Pakistan: The Mess We Can’t Ignore

The Prisoner

by Omar Shahid Hamid
New Delhi: Pan Macmillan, 352 pp., Rs 350.00 (paper)
Todd Heisler/The New York Times/Redux
Malala Yousafzai, who survived a 2012 assassination attempt by the Taliban in Pakistan for advocating for the education of girls, at the United Nations, New York City, July 2013

Daniel Markey takes the title and opening remarks of No Exit from Pakistan, his book on the US–Pakistani relationship, from Sartre’s Huis Clos, a work that contains the famous dictum “Hell is other people.” Hell, for many US policymakers, is having to work with Pakistan. As Markey writes, the degree of sheer personal animosity felt by parts of the Washington establishment toward Pakistan is beginning to have a serious effect on clarity of thought about that country.

The chief motive for Markey’s book is indeed to argue against the large and growing body of opinion in Washington that following the US quasi withdrawal from Afghanistan, it will be both possible and desirable to disengage from Pakistan, in view of its growing anti-Americanism and its tolerance of jihadi and other terrorist groups hostile to the US. A more extreme version of this view calls for the “containment” of Pakistan—a term taken from the strategy developed by George Kennan and others for dealing with the Soviet Union in the first years of the cold war.

Given the extent to which Pakistan and the US have gotten on each other’s nerves in recent years, putting a greater distance between them might seem a very good idea. The notion of moving to a hostile “containment” of Pakistan, however, suffers from several flaws. It ignores the presence of large Pakistani diasporas in the West, which make the very idea of “containing” Pakistan ridiculous. It implies that the US will lose all interest in the fate of Afghanistan once US ground forces are withdrawn. It misses the great importance of Pakistan to the increasingly fraught triangular relationship between the US, India, and China. And it implies handing an even greater share of the responsibility for dealing with Pakistan to the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

As Mark Mazzetti makes clear in The Way of the Knife, his powerful exposé of the strategy of these forces since September 11, that would be a really bad idea. The militarization of US intelligence has both reflected and encouraged a tendency to forget certain crucial points about Pakistan.

The first is that groups based in Pakistan are only part of the Pakistani terrorist threat to the West. Launching attacks in the West requires terrorists from the Pakistani diaspora in the West. It is therefore not helpful to US security to kill terrorists in Pakistan if the result is to radicalize Pakistanis in the US and other Western countries—which is why the British authorities, acutely aware of their large, growing, and deeply troubled Pakistani communities, have a significantly different attitude toward these issues than their US counterparts.

The second point—and this is something that even Markey sometimes seems to forget—is that in the end, only Pakistanis can control Pakistan. The Pakistani intelligence services may be unreliable and infuriating, but they are also indispensable. Even if US intelligence could conceivably develop a presence in Pakistan that would enable it to monitor a country of more than 180 million people, what would it do with the intelligence gathered? In future, terrorist plots against the US may well be hatched in parts of Karachi or in Punjabi cities that are under militant influence, as much as in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Afghan border that have been the target of the US drone campaign so far. Could the US extend missile attacks to the whole of Pakistan? And could it do this without so infuriating not only the Pakistani population but the Pakistani diaspora as to make such a strategy utterly counterproductive?

The CIA does have some great tactical successes to its credit in Pakistan, most notably finding Osama bin Laden; but if an intelligence service is to be given the power to conduct military operations of targeted killing in other countries, then—questions of morality and legality aside—it is essential that these be subject to political oversight and guided by political considerations.

In the case of CIA actions within Pakistan, it is not just that, as Mazzetti recounts, CIA policy has often operated on autopilot, with ostentatious disdain for political considerations and diplomatic advice; it is that on occasion it has also been extremely incompetent, most notably in the Raymond Davis affair in 2011, in which the CIA persuaded the Obama administration to undertake a strategy that ended in crisis.

Raymond Davis was a former US soldier and private security employee who was hired by the CIA to work out of the US consulate in Lahore—allegedly to spy on the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attacks of 2008. On January 27, 2011, Davis shot and killed two men who were supposedly trying to rob him. Amid public fury in Pakistan, he was arrested and held for several weeks, before being released as part of a deal under sharia law whereby the families of the deceased were compensated by the US.

