If you wanted a vivid sense of the scene in 1980s Pakistan and Afghanistan when the United States was sponsoring the mujahideen insurgency against the USSR, you could not have done better than read Robert D. Kaplan’s Soldiers of God (1990). Kaplan was there, met everyone, and captured the atmosphere better than any of his contemporaries.
The celebrated and prolific national correspondent for The Atlantic has in recent years become similarly indispensable for his dispatches from the remote corners of the world where America’s elite forces have been prosecuting the conflict formerly known as the War on Terror. These pieces of reportage have been collected in his fine albeit embarrassingly titled book Imperial Grunts (2005) and its sequel, Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts (2007). Kaplan has also tried his hand at Thomas Friedman–style analysis and prediction, with such titles as The Coming Anarchy: Shattering the Dreams of the Post Cold War (2000) and Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos (2001). These are mostly padded-out essays, but stimulating nonetheless, and they tend to be much better informed about the on-ground reality of troubled foreign parts than the competition. Then there are Kaplan’s travel books, including The Ends of the Earth (1997) and Eastward to Tartary (2000). These are more or less in that classic British travelogue style, in which an intrepid writer goes to remote places, takes picturesque forms of local transport, and uses his adventures as pegs for breezy lessons in local history and culture and some trenchant political observation.
Kaplan brings to all his works a combination of field experience and historical awareness that is almost unique among American reporter/commentators of his generation. Indeed, with the exception of the great Ralph Peters — who has the advantage of two decades in U.S. Army intelligence work — there is arguably no one writing for mainstream publications with a better-informed sense of military and strategic realities of whole sections of the globe. Moreover, unlike almost all the grand reporters and columnists employed by the mainstream U.S. press, Kaplan is refreshingly pro-American and pro-military.
All of these qualities and past achievements make the mess that is Monsoon all the more mysterious and disappointing. The book satisfies neither as a travel book nor as a serious effort to explain the increasing strategic importance of a fascinating but ill-defined region. Kaplan fails to make his fuzzy and portentous case that
the Indian Ocean region is more than just a stimulating geography. It is an idea because it provides an insightful visual impression of Islam, and combines the centrality of Islam with global energy politics and the importance of world navies, in order to show us a multi-layered, multi-polar world above and beyond the headlines in Iraq and Afghanistan; it is also an idea because it allows us to see the world whole, within a very new and yet very old framework.
The only clear and cohesive argument Kaplan makes amidst a mishmash of anecdotes and superficial, undigested history lessons could be summarized in one sentence: China and India are rising and rivalrous naval powers, and the Indian Ocean is strategically vital to the U.S, so it is vital for Americans to know a bit about the countries of South Asia and East Africa.
Kaplan offers a “strategic overview” of the region, followed by visits to ports of call in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Oman, and Tanzania. This material ought to be consistently interesting, but there are few of the provocative insights to be found in Kaplan’s best work. Indeed, much of Monsoon reads like an undergraduate term paper. Kaplan lards his text with dull citations of textbooks and experts, perhaps to give an impression of authoritativeness: “As the late Belgian scholar Charles Verlinden once noted,” he writes, “the Indian Ocean ‘is surrounded by not less than thirty-seven countries representing a third of the world’s population.’” Unfortunately, despite all the referencing, Kaplan’s sense of the region’s past and present often turns out to be surprisingly shallow. The only place in the book where a newspaper reader with even an amateur interest in Asia might find something fresh is in a good chapter on Bangladesh.
#page#Worse, it feels as though the rickety overarching arguments are there only to link otherwise unconnected essays. The pretense that everywhere he went on assignment is relevant to his theorizing leads to absurd or meaningless assertions, such as the claim that Burma “provides a code for understanding the world to come,” or that Sri Lanka is “the ultimate register of geopolitical trends in the Indian Ocean region.” Or, even worse, that “Bangladesh is a perfect microcosm of the perils of democracy in the developing world because it is not a spectacular failure like post-invasion Iraq, but one typical of many other places.”
Some of the mistakes that dot the book could have been avoided by a ten-second Internet search. For instance, it is not true that British civilian rule before Pakistani independence “extended only to Lahore”: The rule of the Indian Civil Service went out as far north and west as Peshawar.
