It’s not easy to write a book about America’s failed war in Afghanistan. By now, most facts, developments and inflection points have already been written about and discussed since the United States-led invasion in 2001. In the coming years, as more information surfaces and documents get declassified, we might get books that offer new material. But at present, it’s difficult to hold a reader’s interest, especially one who is not new to the subject.
Zahid Hussain’s book, No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow, manages that feat. It offers new material and analyses known facts from a fresh perspective.
How does Hussain do it? First, his book is not just a recounting of the US war in Afghanistan. It is also the story of US-Pakistan relations as they unfolded in the shadow of the US war in Afghanistan. Second, Hussain’s story details Pakistan’s domestic political developments and how they interacted with the US war and impacted Washington-Islamabad relations.
Third, unlike most American and Western accounts, Hussain’s book is possibly the only detailed account of what he calls a no-win war from Pakistan’s perspective. This does not mean a one-sided version or narration; he also looks at what the US was doing and/or thinking. It simply means that, for the first time, we have an account in which Pakistan and Pakistan’s interests are as much a part of the story as are the interests of the US.
It is imperative to understand this point. Barring some exceptional reporting (for instance, by Matthieu Aikins) and book-length works by Anand Gopal and Rajiv Chandrasekaran, most available books on the war barely challenge the official US narrative of the reasons for which the US had invaded Afghanistan. Criticism, if any, is reserved for the manner in which the war was conducted.
Zahid Hussain’s new book presents an account of the US war in Afghanistan in which, for the first time, Pakistan and Pakistan’s interests are an integral part of the story
Hussain’s book fills that void. It tells the reader that there were more actors in that war and more interests than just those of the US. Put another way, it’s not just the story of and about the US and its invasion of Afghanistan; it is also the story of Pakistan, of Afghans and the Taliban and, even more importantly, of Pakistan’s security concerns vis-a-vis India. Most Western writers and officials have either ignored or downplayed Pakistan’s security concerns; Hussain highlights their salience as he narrates the story.
Another striking aspect of Hussain’s work is the relevance of the beginning of this war to what is happening today — ie the US decision to leave without any conditionalities. The beginning had foretold the end. Take, for instance, the acceptance by the US that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and a negotiated political settlement is the only way forward (the latest iteration of this is in the second paragraph of the joint statement of the extended troika — comprising the US, the Russian Federation, China and Pakistan — dated April 30, 2021). Reading today’s headlines with what was happening then, and which Hussain recounts in detail, makes for a fascinating read.
The second chapter, ‘The Original Sin’, details how Pakistan (and Gen Pervez Musharraf) constantly pleaded with the US to (a) pull Taliban representatives into the Bonn process, and (b) not allow the erstwhile Northern Alliance to consolidate itself as a major contender for power. Despite multiple efforts by Pakistan — including a personal exchange between Gen Musharraf and then US president George Bush — the US failed to appreciate the importance of reaching out to the defeated Taliban and to allow them a stake in the system it was trying to put in place.
Chapter 3, ‘The Fall and Rise of the Taliban’, traces, in detail, the fall of the Taliban during and after the US invasion. It starts with how some Taliban leaders wanted to surrender and go back to their towns and villages. Some approached the US even as the invasion was going through, to see if war could be avoided. A high-level Taliban delegation met with Hamid Karzai — who was to later become Afghanistan’s president — with a letter from Mullah Omar, to decide the future of Afghanistan. Robert Grenier, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief in Pakistan, was in contact with Taliban leaders, notably Mullah Jalil, and hoped he could split the militia.
There is far more detail in Hussain’s book, but the account tells the reader of what could have been but was not to be because the US military rubbished the idea of speaking to the Taliban. It was confident that it could crush them. (Later, Richard Holbrooke, former American president Barack Obama’s special envoy, would understand the futility of a military campaign, but he couldn’t win the day against the Pentagon.) In the initial years, Karzai knew the importance of making a deal with the Taliban, but his early efforts came to naught because the US was not interested. These were all lost opportunities.
The US military and the CIA often operated at cross-purposes. While the CIA was, at one time, trying to reach out to Jalaluddin Haqqani, and some CIA officers were speaking to Ibrahim Haqqani, the US military captured Ibrahim and effectively closed the chapter on any possibility of bringing the Haqqanis into the tent.
But this is not the only story in Hussain’s book. Running alongside events in Afghanistan were developments in Pakistan — domestic politics informed by Pakistan’s persistent civil-military imbalance. The chapter titled ‘Democracy versus National Security’ gives us an account not just of the civil-military problem, but also how Pakistan’s civil and military leaderships have traditionally interacted with US government officials.
The latter makes for a sad, and often shameful, account: Pakistan’s leaders would confide sensitive information to US officials, concede space to the US ambassadors for them to act as arbiters and both civil and military leaders would privately agree to policies that they would publicly disavow.
Hussain must be given credit for presenting Pakistan’s perspective objectively while being equally critical of Pakistan’s non-transparent policies and commitments given to the US — policies which began with Gen Musharraf, but continued through the tenures of the civilian governments that followed Gen Musharraf.
No-Win War also has very interesting details on the dichotomy between the military strategies of US-led forces in Afghanistan and the operations conducted by the Pakistani military. “What’s your plan for Afghanistan?” Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, then Pakistan Army chief, asked US Gen David Petraeus. Gen Petraeus’s response didn’t impress Gen Kayani, who was convinced — correctly, as events have since proved — that the US and its allies had no real strategy for dealing with Afghanistan.
The paper he gave to Obama (as Steve Coll mentions in Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gen Kayani had written three such assessments and they had been given to US officials) stated this and gave reasons for why it was so. Gen Kayani was clear that “Pakistan would not like to find itself standing in a corner in the Afghan endgame.”
Military operations conducted by Pakistan and the US were spatially incongruent. While Pakistan was operating in Pakistan’s northwest, the US focused on Afghanistan’s southeast. This, as Gen Kayani once told this reviewer, created a revolving-door problem, because there were no blocking forces to check Taliban fighters slipping across the border.
But if Pakistan were expecting any improvement in relations with the US, that was not to be. Hussain’s subsequent chapters, ‘Enemies Now’ and ‘Midnight Raid’, detail how US intelligence had placed operatives in Pakistan (one such, Raymond Davis, killed two Pakistanis) and how it unilaterally raided a compound in Abbottabad to kill Osama bin Laden.
These events and the killing of 24 Pakistan Army soldiers in Salala brought relations to a point of near-rupture. In some ways, US-Pakistan relations have not recovered from those shocks even after former US president Donald Trump decided to end the war in Afghanistan and co-opted Pakistan to that end.
Hussain’s book has many details; it’s the broader story of US-Pakistan relations, in what Hussain calls the shadow of the war in Afghanistan. That shadow will continue to define US-Pakistan relations since no one really knows, or can predict, the endgame after the US withdraws all its forces.
The worst-case scenario does appear more plausible, though. Equally, and importantly, it is the story of how Pakistani leaders make decisions and how some of them are all too happy to act obsequiously in dealing with US officials.
The reviewer is a journalist with an interest in defence and security affairs. He tweets @ejazhaider
No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow
By Zahid Hussain
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 9th, 2021