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Cover Story: From crisis to crisis

September 08, 2013
Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol the India-Pakistan working boundary in Suchit-Garh, southwest of Jammu -- AFP
Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldiers patrol the India-Pakistan working boundary in Suchit-Garh, southwest of Jammu -- AFP

Since 9/11 and the onset of the US-led ‘war on terror’, an industry has cropped up around the publication of books and articles claiming to provide fresh insight into the relationship between Islam, Pakistan, and global terror networks. One of the regrettable effects of this has been a tendency for less and less attention to be focused on other questions regarding the state and society in Pakistan. As a result, Pakistan’s travails continue to be viewed through an International Relations/Strategic Studies lens that ignores the nuanced dynamics of domestic politics in favour of dichotomies emphasising the conflict between Islam and secularism, terrorism and freedom, and good and evil. In this context, it is not surprising that even books like Saadia Toor’s The State of Islam, documenting the fortunes of the Left in Pakistan, and Matthew Nelson’s In the Shadow of Shariah, on land tenure systems and inheritance laws in Punjab, deem it necessary to include a reference to Islam in their titles. Another effect of the Pakistan-Islam-terrorism publishing nexus has been the publication and re-publication of the same story in different packages; well-known facts about the links between the Pakistani military, the Afghan mujahideen, the CIA, and the rise of Islamist violence in South Asia continue to be trotted out as if they are new revelations providing unique insights into Pakistan’s seemingly insoluble problems.

Bruce Riedel’s Avoiding Armageddon, which charts the fluctuating fortunes of the relationship between the US, Pakistan, and India, succeeds in being a book that manages to talk about Pakistan without including a direct reference to terrorism or Islam in its title. In most other respects, however, the book fails to rise beyond the tropes typically associated with the broader genre to which it belongs. While it’s account of US efforts to influence and engage with India and Pakistan brings a fresh perspective to debates over the security situation in South Asia, its view of Pakistani politics and policy-making remains mired in the conventional wisdom that has been established post-9/11.

Starting with the colonial period and ending with the present day, Riedel’s basic thesis is that the US approach to relations with India and Pakistan has largely been hamstrung by conflicting security concerns, the imperatives of Cold War politics, and factional infighting within the US government itself. In the case of India, the propensity for socialism and non-alignment displayed by Nehru and Indira Gandhi made it difficult for the US to build a constructive relationship with that country. In Pakistan, the military establishment made it clear early on that it desired closer ties with the US, and even attempted to cement these through membership in the Central Treaty Organisation (CEATO) and South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SENTO). Here, however, Riedel argues that the failure of the US to provide Pakistan with unequivocal support in 1965 and 1971 created an atmosphere of distrust between the two nations that would only be exacerbated in the decades to come.

In the 1980s and the 1990s, Riedel argues, US policy in South Asia was guided by three often contradictory imperatives: the need to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the attempt to prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons, and the desire to forge a more constructive relationship with India. Over the course of the second half of the book, Riedel traces out the now familiar narrative about how the ISI and CIA, with help from Saudi Arabia, trained and funded the Afghan mujahideen, with the Zia regime also diverting some of these efforts towards setting up militant proxies oriented towards fighting India in Kashmir. However, even though it was clear to the US that Pakistan was, at this point, actively seeking to acquire nuclear weapons, the central role played by the Pakistani military in the Afghan conflict prevented the US from taking any action against it. Once the Soviets had withdrawn, US sanctions aimed at preventing Pakistan from testing its nuclear weapons, coupled with the strengthening of their relationship with India, created an environment in which US-Pakistan relations hit an all-time low.

In the contemporary period, Riedel argues, even as US relations with India have progressively improved, the Pakistani military’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, as well as domestic militant groups targeting India, presents a serious threat to stability in the region. While the Bush and Obama administrations have both remained unable to effectively solve this problem, leading to escalating levels of distrust between Pakistan and the US (epitomised by drone strikes and the raid on Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden), Riedel argues that the only way out of the current impasse is for the US to recognise that the solution to the Afghan imbroglio lies in Kashmir. Given that the Pakistani military has, since 1947, directed all of its energies towards countering a perceived threat from India, and given that the military’s patronage of the Taliban in Afghanistan is geared towards propping up a friendly government on Pakistan’s western border, Riedel suggests that resolving the Kashmir dispute and ensuring peaceful relations between India and Pakistan might incentivise the Pakistani military to drop its support for militant Islamist proxies in South Asia. Towards this end, Riedel concludes his book with a list of recommendations for policy makers in the US and South Asia, emphasising the need for a more coherent US foreign policy approach towards the region, increased trade between India and Pakistan, and some degree of compromise on Kashmir in order to get the peace process started.

