Fear and Loathing in AFPAK
Next week marks the anniversary of the assassination of Osama bin Laden, the man who sat in a cave and on September 11, 2001, attacked America. In the decade between the attack and the assassination, the Americans produced a long list of books dealing with AfPak – Obama’s shorthand for Afghanistan-Pakistan, though his advisors believe it ought to be PakAf – but almost all see matters through the prism of the US strategic establishment. Bob Woodward probably covers wider ground than most, but only because he is, as the late essayist Christopher Hitchens put it, “stenographer to the stars”; and still, his books have not been the best on the subject. (Tuesday will see the release of Peter Bergen’s Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad, which promises to be fairly juicy.) Surpassing them all, arguably, is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, whose Taliban: Militant Islam, Fundamentalism, and Oil in Central Asia fortuitously published just before 9/11 suddenly became a handbook for not just those of us covering the War on Terror but the entire planet. Since then, Rashid has put his expertise to good use, producing newspaper and magazine articles that rival The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh for both inside information and deep perspective. In 2008, he published Descent into Chaos: The US and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia which though demandingly dull reading, was uncannily prescient of how things would unfold in the region. And now comes his Pakistan on the Brink: The future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West which makes for an absorbing, if sobering, read.
It begins with an account of the secret US operation to kill Bin Laden; it is a defining incident not just because 9/11 began a chain of events which changed the world (the destruction of Iraq, the democratisation of West Asia, the global trend of encroachment on civil liberties in the name of security, etc), and not just because the hunt for Osama changed warfare in that the unmanned aerial vehicle has become the weapon of choice for the world’s militaries, but also because the unilateral operation defined bilateral relations in such a way that Rashid says: “The United States and Pakistan are just short of going to war.” What a sea-change from their relationship until 9/11.
Ahmed Rashid’s riveting account of the Osama operation beat Bergen’s upcoming book and a probably Woodward book on the subject (I’d bet on the Woodward book to come out shortly before the November US presidential elections). In this, and with the various political analyses in the book, Rashid was helped by wide access: regular meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a briefing to US President Barack Obama, briefings from the UN hierarchy and of course, sources all over the Pakistani establishment. His big source in the US government was apparently the late Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy for AfPak, who suddenly died at the end of 2010, perhaps due to turf wars in the US administration which Obama could not mediate and which contributed to the failure to find a way forward in AfPak.
The Osama operation made the Pakistanis livid. Faced with angry junior officers, Army Chief General Parvez Kayani “took the easy way out by blaming the entire episode on the Americans for breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty – but he failed to answer the obvious questions: What had bin Laden been doing in Abbottabad for six years, and why had the ISI not found him?” Rashid asks. He says something you rarely hear his countrymen publicly ask, that the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty was actually by Osama, and not by Obama.
For the duration that Osama was a fugitive many Indians smirked at how Pakistan appeared to be pulling the wool over the US’s eyes. It turns out that the US wasn’t fooled, and that it was making plans. As CIA director, Leon Panetta gave his government a list of clandestine operations he wanted, including “even setting up a parallel intelligence organisation that would be hidden from the ISI”. In 2009, Obama “had secretly authorised the CIA to conduct large-scale recruitment of Pakistanis to establish a clandestine intelligence operation, with the help of fifty CIA officers… In other words, the Americans had set up a specific, secret, second intelligence agency to find Osama bin Laden.” Obviously, despite the sheer audacity of the idea of a secret spy outfit right under the ISI’s nose, it was something that had to be done. Obviously, it would seriously injure bilateral relations.
The biggest factor in souring relations was the US approach to Afghanistan, for Obama never made it clear what he wanted. We know that he wants to start leaving Afghanistan by 2014; it’s a political decision given the domestic unpopularity of the war. We know that he has overcome the American revulsion to negotiating with the Taliban (as even India has); “the Taliban had matured considerably since the 1990s”, having tired of war and also having tired of being ruthlessly under the ISI thumb. We know he wants to leave a permanent base in Afghanistan.
But beyond that, the Americans have never clearly defined a political approach to sorting out Afghanistan; as Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars points out, Obama’s first year was spent fighting a battle with the Pentagon on another troop “surge” with which he was able to sell his pull-out plan. Holbrooke’s brief was never taken seriously. The Americans, as Rashid tells us, started negotiating with the Taliban without telling Pakistan, but once the ISI found out, it threw the negotiator in jail. The ISI then planted a phony negotiator who tripped the process up. The Americans never had a strategy for Karzai, around whom nepotism and corruption intensified. The US was unable to help the Afghans build an economy, and Rashid predicts that when troops begin leaving, Afghanistan will collapse in an economic depression.
The US has to now deal with the Pakistan Taliban, whose fingers are itching for Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. It’s not a far-fetched dream. One of the book’s implications is that as the Pakistan state weakens so does the Pakistan Army. Though the Army dominates the state, it is still part of it. If you watch Gen Kayani’s pattern of behavior, as Rashid does, you begin to see that Gen Kayani is a singularly weak Army Chief, made weaker by President Asif Ali Zardari granting him an extension. There truly is a Mexican standoff between the extremists, the corrupt civilians and the Army. How Pakistan pulls itself out of this is difficult to see, though you can’t blame Rashid for trying to figure a way out.
Since we keep hearing about how Pakistan wants India out of Afghanistan (and how the ISI uses the Haqqani Taliban against Indian interests), Rashid views are refreshing: “Pakistan accepts only… no role for India – yet India is the region’s economic powerhouse and is the most likely investor in Afghanistan’s economy,” he writes. “A peaceful solution to the Afghan war must include the participation of India.”
While reading this fascinating and lively collection of essays, I wondered whether Ahmed Rashid would have written this book had Al Gore become president instead of George W Bush. Would Gore have invaded Iraq, diverting resources that could have helped Afghanistan to its feet, as Rashid argues? After all, Iraq was an American neo-conservative project. Who knows? The Americans suffered a huge blow to their pride and prestige with 9/11, and as it involved Arabs they could not let the Arab World go unpunished. They had to show the world that they could destroy a country that was brazenly against it. In that sense, with Pakistan’s Taliban far from defeated, and the nuclear-armed military losing its grip with each passing day, you would have to say that Pakistan is really and truly on the brink.
- Pakistan on the Brink by Ahmed Rashid: review (samhindu.wordpress.com)
- How Osama bin Laden’s death muddied the path to peace (theglobeandmail.com)
- Obama to declassify ‘some’ bin Laden files – what about the others? (theblaze.com)