many years, just because you have the same personalities and the same families duking it out rhetorically. I would argue that Imran Khan’s true arrival on the political stage in 2018, when he became prime minister after a number of years in opposition, has contributed to Pakistan’s polarization because he has been very sharp in his rhetoric, accusing his political rivals of being corrupt crooks, traitors, and so on. That has led to certain types of responses from the current government. Right now, we have seen this unfortunate dynamic of the current government cracking down against a number of allies of Khan.

Another thing that I think is quite striking is that the journalism field in Pakistan and India as well, to an extent, is very politicized. So, you have some very prominent voices that are meant to be telling the news and reporting on it, and instead, they taking very partisan positions, either occupying one side of the spectrum or the other. Many of them are prominent on social media, and that sort of adds to this polarization as well. It is all very complicated.

Read more: US defends arms sales to Pakistan following criticism from India

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Journalists in India do not fear for their lives, and you would not expect prominent television anchors to be gunned down, imprisoned, or flee the country. Something like that has never happened in my memory in India in recent years.

Michael Kugelman: The environment for the press in Pakistan has always been quite tenuous. We have seen over many years that those journalists who happen to be critical of the state face threats. I think that if you trust the international or the Global Press Freedom rankings, India’s government does not agree with these metrics, but if you look at those measures, it does suggest that press freedoms in India have declined significantly over the last few years. The journalists who are the most critical of the ruling party and the government are the ones who are troubled the most. I think in Pakistan, freedom of the press has long been a concern.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Many people in Pakistan feel that the State Department and Washington have not taken a strong position on what happened in Pakistan to the media and to politics in the last nine to ten months. What do you think about that?

Michael Kugelman: That is a good point. I think, when I think of how the US government has responded to concerns about press freedom issues in Pakistan, you are right. It was certainly not a priority issue for the US government in previous years, but it was certainly brought up. If the US government wants to be consistent about this principle, and certainly the Biden administration has emphasized or prioritized this idea of promoting rights and freedoms, values, and democracy overseas, I will say that to be very honest, Pakistan is not really a top priority for the Biden administration right now. So, it may be considering concerns about press freedoms in other countries around the world, but perhaps not Pakistan, simply because it is not a priority in this day and age.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: It is very interesting when you say Pakistan is not the top priority. What do you believe happened in January 2021 when Pakistan abruptly dropped out of the US spotlight, despite the fact that Pakistan was engaged in reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban at the time? Regardless, President Biden never found the time to receive the congratulatory call from Prime Minister Imran Khan, and this led to much speculation and controversy arising afterward.

Michael Kugelman: President Biden does not strike me as the type of president who would pick up the phone and call a prime minister or president in another country just to have a call; there would have to be something very specific to discuss. The administration was well on its way out of Afghanistan, and the US was in the driver’s seat. The agreement with the Taliban was a bilateral agreement between the Trump administration and the US government in general, and Pakistan had no direct role. The US was focused on its withdrawal under Biden, and there was really no reason to see Pakistan as playing a big role in that. So, the US was on its way out, and Biden made a decision pretty soon after he took office that he was going to pull out of Afghanistan and honor the Doha agreement with the Taliban. When things went bad during those last few weeks of the withdrawal, things got really chaotic, and the Taliban took over. The response from Islamabad, and specifically from Imran Khan himself, did not go over very well. That could be another reason why Biden would not have been especially inclined to give Khan a call.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Imran began accusing the existence of the cipher from Donald Liu, and he accused the US of meddling and attempting to destabilize his government. So, how big an issue is this in Washington with the Biden administration? Khan subsequently said that he has moved beyond this and that it is not important anymore because the relationship between the US and Pakistan is far more important. How would the possible return of Khan in the next election play out in Washington?

Michael Kugelman: This is someone who publicly and repeatedly accused the Biden administration of being behind the effort to oust Con. He was essentially repeatedly accusing the Biden administration of helping overthrow him, and this is an allegation that the US government has rejected again and again. If you think about it very logically, could you really expect the Biden administration to suddenly sort of just move beyond that and be willing to engage with the leader who had openly accused them of trying to overthrow him? I think that is unlikely. My understanding is that there had been some efforts on the part of Khan’s political allies and those within his party to try to patch things up with the administration. I am not sure if that is true or how successful it will be.

My sense is that Khan and his public speeches and messaging over the last few months have actually been much more muted on that issue. He has not really been referring as much to a US role in his ouster. And perhaps that is his way of trying to de-escalate the situation.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What do you think Khan, his party, his supporters, or lobbyists should do to improve the bridges between him and the Biden administration?

Michael Kugelman: The first step is the obvious one, which is to just stop with the rhetoric about US conspiracy and regime change. I do not think that it would be realistic to expect Khan to say that it was a mistake for him to use that rhetoric, especially if he actually still believes that to be true, but I think just having that narrative stop, at least in public messaging, would certainly help him. I believe that his broader critiques of US policy and things that people in Washington can live with are justified, simply because Khan is not the only one who is harshly critical of US policy. I think that there is a misunderstanding and an inaccurate view that is put out there by some critics of Khan, that he’s hostile to America. My understanding is that Khan is not anti-American, although he is very critical of many US policies. I think it would be important for him to make clear that despite what he said about US policy, he welcomes a relationship with the United States, as long as that’s true, and making that separation, I think, could be very, very useful.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Khan was able to strike a reasonably good equation with former President Donald Trump but has failed in doing the same with the new administration. What do you think about that?

