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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 It implies that the US will lose all interest in the fate of Afghanistan once US ground forces are withdrawn.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.

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