Insightful reading of Pakistan-US relations

Insightful reading of Pakistan-US relations

President Barack Obama (R) with Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC on January 14, 2011. REUTERS

Book Title: The Battle For Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship And A Tough Neighbourhood

Author: Shuja Nawaz.

Tilak Devasher

Shuja Nawaz, a renowned political and strategic analyst, has come up with another compelling tour de force after his 2008 ‘Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within’. In his own words, his aim was to help focus attention on key events and personalities over 2008-19 and to use them to illustrate the challenges facing both the US and Pakistan, as well as the opportunities that await their people. In addition, Nawaz has provided a detailed account of the main internal and external political developments of the period. The book is, thus, an invaluable contribution to the literature on the subject since it is based on first-hand interviews and contemporaneous notes from conversations with key players in the region and in the US.

The underlying theme of the book is that ‘the US-Pakistan relationship has indeed been a misalliance hurtling towards a bad break-up, but one that needs to be rescued for the sake of both parties and for the region in which Pakistan is located and where it can play a crucial role’.

However, he identifies several problems in this apart from the issue of trust on both sides. One is that Pakistan tends to treat the US as a gullible partner that can be fooled to part with its money in return for vague promises that may or may not be fulfilled. On its part, the US continues to deal with the Pakistan army as its main interlocutor, despite the emergence of a fledgling democracy. He terms this as America failing Pakistan and its people by ignoring them in the main.

The Battle For Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship And A Tough
Neighbourhood
by Shuja Nawaz.
Penguin Random House.
Pages 400
Rs 799

Unsurprisingly, Pew global surveys between 2000 and 2009 found that most Pakistanis considered the US an enemy, while only about one in 10 said it was a partner. The India factor looms large in Nawaz’s narrative and the book provides deep insight into Pakistan’s mistrust of India. According to him, the fear of India and ‘its hegemonic potential in South Asia’ heightens Pakistan’s paranoia about the growing US-India relationship. Nawaz, however, does not explore the possibility that this concern about India could actually be a self-serving tactic of the army to retain its dominant position.

Nevertheless, this fear explains why Pakistan has invested less in people than in military security. This has also prevented Pakistan from taking advantage of its position as a potential trade hub. Quoting Global Trends 2030, Nawaz warns that by 2030, the Indian economy would rise from the current seven to nine times Pakistan’s size to 16 times, making it impossible for Pakistan to match Indian defence spending.

Nawaz also underlines the failure of the polity to define what kind of a country Pakistan would be — an Islamic state or a more liberal entity where Muslims could pursue their lives alongside other religious groups. He flags how ‘the people are besieged by highly contentious and divisive arguments of dogmatic Islamic sects trying to expand their influence beyond the mosque’. He accuses successive governments and the army of choosing not to challenge the expanding foothold of extremist Islamists.

Nawaz seems to have set high hopes on Imran Khan, seeing in him an opportunity to recast the system of government inside Pakistan as an Islamic welfare state. However, almost two years of Imran Khan’s tenure should remove any illusions on this score.

An interesting nugget that Nawaz provides is that the then US Ambassador Richard Olson used to have lunch with President Zardari every two weeks during which he would ask the envoy what his army was up to! Olson thought Zardari ‘saw the role of the US ambassador as being someone who could talk candidly with Pindi (a common word for the army) and actually warn him, frankly, if he was going to get in trouble with Pindi’. Olson also had a close relationship with army chief Gen Raheel Sharif later whom he also met ‘every two weeks… probably 50 or 60 times’. It would not be surprising if the practice has continued.

Another fascinating insight is the 14-page five-part assessment that army chief Kayani handed over to President Obama in October 2010 reflecting Pakistan’s point of view on why the relationship was going wrong. A critical factor for the US was that for the first time someone in the Pakistani government had actually admitted that the Haqqani network was part of Pakistan’s strategic national security interest.

With his access and deep insights into the Pakistan army, Nawaz has some interesting comments on it. He points out that it has attempted to reorganise piecemeal, but there has been little impetus internally for a wholesale rethinking of the nature of the military force that Pakistan needs going into the middle of the 21st century. He terms the army as being fairly immobile and rather than seeking a radical transformation, it had added layers of modernity over crusted layers of outmoded structures and thinking.

The army’s playlist in dealing with any security situation was using conventional force employed at a smaller scale than in a regular war against say India. They saw the fight taking place largely on the physical battlefield. And they were woefully unprepared in terms of training and equipment for this war. It would take years and many casualties for them to adjust their thinking and actions.

Consequently, Pakistan’s military doctrine, such as it was, was caught between the rock of India and the hard place of its growing internal threats and economic difficulties. The doctrine was now shifting to what was being called a ‘comprehensive doctrine’ to combat both the potential Indian capability to attack and weaken Pakistan and the growing threat of internal militancy and insurgency.

Overall, ‘The Battle for Pakistan’ is a must read for all those interested in the period, in India-Pakistan dynamics and in the roller-coaster of Pak-US relations.