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Pakistan: Friend or Foe?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Anatol Lieven. Pakistan: A Hard Country. Public Affairs. 576 pages. $35.00

Bruce Riedel. Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad. Brookings Institution Press. 180 pages. $24.95

Even by the standards of a turbulent land, this has been a tumultuous year for Pakistan. In January, a bodyguard assassinated Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab province, for speaking up for an illiterate Christian woman on death row under Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. Two months later, Taliban militants murdered Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minority affairs, and the only Christian in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation’s cabinet. In May came the dramatic U.S. raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in the garrison town of Abbottabad, near Islamabad. Since then Islamist militants have assaulted a naval base in Karachi and killed 40 people in separate bombings of a market and a police station in Peshawar.

Over the same period, U.S.-Pakistan relations — challenging at the best of times — have struck a new low. The most recent downturn began in January after Pakistani authorities arrested Raymond Davis, a cia operative posted at the U.S. embassy, for shooting two motorcycle-borne men in what was most likely a botched robbery. Despite his diplomatic immunity, Pakistan imprisoned Davis for nearly two months before releasing him in return for a reported blood money payout of between $2.1 million and $3 million to the dead men’s relatives. In July, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused the Pakistani army’s spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, of green-lighting the killing of a prominent local journalist who had written about the radicalization of the country’s armed forces.

The Abbottabad raid raises troubling questions about Pakistan’s complicity in hiding the world’s most wanted terrorist. But even before, U.S. officials had stepped up criticism of Islamabad for not doing enough to combat terrorism or to eradicate safe havens used to target nato troops in Afghanistan. According to a Fox News poll post-Abbottabad, three out of four Americans would like the U.S. to cut off aid, which has totaled upward of $20 billion since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

For its part, Pakistan has responded to U.S. concerns with belligerence rather than contrition. Parliament passed a resolution condemning the U.S. for violating Pakistan’s sovereignty in Abbottabad and demanding an end to drone strikes. Pakistani officials have allegedly leaked the name of the cia station chief in Islamabad to local newspapers, a particularly reckless act in a nation crawling with militants. And in a show of priorities bewildering to many Americans, the ISI has arrested locals who (unknowingly) helped the U.S. track bin Laden rather than those who gave him shelter.

Against this backdrop — Pakistan careening from one crisis to the next and the U.S.-Pakistan relationship at its lowest point in years — come two contrasting books from experts on the country.

Anatol Lieven is a British journalist and historian, and a fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. In the 1980s, Lieven covered Pakistan and Afghanistan for the London Times, and Pakistan: A Hard Country follows a long tradition of books by foreign correspondents, among them Christina Lamb’s Waiting for Allah, Owen Bennett Jones’s Pakistan: Eye of the Storm, and Mary Anne Weaver’s Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. His experience as a reporter gives Lieven both the tone of an insider and a vast affection for the country, which he credits for giving him “some of the best moments” of his life.

In an attempt to explain the world’s sixth-most populous nation in under 600 pages, Lieven ranges widely, touching upon everything from the rise and fall of landed families in the Punjab to the sloth of the national police to the garish décor in wealthy homes. To this ambitious task the author brings both thoroughness and an impressive familiarity with his subject. Each of Pakistan’s four provinces gets a chapter, as do matters that illuminate the country’s day-to-day workings: politics, the economy, the justice system, and so on. Despite this grab-bag approach, two themes stand out: the struggle between moderate and fundamentalist strains of Islam in the world’s first country created as a homeland for Muslims, and the role of the military in national life.

Lieven builds a meticulous case for the essential moderation of Pakistani society, and against what he sees as overheated speculation that Pakistan may go the way of Iran and succumb to a full-blooded Islamist revolution. Despite the rise of the Pakistani Taliban over the past three and a half years, and the existence of a plethora of jihadist groups, many with strong links to the isi, the odds of a jihadist takeover of the Pakistani state, and with it of the country’s 100-odd nuclear weapons, strike him as exceedingly slim.

To begin with, widespread support for Islamist rebellion — as opposed to concentrated pockets of support — exist only in the Pashtun dominated areas of Northwest Pakistan, which contain only 5 percent of the country’s population. Unlike Shia Iran, largely Sunni Pakistan houses no unified and centralized form of Islam. And while Islamism in the Indian subcontinent — dating back to the 18th-century fundamentalist Shah Waliullah, who founded Deobandism, the subcontinental equivalent of Wahhabism — has largely been an urban phenomenon, Pakistan remains mostly rural. Sufi shrines such as the famous Sehwan Sharif in Sindh — whose dervishes Lieven memorably likens to “thousand-year-old hippies” — act as breakers against any Islamist tide.

