With Friends Like These: On Pakistan

With Friends Like These: On Pakistan

Ahmed Rashid’s gloomy, essential account of the divisive US-Pakistan alliance.


It’s best not to dwell too much on Pakistan, or at least Ahmed Rashid’s description of it in Pakistan on the Brink, because the conclusions are so grim. Consider the variables: there are at least three civil wars being fought in the country, which has an arsenal of around 100 atomic weapons and is manufacturing more. Its military and intelligence services have cultivated religious extremists and terrorists as policy proxies for nearly sixty years, and have now lost control of some of them. The social capacities of the government’s civilian branches are minimal; its bureaucracies are largely unable or unwilling to do the economic planning and development necessary to meet the basic needs of the world’s sixth-most-populous nation. Its economic growth is only about half that of Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, and is generally well below half of the typical growth rates in India; consequently, its economy can’t create enough work for its “youth bulge” (35 percent of Pakistanis are below the age of 15). The country’s political class is composed mostly of reactionary landlords who steal from the public coffers and oppose meaningful social reform. In 2011, more than two-thirds of Pakistani lawmakers—rich men, mostly—did not even bother with the pretense of filing income taxes. The president, Asif Ali Zardari, was among them.

Karachi, the country’s largest city, is a place of walled compounds, open sewers, traffic jams and a wave of increasingly violent crime. The killing takes various forms: simple brigandry, wanton police brutality against civilians, and warfare between the extra-parliamentary wings of the ethnically based political parties, with underground gangs from the urban Baluch and Pashtun parties fighting the Mohajirs (descendants of refugees from India) of the mighty MQM, the city’s dominant party. And increasingly, the violence involves Sunni fundamentalists exterminating Shiite civilians, who account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people. A recent bombing in Baluchistan, which is plagued by a separatist rebellion and a sectarian terror campaign, killed more than eighty Shiites.

What Rashid has written is not a profile of Pakistan but rather a gloomy account of the messy disintegration of the messier United States–Pakistan alliance, the axis of which runs through Afghanistan, a country that for Pakistan’s elites is a battleground on which to fight their great rival, India. Rashid argues that because of the military’s dominant role in Pakistan’s society and economy, the country’s external and security relations are more important than is the case for many other states. “No longer is foreign policy a reflection of domestic policy and the pursuit of peace in the region,” he writes. “Instead foreign policy towards Afghanistan is further undermining domestic stability, making internal contradictions and conflicts worse and intensifying the conflict between civilian power and the military.”

Relations between imperial overlords and colonial vassals have always involved a mix of cooperation and conflict, but the level of mutual dependence and open hostility between Pakistan and the United States is exceptional. From 2001 to 2010, the United States—which was largely reliant on Pakistani spies to accomplish anything on the ground in Afghanistan—sent $14.4 billion in military aid to Pakistan, ostensibly for helping it fight the “war on terror” and secure the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the Pakistani military and its spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), did the opposite, Rashid has explained. After 9/11, they worked through religious NGOs and colleges and the Frontier Corps police force to shelter and help relaunch the Taliban. More recently, US soldiers fighting along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have reported watching in disbelief as Pakistani military trucks ferried Taliban fighters to the border for infiltration.

Let’s be perfectly clear: the United States supports Pakistan, Pakistan supports the Taliban, and the Taliban kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. From the US point of view, the situation with Pakistan could be said to resemble the moment in a creditor-debtor relationship when a debt crisis becomes mutual or inverts. As John Paul Getty once said: “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” Or as Senator Lindsey Graham has said of the Pakistan military, “You can’t trust them, and you can’t abandon them.”

As tensions build on the ground, the US military and CIA have taken their war into Pakistan, driven by the legalistic logic of the Obama counterterrorism doctrine, which is guided by the kill list instead of a historically informed understanding of the region and a long-term commitment to its prospects for peace and stability. The Washington Post estimates that since 2004, the CIA has carried out 350 drone strikes in Pakistan, while US Special Forces conduct only the occasional ground operation.

* * *

As Rashid tells it, during 2011 and 2012, these two fractious allies were engaged in what can only be called a quiet, undeclared war. This came to light in January 2011 when Raymond Davis, first described as a contractor working in Lahore but then revealed to be a CIA agent, shot and killed two men. The victims are alleged to have been ISI operatives who had been tailing him. Davis was jailed and the Pakistanis demanded his execution; but then blood money was paid and Davis was eventually freed.