Michael Kugelman: That equation was quite transactional. The only reason you had such a nice rapport was that the US had to do what was necessary to get out of Afghanistan. Pakistan needed to be appealed to for assistance in helping bring the Taliban to the table to begin talks with the US focused on the US withdrawal. Trump reached out to Khan to help them in that regard. When Trump first came into office, he said all kinds of nasty things about Pakistan. He suspended security aid, which remains suspended. Unfortunately, it says something about the reality of this being a transactional relationship at the end of the day.

Read more: US encourages for productive Pakistan-India relations

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: In April, William Burns, the director of the CIA, visited Afghanistan and Pakistan. He wanted to meet Imran Khan but Imran Khan turned down the offer. How do you look at that?

Michael Kugelman: I do not know why Khan decided not to meet with him, maybe keeping in mind domestic political concerns. If the word got out, it would not look good for him to be meeting with the CIA director. Any type of dialogue is good, and indeed, I think it is true that in the relatively short period of time that Khan’s term as prime minister coincided with the Biden administration, there was not all that much direct engagement between Khan and senior US officials. I think that it would have been a good thing. One could also ask, should the CIA director not be meeting with his counterpart in Pakistan instead of Khan? I do not want to speculate, but I think it goes back to what I said before, namely, that many US officials believe and have believed for quite some time that when it is time to have important engagements with Pakistan, especially on issues related to something like Afghanistan or something like security more broadly, that maybe it is best to talk to other counter-interlocutors who would be in a better position to get things done, e.g., the army chief or others in the security establishment. We know that for much of Khan’s term as Prime Minister, he had a pretty good relationship with the security establishment. So, that raises the question of if they are all working together, what is the difference?

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Moving on to Afghanistan, how do you see the future of the Taliban regime in the Islamic Emirate?

Michael Kugelman: The government is in no immediate danger of collapsing. The Taliban now control almost 100 percent of the Afghan land, which was not the case back in the 1990s when they controlled 10 percent of the land. However, the Taliban is certainly under some pressure. One of the biggest threats to the Taliban is from within, as there is internal division among the Taliban leadership that does not agree with many of Akhunzada’s new policy decisions. There is a humanitarian crisis going on in Afghanistan, while the ISKP is also a looming threat to the Taliban. With the latest developments, if Pakistan carries out cross-border operations to attack TTP bases, it would also cause an escalation in tensions between the Afghan Taliban and Islamabad. This would also affect the Taliban’s attempt to gain legitimacy.

However, the Taliban are in power, and there is no immediate threat to their power. Armed resistance against the Taliban has been ineffective thus far, but if other factors intervene, they may be able to counter the Taliban.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Is there any appetite in Washington to get rid of the Afghan Taliban?

Michael Kugelman: No, I do not think so. The United States has washed its hands of Afghanistan and moved on. The only focus is on terrorism risks and trying to deliver humanitarian assistance. The US does not see the Afghan Taliban as a terrorist threat, even though it is a problematic entity that is in control. The US is more focused on ISK and Al-Qaeda, but the notion of the US working with anti-Taliban groups to remove the Taliban from power is, in my view, wrong. The only way the US would return to Afghanistan is if something similar to the 9/11 attacks occurred.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Imran Khan was seen as an extension of the Pakistani establishment by the New Delhi establishment. Things went very badly between the PTI and BJP, and even after Imran Khan’s ouster, anti-Imran sentiments remain in India. How do you see this?

Michael Kugelman: For many Indians, Khan has been perceived as being very close to the military. You make a fair point that now that Khan has fallen out with the establishment, why does New Delhi still see Khan as a threat? I am not sure. Although I do think that Khan’s admiration for India’s foreign policy, especially towards Russia, is striking, Khan thinks that India has handled Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in ways that he wishes Pakistan could have handled them, by staying neutral. That, in my view, has not had any effect on how he is viewed in India. There are longstanding linkages between Khan and India from when he was a cricketer, so the relationship is very complex. At the individual level, there is potential for the relationship.

Read more: China backed Indian move of keeping Pakistan out of the BRICS plus event

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Modi government has settled Kashmir on its own terms, so what stops Pakistan and India from coming closer now?

Michael Kugelman: For me, Pakistan does not agree with India’s settlement of Kashmir. It remains a dispute. Particularly since India revoked Article 370, it has become clear to Pakistan’s political and strategic elite that Kashmir is a major issue between the two countries. “Kashmir is the jugular vein of Pakistan” shows how big of an issue this area is, and we are not going to see Pakistan bury the hatchet and move on. Besides Kashmir, there are also constraints and mistrust between the two. The ideology of the Modi government has worsened the issue.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Do you see the Rahul Gandhi Movement making any difference in Indian dynamics?

Michael Kugelman: It makes sense that, given how troubled things are in India, it is nice to see a feel-good story. However, the popularity of the BJP and Modi is so high in India that Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to improve the standing of Congress might not have had a big impact. One of the biggest accusations against Rahul Gandhi was that he is out of touch and is just a typical dynast, but here he is, walking across the country with the Indian people. This is helpful for him but not for his party’s electoral prospects.


You can watch the full interview here