Dim prospects for a Pakistani Khomeini aside, the portrait of society that emerges from Lieven’s travels is hardly reassuring. Conspiracy theories, it appears, are the norm rather than the exception. Most Pakistanis Lieven interviews believe that the U.S. “runs their country as a neocolonial client state.” The overwhelming majority — both the masses and educated elites — think the 9/11 attacks were not in fact carried out by al Qaeda, but were part of an elaborate plot by either the U.S. or Israel (or both) intended to “provide a pretext for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as part of the U.S. strategy of dominating the Muslim world.”

Everyone from senior military officers to black-coated lawyers to students at an elite boarding school with a British sounding name spout bizarre theories about scheming Christians and Jews. A brief interview with Mehmood Ashraf Khan, a leading light of the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement that helped depose the military regime of General Pervez Musharraf and was often portrayed by the international press as a vanguard of Jeffersonian ideals, captures the flavor of such thinking.

“At the Lal Masjid [Islamabad’s Red Mosque, the scene of a 2007 battle between pro-Taliban militants and the army] thousands of innocent women were killed. I believe that this was really done by Jews and Christians to create civil war in Pakistan . . . . They say that the Taleban are burning girls’ schools, but very little of this is being done by the Taleban. Most is being done by other forces to discredit the Taleban. India has dozens of consulates in Afghanistan, not to help the Karzai administration, but to help the Taleban to destroy Pakistan.”

Lieven does not dwell much on terrorism beyond providing useful potted histories of Pakistan’s alphabet soup of jihadist and sectarian (anti-Shia) groups, among them Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and the Pakistani and Afghan variants of the Taliban. Nonetheless, on occasion he comes up with a nugget of insight, such as the observation that while most Taliban fighters are educated in madrassas, most Pakistani terrorists boast a government education, and quite often a higher education as well. In a somewhat clumsy but nonetheless accurate metaphor, Lieven likens Pakistan’s jihadist world to “a cloud of interplanetary gas in which individuals join some clump for one operation and then part again to form new ad hoc groups for other attacks.”

On the military, Lieven takes a curiously sentimental line quite at odds with the dominant view of Pakistan watchers. Indeed, the book is studded with encomiums to “the only Pakistani institution that works as it is officially meant to.” No fan of the country’s squabbling politicians, at times Lieven puts the word democracy in quotes to suggest his regard for its Pakistani variant. He appears to recoil in horror at the thought of elected civilian politicians in charge of military appointments. He worries about soldiers finding it harder to find brides on account of being seen by their compatriots as American lackeys in the war on terror.

Somewhat disingenuously, Lieven downplays evidence of Pakistan’s nuclear proliferation to Iran and Libya to make the case that a purely nationalistic impulse drove what Pakistan’s own leaders have referred to as the Islamic bomb. Indeed, except for a passing jab at the army’s obsession with India and the disputed territory of Kashmir, Lieven’s book reads a bit like it was written by a general’s houseguest. At times one can’t help but wonder whether the author’s self-declared affection for the country finds its deepest expression in regard for its men in khaki.

For a contrasting view of that institution, and of the threat emanating from Pakistan more broadly, one can turn to Bruce Riedel’s Deadly Embrace. Riedel, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution and one of Washington’s most widely respected South Asia hands, chaired President Obama’s interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan completed in 2009. As a former cia officer and advisor to three presidents on the Middle East and South Asia, Riedel has had a ringside view of Pakistan’s evolution over three decades, and of its dysfunctional relationship with the U.S.

Riedel builds his narrative around the four major jihads that have shaped Pakistan’s history over the past 30-odd years. The fanatical general Zia ul-Haq seized power in a coup in 1977, and used his twelve years in office to Islamize his own society while co-opting U.S. and Saudi Arabian support to wage a successful holy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. The one-eyed Taliban leader Mullah Omar rose to prominence in the mid-1990s and, with extensive support from the Pakistani government, briefly established perhaps the world’s most brutal Islamist regime in Kabul before being swept from power by the U.S. and its allies in 2001. Omar gave shelter to Osama bin Laden and his vanguard of Arab terrorists in the run up to the 9/11 attacks. Lastly, what Riedel terms the global jihad encompasses continued threats from al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan, its allies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, al Qaeda franchises in other parts of the global Muslim community, and sympathizers embedded among immigrants in the West, including 800,000 Britons of Pakistani descent.

