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Stephen P. Cohen

Review by
Ifrah Waqar

The book titled “Shooting for a Century: The India-Pakistan Conundrum” by Stephen P. Cohen makes a detailed study of the history of conflicts between Pakistan and India, their explanation, American interests and prospects in the region. The author has suggested that Pakistan-India rivalry is likely to continue for several more decades even a “century”, and full normalization between the two countries seems impossible. He further speculates that out of the two countries, Pakistan seems to be the possible contender which might disintegrate or fragment owing up to the on-going conflicts in the country, and the result might end up as a catastrophic event in the form of a fully-blown nuclear war between Pakistan and India.

Contrary to the already existing literature available on Pakistan-India relations, Mr. Stephen Cohen has presented another narrative from the perspective of all stakeholders involved and has suggested possible scenarios of how the future might shape. He has at many places put up the rationale of the current status-quo continuing to exist between Pakistan and India; declaring it to be the best state of normalization that the countries can achieve.

Mr. Cohen has succinctly narrated the historical background of Pakistan and India since 1947 and their positions vis-à-vis each other. He has also successfully shed light at the two schools of thought in both the countries, and how their views about the other country have shaped the foreign policies of the respective countries. The governments of both the countries have succumbed in one way or the other when these groups have built up domestic pressure and it has shown in the policy posture of Pakistan and India.

The author has given a detailed account of the disputes and issues that exist between the two countries which include the Kashmir dispute, the water issue and the Siachen Glacier. He has also included the issues of nuclearisation of both countries and the issue of Islamic extremism pertaining to the topic of conflicts which exist between the two countries.

The topic of contemporary conflicts which exist between the two countries is then discussed. Mr. Cohen has dismissed any acts of vivisecting Pakistan by India like the one that happened in 1971. He has said that acquiring of nuclear status by the two countries has put a full-stop to such acts, and the two countries cannot afford adventures like these as the stakes are too high now.

Mr. Stephen Cohen has categorized the relation between Islamabad and New Delhi to be under the influence of “Westphalian issues” which has dominated the dialogue process between the two. These issues include sovereignty, terrorism, propaganda campaigns against each other and reluctance to hold negotiations. He has given six accounts of the Pakistan-India rivalry which include civilizational clash, state identity, the Kashmir dispute, power politics rivalry, enmity based on the psychological abnormalities of the other side, and a feeling of hostility and antagonism based towards each other created by the third or outside powers. He has termed the existing conflicts between Pakistan and India as intractable.

The author has then given an account of the attempts made to normalize relations between the two countries. He has elaborated on the role of Track II diplomacy and has highlighted the unofficial attempts and the role of back-channels to initiate secret talks on sensitive issues like the nuclear programme to ease the global fears of a possible nuclear war occurring between the two. He has also shed light on the role of third parties who have intervened in the matters of the two countries and have played their part over the years.

American interests and policies are discussed by the author in detail. He has said that the United States perhaps cannot do much about the identity issues between the two, but it can definitely play its role as far as trade and economic cooperation are concerned. He, however, has said the U.S. can perhaps play its role for cooperation on strategic issues, but only in Afghanistan and not in solving the sensitive Kashmir dispute.

Mr Cohen has discussed the recent U.S. Policies towards India and Pakistan which include a Comprehensive South Asia Policy, the necessity for the U.S. to recognize the importance to ensure normalization of relationship between the two nuclear states in South Asia without being in the colonial past, or be too deeply involved in the process of normalization. He has advised the U.S. policy-makers to do something to normalize the relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, but not to do harm.  It is important that the pace and terms of cooperation are set and pursued by the two instead of the United States.


Pakistan and India’s relations have always existed in a paradox. The two countries have been a victim of colonialism and have been historically hostile towards each other. International events such as the Cold War politics have had deep impact on the psyche of these two countries and the two perceive each other as rivals. Mr. Cohen has, in detail, documented the history between Pakistan and India and the bottom-line of his historical documentation stands at the point that the rivalry between the two countries will continue to exist, and perhaps the best stage of normalization between the two is if the status-quo continues to prevail. He has advised the Americans to have a long-term policy in South Asia and has always suggested that China should be involved in the dialogue process between the two countries. Furthermore, he has given his suggestion that the Line of Control in Kashmir should be changed into a permanent border.

The author has also advised the U.S. to extend cooperation between Islamabad and India on the issue of Afghanistan, but has neglected to mention the insecurities and mistrust that exist amid the policy-makers in Islamabad towards the role of India in Afghanistan. The book aims to explain the existing rivalry between the two countries, but ends up in giving partisan recommendations to solve the existing disputes and crises. Furthermore, Mr. Cohen has focused on Pakistan’s internal fissure points and has predicted that, sooner or later, the country is going to disintegrate, but has not mentioned similar problems faced by India like the Maoist insurgency. A few statements made by the author are untrue. Like, he has said Allama Iqbal studied at Aligarh University and that the Dawoodi Bohras are “persecuted violently” in Pakistan. These assertions are far from the truth.

All in all, Mr Stephen Cohen’s book is an interesting narrative of the Pakistan-India history. It is an informative read and should be read by the students of history and international relations as that would be beneficial for understanding the outstanding issues and disputes between the two countries.

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