OFTEN described as a shotgun marriage, the US-Pakistan partnership that came into being on Sept 12, 2001 remains paradoxical. Ironies abound in this alliance: the nation that serves as the linchpin in the US struggle to bring an end to its longest war has also been accused of harbouring the same insurgents that American forces are fighting against.
When Pakistan became America’s key strategic partner in the so-called war on terror, it also went to war against itself. The implications of this internal struggle for Pakistan, for the US, and the region, are huge. From the Pakistani vantage, the US embrace, difficult either to accept or escape, pitted the nation against itself on many fronts: the military against the militants, the present against the past, a political partnership with the US versus a culture of jihadi radicalism.
While extremely critical in order to fight global terrorism, the US and Pakistani security agencies followed their divergent agendas in Afghanistan. This underlying tension cast a huge shadow over the US war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. It is a war that had gone wrong from the outset.
Even if the world’s greatest military power believes it has not lost the war, it has not won it either. All three American presidents since 2001 — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump — and their military commanders were not able to make good on their promises to win in Afghanistan.
The US embrace, difficult either to accept or escape, has pitted Pakistan against itself on many fronts.
A recent investigative report, ‘The Afghanistan Papers’ in The Washington Post, reveals how facts were distorted to hide the bleak reality of the battleground. It provides insightful detail into the lies and failures that are part of the 18-year US-led war in Afghanistan.
Many books dealing with Pak-US relations have been published over the years. What is missing, however, has been an objective study about the rocky relationship and the double game the security agencies of the two countries played with each other and its implications for Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’.
In his latest book The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood, Shuja Nawaz narrates the history of the relationship between the Pakistani and the US militaries. It provides interesting insight into an association largely built on expediency and marked by mutual mistrust. The two supposed allies could not figure out whether they are friends or enemies despite a nearly two decade-long partnership. It is a story of post-9/11 relations between countries who can best be described as ‘frenemies’. The author writes: “In many ways, the 70-year-old US-Pakistan relationship, with its many ups and downs, alternately filled with both tantrums and fulsome praise for each other, has become a tragicomedy on a regional political stage, with numerous bad actors and confused heroes and heroines.” He likens the relationship to “an estranged couple that shares the same bed but dreams different dreams”.
In this seminal work, which is in some ways a follow-up to his earlier book Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army and the Wars Within, Shuja Nawaz explores what Pakistan’s war against itself means for the new version of the Great Game now being played in Central Asia, for Pakistan, the US, and the alliance between them.
He analyses — in more depth than has been done before — the cost of Pakistan walking a tightrope between alignment with the US and old links with the Afghan Taliban, and the long-term implications of this for the region and for global security.
It is a remarkable work by an acclaimed writer on the Pakistani military. The book tells the story behind the headlines: how equivocal is the ISI’s break with the Afghan Taliban fighting the coalition forces in Afghanistan; the shoot-out in Lahore involving a CIA agent; and the Osama bin Laden episode. The book also extensively covers Pakistan’s internal battles, both between the civilians and the military, and against militancy and terror.
It also sheds light on the deep involvement of the US and UK in Pakistan’s internal political battles. The horizontal and vertical fragmentation of the society along political, religious and ethnic lines, which has intensified since 9/11, poses the most serious problem for Pakistan.
The book dwells extensively on the expanding role of the Pakistan army in the country’s political arena and its non-professional interests that have increased so much that it has put down stakes in most areas of policymaking and management. Notwithstanding the efforts to transform the ideological complexion of the military, there has not been much change in the institutional thinking on critical issues related to regional geopolitics. A break with its past support of militants has never truly been completed.
According to the author, the US preferred to deal with the Pakistani military as its main interlocutor, despite the restoration of democracy in the country. The weakening of the democratic process has also enabled the military to spread into civilian institutions of the state and society to the extent that its presence is today firmly established in all walks of life.
The pervasiveness of the military is evidenced in a major transformation in the outlook of its top leadership. The book notes that America failed Pakistan by “relying too much on its military partners in Pakistan and mollycoddling the corrupt civilian leadership”.
What makes The Battle For Pakistan substantive and authoritative is that it is based on interviews with senior Pakistani and US military officials directly involved in policymaking during that period. The author has unique access to the centres of power in the US and Pakistan, both of which he considers home. That makes the book extremely objective, covering all sides and dimensions of a roller-coaster relationship.
This latest study of the stormy relationship between the Pakistani military and the US over the past two decades and the critical analysis of the military’s expanding political role seems to have upset certain quarters. Unfortunately, instead of learning from their mistakes and accepting reality, there is a move to restrict its message.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2020