It should have been absolutely clear that the background, training, and character of Davis made him unsuited for a sensitive intelligence role in an important and volatile country (after returning to the US he attacked a man in a dispute over a parking space and later pleaded guilty to assault). And Davis was not alone. He was one of hundreds of new CIA operatives sent into Pakistan in 2010 in a disastrous effort to bypass Pakistani intelligence and gain information on terrorist groups.

The CIA then compounded its error by denying to the Pakistanis that Davis was indeed its man, and overruling for several weeks attempts by the US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, to arrange what was from the start the only way out of the crisis: the compensation of the victims’ families. As recounted by Mazzetti, the ability of the CIA to override the State Department is becoming a truly sinister aspect of US government.

One might have expected a lot more on the Raymond Davis affair in Husain Haqqani’s Magnificent Delusions, since he was Pakistani ambassador to Washington before and during the crisis, and as such had also been the official primarily responsible for granting the visas that allowed the wave of CIA agents into the country. His failure to talk about this in detail in his book will confirm the suspicions of many Pakistanis that after a career marked by multiple shifts of political and ideological allegiance (from the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami party and General Zia-ul-Haq to President Asif Ali Zardari and the Pakistan People’s Party), his goal now is a profitable career in the United States based on telling Americans what they want to hear. To be fair, he may feel he has little choice since he was chased first from government service and then from Pakistan itself in 2011 in the so-called Memogate affair, when he was accused of trying secretly to enlist the support of the US administration in order to reduce the power of the military in Pakistan in return for Pakistani help against the Afghan Taliban and other militant groups.

It would, however, be a pity if Pakistanis simply dismiss Haqqani’s book, because if it does not contain nearly enough that Americans need to hear, it contains a great deal that Pakistanis badly need to hear, and that they very rarely do hear from their own media. Like Markey, Haqqani rightly excoriates the tendency of many of his former compatriots vastly to exaggerate the importance of their country; to pursue utterly unrealistic goals (such as the “liberation” of Kashmir from India) by sometimes criminal means; to practice transparently crude deception in their dealings with other states; and to blame any failures on a range of generally fantastical conspiracy theories. And of course all this takes place against a background of persistent failure by successive regimes (military and civilian) to develop the economy and reform the state.1

The result is US responses like those of Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman, quoted by Markey:

Pakistan is like a black hole for American aid. Our tax dollars go in. Our diplomats go in, sometimes. Our aid professionals go in, sometimes. Our hopes go in. Our prayers go in. Nothing good ever comes out.

These feelings are more than reciprocated in Pakistan. There, even very pro-Western politicians, soldiers, and officials have become infuriated by US bullying and what they see as a persistent refusal to understand Pakistan’s concerns or take account of Pakistan’s losses. They particularly object to US drone attacks on militant leaders in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas—even when the militants concerned have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis. Meanwhile public opinion surveys show anti-Americanism at among the highest levels in the Muslim world.

The contradictions in Pakistan are very real. It is both a country that for four decades has supported a range of Islamist militants in order to further its aims, and a country that has itself suffered more terribly from Islamist militancy than any other country except Afghanistan, and much more than the United States. Over the years Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) has supported a range of Islamist extremist groups in Afghanistan and India; and the ISI has now lost more than seventy of its own officers fighting the Pakistani Taliban.

Pakistan is a country that has contributed significantly and dangerously to nuclear proliferation, including to North Korea; and a country whose motives and even strategies concerning nuclear deterrence were mostly very close to those of the US for most of the cold war. It is a country whose population and military bitterly resent US drone strikes on its Tribal Areas; and also a country whose military commanders have provided intelligence for drone strikes and benefited greatly from the killing of Pakistani Taliban leaders.

Finally, the Pakistani military and its intelligence service have sheltered the Afghan Taliban and helped the Haqqani network to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, and—according to British and US security officials with whom I have spoken—have also given genuine and important help to prevent terrorist attacks in the West. Seen from the point of view of the interests of Pakistan, as perceived (rightly or wrongly) by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, there is no contradiction in their differing approaches to terrorist groups. This last is only an apparent paradox.

