Michael KreponTrack II

Lyric of the week:

People get ready, there’s a train to Jordan
Picking up passengers coast to coast
Faith is the key, open the doors and board them
There’s hope for all among those loved the most

There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind
Just to save his own (believe me now)
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there is no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne

So people get ready there’s a train comin’…  — Curtis Mayfield

My first experiences with Track II workshops were in the Soviet Union during the Reagan administration, where I made lasting friendships with American participants, including Dan Caldwell, Joe Collins and Kim Holmes. I also learned things about the USSR that were not in textbooks. When my attention shifted to South Asia, it was therefore a no brainer to try to bring Indians and Pakistanis together by means of Track II programming.

In the early 1990s, I helped Chris Smith and Steve Cohen convene talented young strategic analysts at wonderful places like the Neemrana Fort and Murree. This was a time when it was possible to obtain visas for rising talent — although not without hassles — so that Indians could have their first experience in Pakistan and vice versa. Talk about learning experiences. Nowadays, most Track II workshops are held in third countries because of visa issues.

The Stimson Center also convened distinguished “exes” from India and Pakistan — mostly retired diplomats and military officers. All of the confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures agreed to by the governments of India and Pakistan after the initial decision to exchange lists of nuclear facilities (negotiated in 1988) were bruited about in Track II meetings, having been proposed earlier by Stimson and others.

The best Track IIs introduce sensitive subjects. If I’m not mistaken, the very first collaborative conversations about the potential consequences of nuclear accidents and limited nuclear weapons’ use on the subcontinent — subjects beyond the pale of Track I discussions — took place in 2002-2003 at Track II meetings convened by Stimson. The publication from these workshops, “Reducing Nuclear Dangers in South Asia” (January 2004) is still worth a look. We were far ahead of the curve back then, and still waiting for the curve to catch up.

There are obvious ways to increase the probability of a successful Track II workshop. Rule #1: Nothing is more important than choosing participants wisely. The setting can help set the mood. Formality doesn’t help, and tone is crucial. The framing of the discussion can either create obstacles or remove them. Ground rules need to be set. But at the end of the day, a Track II workshop is only as good as the people sitting around the table. Track II workshops with the same familiar faces and interventions can quickly grow stale. Changing the cast of characters to include new faces while providing for some continuity is usually a good idea. Nothing deflates a Track II workshop more than the recitation of talking points. The best Track IIs are on subjects where talking points have yet to be well developed.

Nobody bats 1.000 with participants. I recall vividly to this day a very distinguished Indian diplomat sitting apart from his deliberative colleagues, quite ostentatiously reading the newspaper. He was extremely plugged in, which was why he was invited, but disdainful of the exercise. On the flip side, professional relationships can be deepened at Track II workshops. One of my favorite memories occurred while touring Blenheim, the Duke of Marlborough’s immense rock pile outside of Oxford, with General V.R. Raghavan and others in our party. (Scheduling breaks outside of the venue of Track II workshops is usually a good idea.) Raghavan, a keen military historian and a mentor, walked me through the prints hanging on the walls of old battles between British troops and their unruly colonial subjects on the subcontinent. Docents and audio-phone tours of the Palace are unlikely to convey his accounts.

Formulaic Track II meetings attract some scorn. They can be easily derided as boondoggles for retirees, where the same familiar faces exchange the same thoughts in pleasant locales far removed from intractable politics and bureaucratic rigidities. I recall one assessment of Track II workshops by a very capable Indian analyst that concluded that nothing much came of them. Well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. If Track II workshops haven’t accomplished much beside the far-too-limited list of CBMs and NRRMs, it’s because Indian and Pakistani leaders haven’t felt compelled to do more or better.

Stimson’s focus is now once again to engage rising strategic analysts, of which there is no shortage, in Track II workshops. This programming element constitutes part of a larger vision to foster a community of expertise and creativity among those willing to commit to pragmatic idealism. Another important means of doing so is South Asian Voices, Stimson’s online magazine that is blissfully free of canned content and which has recently reached one million page views.

The “exes” still have gainful employment in Track II fora, to be sure. Zach Davis and Feroz Khan have brought together retired US and Pakistani naval officers to discuss issues relating to deploying nuclear weapons at sea, a topic much in need of exploration. Table Top exercises, where retired military officers and diplomats consider next moves in periods of high tension and conflict initiation can provide more insight and value than the traditional Track II format.

Another convener, Peter Jones, has midwifed a rewarding collaboration between two fixtures of the Track II scene, A.S. Dulat and Asad Durrani. I recommend their book in the form of conversations moderated by Aditya Sinha, Spy Chronicles: RAW, ISI and the Illusion of Peace (Harper Collins, 2018). There are insights aplenty within these pages, as well as educated guesses that seem mostly true.

One big exception, in my view, is their common assumption that there was Pakistani collaboration in carrying out the Osama bin Laden raid. Given the level of mistrust between Washington and Islamabad/Rawalpindi, and thus the disinclination to share super-secret plans with those widely assumed to be playing double games, I find this hard to believe. Dulat and Durrani rely far too heavily on Sy Hersh’s account, whose familiarity and sources within the region could be better.

Spy Chronicles has stirred a tempest in a teapot for General Durrani, whose candor occasionally gets him in hot water. He has what many senior serving officers lack — a well-honed sense of international politics. Insularity has been and can again be the Achilles heel of Pakistan’s military leaders, which makes the Trump administration’s decision to exclude Pakistani officers from training billets at US military/academic institutions immensely unwise. Reporting from Track II workshops can help only marginally in opening apertures.

When done right, Track II workshops allow participants to entertain the possible and rethink assumptions. There’s always value in generating creative ideas for when the time is ripe and political leaders are granted sufficient space to implement them. There is no shortage of “old” ideas that still await implementation, and the list of new, creative ideas to reduce dangers and improve ties between India and Pakistan continues to grow. For those interested, Stimson has an Off Ramps Initiative where strategic analysts have proposed dozens of ideas worthy of consideration by the new leadership pairing of Narendra Modi and Imran Khan.