With Friends Like These: On Pakistan

It’s best not to dwell too much on Pakistan, or at least Ahmed Rashid’s description of it in Pakistan on the Brink, because the conclusions are so grim. Consider the variables: there are at least three civil wars being fought in the country, which has an arsenal of around 100 atomic weapons and is manufacturing more. Its military and intelligence services have cultivated religious extremists and terrorists as policy proxies for nearly sixty years, and have now lost control of some of them. The social capacities of the government’s civilian branches are minimal; its bureaucracies are largely unable or unwilling to do the economic planning and development necessary to meet the basic needs of the world’s sixth-most-populous nation. Its economic growth is only about half that of Bangladesh or Sri Lanka, and is generally well below half of the typical growth rates in India; consequently, its economy can’t create enough work for its “youth bulge” (35 percent of Pakistanis are below the age of 15). The country’s political class is composed mostly of reactionary landlords who steal from the public coffers and oppose meaningful social reform. In 2011, more than two-thirds of Pakistani lawmakers—rich men, mostly—did not even bother with the pretense of filing income taxes. The president, Asif Ali Zardari, was among them.

Karachi, the country’s largest city, is a place of walled compounds, open sewers, traffic jams and a wave of increasingly violent crime. The killing takes various forms: simple brigandry, wanton police brutality against civilians, and warfare between the extra-parliamentary wings of the ethnically based political parties, with underground gangs from the urban Baluch and Pashtun parties fighting the Mohajirs (descendants of refugees from India) of the mighty MQM, the city’s dominant party. And increasingly, the violence involves Sunni fundamentalists exterminating Shiite civilians, who account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s 180 million people. A recent bombing in Baluchistan, which is plagued by a separatist rebellion and a sectarian terror campaign, killed more than eighty Shiites.

What Rashid has written is not a profile of Pakistan but rather a gloomy account of the messy disintegration of the messier United States–Pakistan alliance, the axis of which runs through Afghanistan, a country that for Pakistan’s elites is a battleground on which to fight their great rival, India. Rashid argues that because of the military’s dominant role in Pakistan’s society and economy, the country’s external and security relations are more important than is the case for many other states. “No longer is foreign policy a reflection of domestic policy and the pursuit of peace in the region,” he writes. “Instead foreign policy towards Afghanistan is further undermining domestic stability, making internal contradictions and conflicts worse and intensifying the conflict between civilian power and the military.”

Relations between imperial overlords and colonial vassals have always involved a mix of cooperation and conflict, but the level of mutual dependence and open hostility between Pakistan and the United States is exceptional. From 2001 to 2010, the United States—which was largely reliant on Pakistani spies to accomplish anything on the ground in Afghanistan—sent $14.4 billion in military aid to Pakistan, ostensibly for helping it fight the “war on terror” and secure the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. But the Pakistani military and its spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), did the opposite, Rashid has explained. After 9/11, they worked through religious NGOs and colleges and the Frontier Corps police force to shelter and help relaunch the Taliban. More recently, US soldiers fighting along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have reported watching in disbelief as Pakistani military trucks ferried Taliban fighters to the border for infiltration.

Let’s be perfectly clear: the United States supports Pakistan, Pakistan supports the Taliban, and the Taliban kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. From the US point of view, the situation with Pakistan could be said to resemble the moment in a creditor-debtor relationship when a debt crisis becomes mutual or inverts. As John Paul Getty once said: “If you owe the bank $100, that’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million, that’s the bank’s problem.” Or as Senator Lindsey Graham has said of the Pakistan military, “You can’t trust them, and you can’t abandon them.”

As tensions build on the ground, the US military and CIA have taken their war into Pakistan, driven by the legalistic logic of the Obama counterterrorism doctrine, which is guided by the kill list instead of a historically informed understanding of the region and a long-term commitment to its prospects for peace and stability. The Washington Post estimates that since 2004, the CIA has carried out 350 drone strikes in Pakistan, while US Special Forces conduct only the occasional ground operation. 

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As Rashid tells it, during 2011 and 2012, these two fractious allies were engaged in what can only be called a quiet, undeclared war. This came to light in January 2011 when Raymond Davis, first described as a contractor working in Lahore but then revealed to be a CIA agent, shot and killed two men. The victims are alleged to have been ISI operatives who had been tailing him. Davis was jailed and the Pakistanis demanded his execution; but then blood money was paid and Davis was eventually freed.

A new low point was reached on May 2, 2011, when Navy SEALs located and killed Osama bin Laden, who had been living unmolested in Abbottabad about a country mile from the Pakistan Military Academy. Humiliated and outraged, Pakistani political elites began dissembling and verbally attacking US forces. Rashid writes:

Several days after the U.S. attack on Abbottabad, the Pakistan Army crafted its response. First [General] Kayani took the pulse among junior officers, who were furious with the Americans—and furious at their seniors for not retaliating. Rather than explain the complex realities to them, Kayani took the easy way out by blaming the entire episode on the Americans for breaching Pakistan’s sovereignty…. Kayani’s failure to deliver a true narrative either to his officers or to the public was compounded by his refusal to hold anyone in the army or ISI accountable for the failure.

Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani did Kayani one better, turning the theme of failure into an exculpatory refrain: “there is an intelligence failure of the whole world, not just Pakistan alone.” 

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