With Friends Like These: On Pakistan
The Pakistani Taliban—which is independent of the Afghan Taliban, more closely allied with Al Qaeda and, unlike its Afghan counterparts, fights against both the Americans next door and Pakistani forces at home—set off waves of suicide bombs in Pakistan. The Pakistani soldiers tasked with fighting these insurgents became increasingly reluctant to engage the enemy. Meanwhile, US troops on the Afghan border reported that artillery assaults were coming from Pakistan’s military positions across the border; a New York Times reporter even witnessed such an attack. The Afghan government also reported numerous incidents of artillery and rocket fire from Pakistan landing in Afghanistan and killing civilians. By July 2011, the United States retaliated by suspending $800 million in military aid to Pakistan.
In mid-September 2011, commandos from the Haqqani network—an Afghan insurgent force allied with the Taliban and closely linked to the ISI—attacked the US embassy in downtown Kabul. For nineteen hours, the militants shot RPGs and rockets at the compound while gun battles raged all around; twenty-seven people were killed and nineteen wounded. A week later, Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate that the ISI had provided assistance for the assault.
Late in 2011, an American airstrike on the Salala border post killed twenty-four Pakistani soldiers. Eventually called a mistake by the United States, the action was initially described by the US military as an extended exchange of fire between US and Pakistani soldiers in positions along the border. The US airstrikes were called in not by mistake, but to support US troops in the firefight.
In retaliation, Pakistan allowed militants to attack and burn NATO fuel convoys. Then, for much of 2012, Pakistan simply closed its Afghan border to NATO’s resupply convoys. This was a serious maneuver; typically, more than 80 percent of NATO’s Afghan supplies arrive by way of the Pakistani border. The blockade forced the Afghan occupation to resupply in a much more costly fashion through Russia and Central Asia. Pakistan also demanded an end to drone attacks and told the CIA to vacate the Shamsi air base, in Baluchistan, from which it had been conducting strikes. After some haggling, the CIA scaled back its missions but still uses drones in Afghanistan. The crisis began to cool down only in July 2012 when then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a public apology for the twenty-four Pakistani soldiers “mistakenly” killed by American planes. Soon after, Pakistan lifted its blockade on NATO convoys.
Afghans, suffering the effects of the war, are very aware of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban, and of the United States’ support for Pakistan, and are thus sometimes—and rather understandably—prone to spinning wild conspiracy theories that seek to make these contradictions appear logical. But they are not. The situation is out of control. US imperialism is often violent and oppressive by intention. How else can one describe the bloody proxy wars fought against various left-wing governments in Latin America during the 1980s? But the slow and steady destabilization of Pakistan by the United States—on the one hand bombing it, while on the other hand feeding its corrupt political class, its military and spies, who in turn feed the country’s paramilitary religious fanatics—is a confused and failing policy no matter how one measures it.
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In describing the disintegrating US-Pakistan strategic partnership, Rashid argues that Pakistan is sinking deeper into a general society-wide crisis. But his reluctance to analyze the country’s internal politics, such as class tensions in the countryside or interprovincial political conflict, leaves Pakistan on the Brink vulnerable to criticism. Fatima Bhutto, niece of martyred former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, wrote in a review of the book in The Guardian that its “central fault is that Rashid’s teleology is dedicatedly western.” Tariq Ali, quoted by Bhutto, has disparaged Rashid as a “prize cock of the US defense establishment and videosphere.” But in his book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power (2008), Ali tells a similar story about Pakistan’s double dealing with the United States, albeit in a different tone. He quotes Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the president of Pakistan from 2001 to 2008, telling Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, “You are far too aggressive with the Americans. Do as I do. Accept what they say and do as you want.” Ali even suggests that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was investigating ISI terror connections when he traveled to Karachi in early 2002, and that the man who orchestrated his kidnapping there had a relationship with Pakistani intelligence.
As Ali suggests, in print Rashid can sound as if he is a consultant to US foreign policy elites, and he does enjoy basking in the warm glow of TV studio spotlights. As for his frequent name-dropping, at least it leaves no doubt about his close proximity to powerful figures like Karzai and the late Richard Holbrooke. But despite regularly dining with Karzai (and mentioning this in his books), Rashid describes the Afghan president for what he is: corrupt, delusional and paranoid. As for the aloof Obama and his policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, Rashid says the “administration has failed to debate a single issue in a strategic manner. As always with this administration, everything is held in tight secrecy even though debates on matters like this ought to take place in the open.” He describes the president’s inner circle as deeply divided between “hard-liners within Congress, the military, and even the State Department” who want to continue fighting the Taliban, and others who want peace talks to get moving more quickly.
For Pakistani political elites, Rashid explains, America’s confused, unarticulated and ineffective policy is deeply destabilizing. “Part of the tension between the United States and Pakistan is related to the short-term aims of the United States, which wants Pakistan’s help up to 2014 in delivering a safe U.S. troop withdrawal.” The Obama administration’s refusal to sketch “what policies it will pursue after 2014” in Afghanistan—for instance, whether there will be a political settlement with the Taliban—only serves to complicate questions about the region’s stability.
Rashid notes that the core piece of the regional puzzle is Pakistan, because its “geostrategic location, its nuclear weapons, its large population, its terrorist camps, and its enfeebled economy and policy make it more important—and more vulnerable—than even Afghanistan.” But Pakistan’s security elites remain preoccupied with resisting India, a strategy that is one part atomic buildup, one part conventional military face-off, and one part asymmetrical terror campaign using assets that the Pakistani state does not always fully control. “As long as the ISI protects key Afghan insurgent groups,” writes Rashid, “a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan is out of the question, and the deepening of democracy and economic reform in Pakistan has no chance.”
To emphasize that a crisis born of foreign relations can threaten the very stability of the state, Rashid quotes the eminent Pakistani historian Farzana Shaikh: “Pakistan is, of course, no stranger to chaos. But what makes this moment in Pakistan’s history exceptional is the threat it is seen to pose, simultaneously to the security of its own citizens, to the welfare of its regional neighbors, and to the stability of the wider international community. These new concerns bear little or no comparison to the more ‘contained’ moments of chaos that have scarred Pakistan.”
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