The mistakes of fact, and the clunky prose, are all the more regrettable in that they distract from some of the genuinely fascinating encounters Kaplan had. Among them was a meeting in Karachi with leaders of the Baluchi nationalist movement. The Baluch tribes have the misfortune to be ruled from Tehran, Islamabad, and Kabul, and their appeals for autonomy have traditionally been responded to with artillery or aerial bombardment. Yet their power in strategically important and mineral-rich areas of Pakistan means that they will play a key role in its future — so it is disturbing when one of their leaders tells Kaplan that the pipelines that the Chinese plan to build from the new port of Gwadar will never be safe from Baluchi guerrilla attack, and that they will never cease fighting the “occupation” maintained by Pakistan’s “Punjabi army” and “the American imperialists.”
The failure of Monsoon is also unfortunate because the Indian Ocean region has indeed become once again a vital area of trade and a potential theater of conflict. The maritime commerce between the Middle East, South Asia, and China may well change our world. Whether or not that change will be peaceful depends greatly on the relationships China and India enjoy with each other and with the U.S.
A yet more serious problem is Kaplan’s evident unfamiliarity with the region’s biggest country, India. Indeed, as an illustration of the dangers of the parachute method of foreign-policy analysis (read some textbooks, then dash in for a chat with local officials), you could not do much better than Monsoon’s Indian chapters.
The assumption of many American commentators that India is a natural, inevitable ally of the U.S. is a mistaken one, and one that Kaplan should have learned enough to discard. It is a mistake not because, as Kaplan says, India has “an independent streak,” but because India’s ruling elite is still suffused with the anti-Americanism that informed founding prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. It is also because, to a startling and perhaps ridiculous degree, India already sees herself as a rival of the U.S.
Nor should we underestimate the ongoing strength of Russian influence in India. Almost everyone at the top of India’s intelligence and security bureaucracies came of age during the high point of Soviet influence, when the KGB’s largest foreign HQ was still in New Delhi, and its agents were in the habit of delivering suitcases of cash to Mrs. Gandhi’s house for use in Congress-party election campaigns. And though their time will soon pass, the country’s strategic éminences grises are still obsessed with Nixon’s support for Pakistan during the 1971 war with India, including the threatening dispatch of the U.S.S. Enterprise into the Bay of Bengal.
#page#You might think that the Chinese threat — and in particular the so-called string of pearls, the naval bases that China is building in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Burma — would push India into America’s arms. But if you read Indian discussion of the country’s naval and nuclear doctrine, much of it is about deterring the U.S.; and when Indian generals and admirals use the word “encirclement,” they tend to be referring to America, not to China. Puffed up with talk of India’s becoming a “superpower,” many senior Indian military officers see the Gulf and Central Asia as India’s sphere of influence and America’s presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan as evidence of a jealous plan to cramp India’s rise. They particularly resent our presence in Afghanistan, even though that very presence is taken by elements in Pakistan as proof that America is treacherously furthering India’s interests in Kabul.
This does not mean that India and America might not become close allies; it does mean that America faces enormously complicated challenges in the region, and that it will need to retain or even bolster its military and naval power if it is to retain respect and influence there. Moreover, to use that power effectively, U.S. officials will also have to develop a far better understanding of the subcontinent.
Kaplan has moments in which he discerns the current or potential problems and instability that lie behind the tendentious clichés of India as a nascent superpower, as the world’s largest democracy, and as the home of a 200 million–strong “middle class.” But he goes on at excessive length about Hindu fundamentalism and the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, and seems almost completely unaware of the real threat to India’s progress presented by the country’s many serious internal armed insurgencies. The most dangerous of these, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has admitted, is the Maoist “Naxalite” insurgency that rages in a wide “Red Belt” reaching all the way from the Nepalese border in the North to the outskirts of Bangalore in the South. These Maoists are estimated to have a significant degree of control in more than 150 of the country’s 626 districts, and if they were to start operating in the cities, India could start looking like the Indochina of the early Sixties. The fact that all of this and much else besides has somehow slipped past Kaplan shows that he has not yet paid sufficient attention to the realities of this region to be the guide that America’s diplomats and strategists will need.
– Mr. Foreman, a writer at large for Standpoint magazine, is based in London and New Delhi.