Over the course of the book, the overriding impression one gets is that the US has played a mostly benevolent, if bumbling, role in South Asia over the course of the last six decades, championing the causes of decolonisation, anti-communism, nuclear non-proliferation, and counter-terrorism as an outside observer most concerned with maintaining peace and stability in the region for the collective good of the global community. What this understanding of American policy overlooks, however, is that more than anything else, the US was and is motivated by self-interest. While one could argue that Nehru’s intransigence stymied the development of good relations between the US and India, it could equally be argued that the fanatical American commitment to anti-communism, and its refusal to countenance the possibility of non-alignment, were to blame. Similarly, if Riedel is to be believed, the US has long recognised that the Pakistani military’s role in nuclear proliferation, as well as its links to militant Islamist groups, poses a threat to global security. As such, it makes it all the more harder to understand why the Bush administration was more than willing to support Musharraf’s dictatorship in exchange for his assistance in the ‘war on terror’ post-9/11. A charitable view, and one that chimes with Riedel’s own opinion, is that the US had little choice but to do so once it decided to attack Afghanistan. However, it could also be the case that rather than taking a principled stand on any of the issues it has ostensibly championed over the years, the US has remained remarkably shortsighted and myopic in its interactions with Pakistan, actively seeking short-term strategic gain at the cost of long-term stability. To his credit, Riedel acknowledges that US policy with regards to Pakistan has lacked consistency; however, his belief that this lack of consistency can be addressed through better organisation and coordination within the US government does not really address the possibility that this inconsistency has been driven by cynicism and realpolitik, rather than incompetence.

Riedel’s excessively sanguine view of US foreign policy is reinforced most obviously in his discussions of the different crises in Indo-Pak relations that could have potentially led to overt war over the last three decades. Time and time again, Riedel attributes the prevention of conflict to the intervention of the US, even when it is clear that the US often had a minimal role to play at best. Thus, while most observers would agree that pressure from the Clinton administration was fundamental to bringing an end to the Kargil conflict and avert a potential nuclear war, it is far from clear that the same was true of the Bush administration during the stand-off between Indian and Pakistani forces in 1990, or in 2001 in the wake of the attack on the Indian parliament. Indeed, as Riedel himself acknowledges in both cases, it was elements within both the Indian and Pakistani governments that succeeded in de-escalating potentially catastrophic situations. While the US has clearly had a role to play in mediating between India and Pakistan, and may continue to play such a role in the future, the case for the success of US diplomacy is overstated in this book. When talking about how Armageddon has repeatedly been avoided in South Asia, Riedel arguably takes away much of the agency of the Indian and Pakistani governments. This is ironic because, after reading the book, it is possible to reach the conclusion (sometimes supported by Riedel) that the diplomatic influence of the US in South Asia has been limited.

This problem is exacerbated by Riedel’s almost complete and total neglect of domestic politics in his analysis of South Asia. The Indian and Pakistani governments are largely presented as monoliths with unified interests that remain in binary opposition. Only once in over 200 pages does Riedel acknowledge that there are civilian elements within the Pakistani government who maintain an interest in fighting terrorism, reigning in the military, and forging a lasting peace with India. Otherwise, anyone reading the book who lacked any knowledge of Pakistani politics could easily walk away with the impression that the country and its government are populated with fanatics all too willing to engage in suicidal acts of nuclear brinkmanship.

While Riedel does occasionally suggest that democracy might be part of the solution to Pakistan’s problems, his conflation of the military with the state in Pakistan leaves little room for the possibility of reform from within. This inevitably leads to the conclusion that change can only come through the sagacious use of American diplomacy.

Given the breadth of the timeframe it deals with, from the colonial period to the present day, Avoiding Armageddon does an excellent job of providing a very brief overview of South Asian history as viewed through American eyes. The book is an extremely accessible and engaging read, although this arguably comes at the cost of greater scholarly depth. Particularly when documenting negotiations between the US, Pakistan, and India, it would have been interesting to see greater reference to primary source material corroborating Riedel’s account. The book also suffers a bit from a tendency most recently documented in Mark Leibovich’s This Town, namely the way in which Washington insiders acquire and cement influence by proclaiming their proximity to power. While Riedel’s role in many of the negotiations he refers to in Avoiding Armageddon make references to politicians and leaders inevitable, the name-dropping sometimes assumes an almost gratuitous nature, reaching it’s peak towards the end of the book when Riedel name-checks President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Clinton, and 10 other senior figures in the US government and military, when recounting a meeting held in 2009.

In highlighting the Pakistani military’s continuing support for the Taliban and other Islamist militants, Bruce Riedel is correct to argue that lasting peace in Afghanistan and South Asia can only be forged by addressing this core problem. However, the faith Riedel places in the power of US diplomacy as a catalyst for this process must be met with a healthy dose of scepticism. While there may certainly be room for constructive American mediation between India and Pakistan in the years to come, particularly if the US is able to overcome its record of inconsistency in South Asia, the history of US interventions in this part of the world, as well as others, makes it difficult to share Riedel’s arguably unwarranted optimism.

The reviewer teaches Political Science at LUMS and has a PhD in Sociology

Avoiding Armageddon: America, India, and Pakistan to the Brink and Back By Bruce Riedel HarperCollins, India, 2013 ISBN 978-93-5029-994-4 230pp.