The Pakistanis hate and fear India, but since the terrorist attacks in Mumbai of 2008, intense US and international pressure (including, behind the scenes, that of China) has ensured that the Pakistani military has reined in Pakistani groups from attacking India itself. In Afghanistan, however, the Pakistani security establishment retains an intense fear of India’s aims that has been exacerbated by India’s use of Afghanistan as a base to support Baloch separatist rebels in Pakistan, and India’s construction of a road linking the Afghan cities of Delaram and Zaranj with the Iranian port of Chabahar so as to reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for access to the sea. So while the campaign against India itself has been suspended, the ISI continues to help the Haqqani network to attack Indian targets in Afghanistan, and to shelter the Haqqanis from attack by US forces.

B.K. Bangash/AP Images
Maulana Abdul Aziz, a member of the ­Taliban’s negotiating team, waving religious texts during a press conference, Islamabad, February 7, 2014

Pakistan’s approach to militant groups has been complicated still further by the growth of Islamist revolt in Pakistan itself on the part of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)—the Pakistani Taliban—and their allies. Initially this was a movement of the Pashtun tribes in support of the Afghan Taliban and in protest against the US “occupation” of Afghanistan and Pakistan’s help to the US. Since 2007, however, the Pakistani Taliban have become a movement for the overthrow of the existing Pakistani state, and its leaders have also formed alliances with Sunni sectarian groups based in Punjab (the so-called “Punjabi Taliban”) whose principal target is the Pakistani Shia minority.

According to Pakistani official figures, between the start of the insurgency in 2003 and January 19 this year, 5,553 Pakistani soldiers and police and 18,252 civilians had been killed by the militants. An unrecorded number of civilians have also died as “collateral damage” in army operations against the militants.

Among the more notorious attacks claimed by or credibly attributed to the TTP and their allies have been the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007; the suicide bombing of the military ordnance factory at Wah in August 2008 that killed seventy workers; the March 2009 attack on the Police Training Academy in Lahore; an attack on a military base in Mardan in February 2011 in which thirty-one people died; a suicide bombing at a Sufi shrine in Dera Ghazi Khan in April 2011, in which more than fifty worshipers died; the May 2011 attack on the Pakistani navy’s Mehran base in Karachi, in which eighteen servicemen were killed and two reconnaissance aircraft destroyed; the murder of twenty-two Shia taken from buses in Mansehra district in August 2012; the murder since June 2012 of more than thirty polio vaccination workers; and in September 2013 the killing of the Pakistani general commanding in Swat, Sanaullah Niazi—one of three generals so far killed by the militants.

These attacks were among thousands of attacks against Shia, Christian, and Sufi religious institutions and civilians, schoolchildren and their teachers, health workers, and military, police, and other official targets. For longer or shorter periods the militants took over large parts of the Tribal Areas and (until the spring of 2009) the district of Swat, murdering any local figures who opposed them. They are now reported to be establishing de facto control over some Pashtun-inhabited areas of Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi. So while the threat of Islamist revolution in Pakistan in the near to medium term has been exaggerated in the Western media, the destructive effects of terrorism in Pakistan most certainly have not been.

The Islamist rebellion within Pakistan has led to a feature of Pakistani military strategy that is not very hard to understand: namely, that the army fights against groups that fight against the state, and does not fight against groups that do not. Past sponsorship is not the issue here. The army has killed numerous figures whom it previously sponsored to fight in Afghanistan or Kashmir, after they joined the rebellion. Since the spring of 2009 at least, the military has conducted a ferocious and often successful campaign against the rebels in Swat and parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas.

Today, it is not the military that is calling for peace with the Pakistani Taliban, but the elected government of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Justice Party (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, or PTI) in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and to a more ambiguous degree the national government of the Pakistan Muslim League under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif—and in this they have been responding to the wishes of many ordinary Pakistanis.

In my view—and that of many analysts, both Pakistani and Western—this is a very serious mistake. Local peace deals with individual TTP commanders may well make tactical sense. Attempts at an overall peace settlement with the TTP are, however, both pointless and very dangerous.

Saying this appears to contradict my strong advocacy (in the pages of The New York Review and elsewhere) of attempts at a peace settlement with the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan, and requires some explanation. If I thought that there was any realistic chance of preventing the Afghan Taliban from controlling large parts of Afghanistan, I would want the US and the Afghan state to pursue it; but I do not think that this chance exists. The choice in Afghanistan therefore is between a peace settlement and an ongoing and perhaps endless civil war, possibly involving the collapse of the Afghan state and its de facto division into warlord domains. In Pakistan, by contrast, there is a possibility—limited but real—of developing a reasonably successful state and economy, which could be wrecked by attempts at compromise with the Pakistani Taliban.