To put it mildly, Riedel’s view of what he calls “the most dangerous country in the world” is not as sanguine as Lieven’s. He believes that there’s a serious possibility — albeit not yet the probability — of a “jihadist takeover of the country” either by a militant faction of the army or a militant Sunni Islamic movement led by the Taliban. He also worries that if Pakistan’s jihadism problem remains unchecked “sooner or later a Pakistan-based terror attack on India is going to lead to Armageddon.” He acknowledges that Pakistan’s so-called syndicate of terrorism — al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, and the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Taiba ( let) — share neither a single leader nor a single goal. But at the same time, they often collaborate closely, and at root share the same antipathy toward Westerners, Indians, Israelis, and Jews.

Riedel traces much of the problem to Pakistan’s military. He describes the pious General Zia as the “grandfather of global Islamic jihad.” On his watch, the isi’s strength rose from 2000 people in 1978 to 40,000 people (with a $1 billion budget) a decade later.

The intelligence agency’s links with jihadist groups have come under renewed scrutiny following the Abbottabad raid and this year’s trial of the Pakistani-American Mumbai attacks plotter David Headley in Chicago. Riedel peels back layers of history to underscore the depth and durability of those ties. The jihadist camp President Clinton fired cruise missiles at in 1998, in a failed attempt to target bin Laden after al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, was built by Pakistani contractors and funded by the isi, making the agency the Saudi’s “real hosts.” The military’s ties with the let are equally deep. Many of the terrorist group’s camps are adjacent to army bases. Retired officers from elite units such as the Special Services Group help train let fighters. Often the let and the army recruit from the same villages in the Punjab.

Not surprisingly, given their contrasting views of what ails Pakistan, Lieven and Riedel offer startlingly different prescriptions to policymakers in Washington. Lieven appears less concerned with the destabilizing effect of Pakistan on the rest of the world than with what he sees as the destabilizing effect of the U.S. on Pakistan and the horrors that could ensue should this lead to its collapse. In Lieven’s reckoning, a Pakistan left to its own devices poses much less of a danger than one pressed to change. Or, as he puts it, “if Pakistan is not South Korea it is also not the Congo.” Accordingly, he believes that “the U.S. should not contribute to the destruction of Pakistan no matter how grave the provocation.” He calls for an end to the war in Afghanistan, a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, and a correction of Washington’s alleged tilt toward India.

For Riedel, nuclear-armed Pakistan is far too reckless and unstable to afford the U.S. the luxury of a hands-off approach. Within the country the problem lies in the outsized role of the army and the isi in national life and its corrosive effect on democracy. (Generals have ruled the country directly for 34 of its 64 years as an independent country, and indirectly for much of the rest.) During that time “successive U.S. administrations have undermined civil government in Pakistan, aided military dictators, and encouraged the rise of extremist Islamic movements that now threaten the United States at home and abroad.” If at its core Lieven’s book calls for a return to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship of the 1980s — when Washington worked closely with Pakistan’s jihad-happy generals and mostly ignored its nuclear program — then Riedel’s demands exactly the opposite. In this view, the building blocks of the Pakistani state need to be rearranged rather than reinforced.

A sensible Pakistan policy, as outlined by Riedel, would make strengthening its fragile civilian institutions the underlying goal of all U.S. engagement. The U.S. needs strong intelligence and military-to-military ties with its Pakistani counterparts, but unlike in the past these should not come at the cost of stunting Pakistani democracy. To encourage reform, Washington needs to draw red lines against Islamabad’s support for terrorism — specifically its longstanding ties with both the let and the Afghan Taliban. Recalcitrant isi officials, including the powerful director general, ought to be targeted with sanctions should they refuse to cooperate. The long term goal: to “reorient the Pakistani army away from India and toward counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.”

Lieven is a fine writer and a talented historian, and his book offers a better guide than Riedel’s to the architecture of the Pakistani countryside, say, or the many cultural contradictions of contemporary Pakistani life. But it’s Deadly Embrace that policymakers must reach for first. At a philosophical level, it recognizes that radical Islam must be opposed, for it cannot be appeased. By distinguishing between ordinary Pakistanis and the institutions that govern them, and pointing out that democracy, however messy, is the only alternative to the military-jihadist complex that has stunted Pakistan’s economy and tarnished its international reputation, Riedel makes a valuable contribution to the debate in both Washington and Islamabad. The Obama administration could do a lot worse than follow his advice.