A new low point was reached on May 2, 2011, when Navy SEALs located and killed Osama bin Laden, who had been living unmolested in Abbottabad about a country mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. Humiliated and outraged, Pakistani political elites began dissembling and verbally attacking US forces. Rashid writes:

Several days after the U.S. attack on Abbottabad, the Pakistan Army crafted its response. First [General] Kayani took the pulse among junior officers, who were furious with the Americans—and furious at their seniors for not retaliating. Rather than explain the complex realities to them, Kayani took the easy way out by blaming the entire episode on the Americans for breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty…. Kayani’s failure to deliver a true narrative either to his officers or to the public was compounded by his refusal to hold anyone in the army or ISI accountable for the failure.

Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani did Kayani one better, turning the theme of failure into an exculpatory refrain: “there is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone.”

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.

* * *

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.”

* * *

Rashid concludes his book with a burst of diplomatic speculation. He describes the blueprints for a grand bargain that he and Barnett Rubin detailed in 2008 in Foreign Affairs: “we advised the incoming Obama administration to foster a major regional diplomatic initiative that would bring all the neighbors—Pakistan, India, China, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—to the table to discuss a peace process and noninterference guarantees for Afghanistan.” This sounds a bit like the 2001 Bonn Conference that was convened after the Taliban government had been toppled in Afghanistan, but without the donors and their billions of dollars.

Any sort of deal would require commitment and pressure from the United States. Put differently, it would require a drastic reorientation of US foreign policy away from a permanent “war on terror” and toward the promotion of long-term regional stability. It is hard to imagine how Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry could approve, let alone undertake, such a bold policy transformation. For Rashid, the continuation of the “war on terror” would push Pakistan closer to ”Somaliaization.” One could say that Rashid’s warning, which is to say his thesis, outstrips his evidence: Pakistan is not on the verge of actual disintegration. The nation’s atomic arsenal is not about to slip into the hands of Al Qaeda–style fanatics. And parts of the country, such as the prospering Punjab region and cities like cosmopolitan Lahore, function just fine. But if the focus is widened enough to take in the often-ignored social and environmental crises within Pakistan, does the country appear any less unstable than Rashid’s premonitions of total terror would have us believe?

* * *

One can no longer write a book like Rashid’s and remain silent on the issue of climate change. Pakistan, like all states, will face unimaginable, multifaceted stresses in the coming decades as a result of anthropogenic climate change. Most worrying of all, for three years in a row large parts of the country have been inundated by extreme monsoon rains: in 2010, one area of northwest Pakistan received many times its annual rainfall in less than four days. Floods have inundated up to 20 percent of the country at a time and swept away the homes of hundreds of thousands of mostly poor, hungry and increasingly angry peasants. The incidence of drastic flooding fits the regional pattern that scientists have predicted for the onset of climate change.

The floods have revealed the appalling class oppression that exists in the countryside. In displaced-person camps, I have encountered tenant farmers—landless peasants called haris—who, though stuck in their miserable tents with little to no aid, were refusing to return to their home villages because of the horrible exploitation and humiliation meted out by the zamindars, as the feudal landlords are known. Since independence and partition in 1947, Pakistan has toyed with the idea of land reform but done very little of it. In the wake of the floods, landlords were brazen enough to visit some of these camps and attempt to force “their” haris back to work, but the peasants resisted them by force.

One of the more extreme factions of political Islam in Pakistan, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is developing a politicized discourse about the environmental crisis [see “Pakistan One Year After the Floods,” July 18/25, 2011]. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa is linked to the outlawed Islamist terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which engineered the 2008 Mumbai attacks and has accused India of “water terrorism” because it was building tunnels and dams on key Indus tributaries. In other words, they fear that India will choke off the Indus and destroy Pakistan’s economy. Thus, Jamaat-ud-Dawa has marched under the slogan “Water Flows or Blood.”

Climate change also threatens atomic Pakistan. Set aside the worry of terrorists getting hold of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; rising seas and economic disintegration may undermine the civilian atomic infrastructure on which the military program depends long before that. And as Michael Kugelman explained last May in Foreign Policy, the Karachi nuclear power plant is vulnerable to flooding. More than 8 million people live within thirty kilometers of it. As it is, the reactor is “chronically incontinent” and leaks radioactive water regularly. Given Pakistan’s traffic-choked roads and poor emergency preparedness, an intense climate-change-driven cyclone making landfall at the plant “could be truly catastrophic.”

It would not be wrong to argue that Rashid’s view of Pakistan is too narrowly focused on the West and its “war on terror.” Nevertheless, his worries about Pakistan are warranted. And though perhaps too politely stated for the fiery anti-imperialist, Rashid’s ultimate point about the corrupting effects of American ways of war on a Pakistani state dominated by the military is correct. This dilemma is best summed up by an old Pakistani joke: “Every country has its own army. But in Pakistan, the army has its own country.”

Last week, in “Inside America’s Dirty Wars,” Jeremy Scahill described how three US citizens were killed by their own government in the space of one month in 2011.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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