The Pakistani state is troubled and weak, but it is still both a real state and a Pakistani state, created by Pakistanis. It is notoriously bad at raising revenue, but most of its revenue is its own, not provided from outside. Its official, military, and judicial institutions function, albeit imperfectly; and it has now for the first time carried out two democratic elections in a row, and is ruled by a democratically elected government. Pakistan has deeply flawed and partially rotten but nonetheless free media and intellectual worlds, and at least the elements of a modern business class. All of these are in mortal danger from an ascendancy of militant Islamism.

In a phrase that has been repeated in different forms by a range of Pakistani acquaintances, “The US will withdraw from Afghanistan, but how can Pakistan withdraw from Pakistan?” Moreover, the territorial and ethnic base of the Afghan Taliban gives at least some hope of a pragmatic compromise based on sharing power. The revolutionary and especially the sectarian agendas of the Pakistani Taliban and their allies appear to admit of no reasonable compromise whatever—unless the Pakistani state were simply to abandon responsibility for the lives of all its Muslim and non-Muslim religious minorities.

Under strong domestic pressure, the Sharif government in January agreed to a request by the Pakistani Taliban to begin negotiations—a move apparently intended by the Taliban to ward off an impending military campaign against their base in North Waziristan. The negotiations soon broke down, however, over the terms of a cease-fire, and on February 16 the Taliban announced that they had executed twenty-three Pakistani soldiers captured by them in 2010. Far from cowing the state, such atrocities may lead to the government and army coming together behind a new offensive against the TTP—though not against the Afghan Taliban.

The Pakistani military’s reason for opposition even to local truces with the TTP was explained to me last year by a senior ISI general. He said that the militants have in the past sometimes stuck to the terms of such deals when it comes to attacking the army, police, and local officials,

but they have used the cease-fires and our withdrawal to barracks to cut the throats of every single local politician or ordinary person who opposed them or helped us, so that when the army had to go in again our task has been ten times more difficult.

This general, like other military and police officers, told me candidly that “of course” the military is not going to attack militant groups that have not joined the TTP rebellion. From the point of view of the Pakistani security forces, they would be crazy to add to the ranks of the rebellion in this way. Fortunately for Pakistan’s internal security, but unfortunately for its relations with India and the US, of the Islamist armed militant groups in Pakistan that have not joined the rebellion, the most important by far is Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

This is the group responsible for the Mumbai terrorist attacks, and it is regarded by Western counterterrorism experts as one of the most formidable terrorist organizations active in the world today, largely thanks to past Pakistani military help and advice. From a mixture of the prestige that it gained during the Kashmir jihad and the impressive work of its social welfare organization, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, LeT has great respect in Pakistan, and especially in Punjab and Pakistani Kashmir—as well as in the largely Kashmiri city of Bradford in England. The Pakistani high command therefore has good reason to dread the idea of LeT joining the Pakistani rebellion. And the US and Indian demands that it take harsh measures against LeT at present are therefore completely pointless.

If it can possibly prevent it, the Pakistani military will not however allow LeT to launch a terrorist attack against the mainland of the US or any Western country. Pakistan has nothing to gain from such an attack, and almost everything to lose from the inevitable US retaliation. Pakistani officials argue in private to their Western counterparts that by keeping good relations with LeT, they also help defend Western countries from attack.

Where then does this leave US policy? Daniel Markey argues for a combination of continued engagement and (limited and illusion-free) economic assistance with significant elements of “defensive insulation” in case the Pakistani state collapses, or Pakistan slides into deeper hostility to the US. The problem is that when it comes to the truly “defensive” elements of his mix, the US and its allies are doing this very effectively already through intensified border controls in Europe and the US and domestic counterterrorism measures. Markey has little to suggest beyond the development of new drone technology, and the possible extension of missile attacks to new parts of Pakistan—a strategy that would only further radicalize Pakistanis, both in Pakistan and in the West, and increase the terrorist threat to the US.

Markey is entirely correct, however, in arguing that when it comes to moderating Pakistani behavior by peaceful and diplomatic means, America’s most important partner may indeed be China—not just because of China’s power, but above all because China is seen by Pakistanis as a friend in a way that the US most definitely is not. As Markey writes, Pakistanis continually dream of replacing the US with China as Pakistan’s chief partner; but the Chinese are extremely cautious about this. Pakistan may be a potentially useful alternative route for China’s energy supplies, and a card up China’s sleeve for any future conflict with India, but it is not a card that the Chinese have any desire to play at present. This is an argument made very strongly in an excellent book, The China-Pakistan Axis by Andrew Small.

China deeply distrusts the Islamist militancy that emanates from Pakistan, which it sees as a potential threat to its own Muslim territories. Above all, facing (admittedly largely self-provoked) crises in maritime East Asia, China seems to have no desire for a new crisis with the US in South Asia, and certainly no desire to pick up the bill for subsidizing Pakistan. From everything that I have heard, all China’s private advice to Pakistan in recent years has been in the direction of moderation in Pakistan’s dealings with Washington and Delhi. At the same time, China is committed to Pakistan’s survival and would certainly try to preserve Pakistan from destruction at the hands of the US and India, unless Pakistan had already become wholly radicalized. Pakistan’s place in the configuration of elements making up China’s role in the world, and the China-India-US triangle, is another reason why the US cannot break off its relationship with Islamabad unless Islamabad itself has become an open enemy of the US and international order. So like it or not, US options concerning Pakistan are and will remain highly constrained.

For a deeper understanding of how Pakistan itself works, I would recommend three recent and forthcoming books. Laurent Gayer’s Karachi is the best book yet published on the interplay of politics, ethnicity, religion, and criminality in one of the world’s largest cities. Gayer explains as “ordered disorder” phenomena that I have described under the headings “the negotiated state” and “negotiation through violence.” His masterly analysis brings out how the city can survive and even continue (modestly) to prosper through episodes of violence that are viewed in the West as cataclysmic.

This in turn helps explain how Pakistan too, while seeming forever to be failing as a state, to date has not actually failed, because the Pakistani political, economic, and indeed criminal elites, however bitter their differences, have a stake in the state’s survival; and because in the last resort, the military and police have the capacity to preserve the state, if not to create an order that would allow Pakistan to flourish.

How the security forces do this is admittedly often not a pretty sight. To make the imaginative leap necessary to understand the real world of policing in Pakistan—and a great deal about Pakistan in general—the best book to read is not an academic or policy work, but a thriller: The Prisoner, by Omar Shahid Hamid, a respected senior officer of the Karachi police. I hope that this book will be published soon in the US.

The most admirable police officer in The Prisoner is at the same time a particularly notorious practitioner of what are called in India and Pakistan “encounter killings”—in other words, extrajudicial executions. This character was supposedly modeled in part on Senior Superintendent Chaudhry Aslam Khan, the police officer in charge of antiterrorism operations in Karachi, who after surviving several attempts on his life was eventually killed by the Pakistani Taliban on January 9 of this year. Chaudhry Aslam was distinguished by his great physical and moral courage, his relentless campaign against the terrorists—and his reputation for extrajudicial executions.

Given the intimidation, corruption, and incompetence of both the courts and the police (and sometimes their sympathy for terrorists), such killings are regarded as necessary even by highly sophisticated and personally liberal policemen, soldiers, and officials of my acquaintance in Pakistan. I strongly suggest that Western policymakers read The Prisoner before they next call for a military “crackdown” on Islamist militancy in Pakistan. They need to face the moral reality of what they are demanding; and they also need to understand why the Pakistani state has to be cautious in its crackdowns. Morality and legality aside, there are cases where it is politically possible to shoot murderous Islamist militants in the back of the head, and there are ones where this would risk catastrophic mass unrest—Lashkar-e-Taiba chief among them.

Finally, I can hardly recommend too highly Mohsin Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.2 Those with an interest in the economy of Pakistan (and many other rough parts of the world) should read it for what its ironic title suggests: insights into the reality of doing business there, and into the real possibilities of economic growth, but also the severe limits imposed by the nature of the existing state, society, and culture. Everybody should read it as a small but perfect literary gem, a set of lapidary reflections on humanity and mortality. Things can’t be altogether bad in a country that can produce works like this.

February 19, 2014