An Insider’s Perspective on Strained US-Pakistan ties and Challenges for India’s Hostile Neighbour

WHAT STRIKES YOU first about this book is author Shuja Nawaz’s extensive global network and his access to people and documents—those that matter both in the US and Pakistan, countries he calls his two homelands. He started writing The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood (Vintage; 400 pages; Rs 799) in 2008 while he was a citizen of Pakistan and completed it as an American citizen. This is a book that is also a continuation of his seminal 2008 work Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within, which had dwelt at length on the history of Pakistan’s army, military-civilian ties, relations with India, the US, China and others. Like Cross Swords, this one, too, is rich with anecdotes, one-on-one interviews with people who have shaped or continue to preside over Pakistan-US ties, archival material from both sides of the globe and Nawaz’s own first-hand experience of the goings-on within the corridors of power in Washington DC and Islamabad.

With worries escalating in Pakistan over the US’ closer ties with its hostile neighbour India that it fears may result in two traditional allies growing apart, the author offers tips on how the relationship can be made fruitful once again so that Pakistan doesn’t succumb to its myriad challenges, including debilitating internal strife and external threats.

He reasons that neither China’s growing interests in Pakistan nor American affinity for India should mean the US-Pakistan friendship has to suffer or end. He makes valuable suggestions on salvaging the US-Pakistan chequered collaboration.

He kicks off the debate: ‘…the US is the oldest major power to have had a relationship with Pakistan. But the US has failed to develop a steady relationship with Pakistan despite its potential leverage of direct economic and military assistance, including a large quantum of training for the best and brightest military officers from Pakistan, and assistance from US-dominated international financial institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Asian Development Bank.’

Nawaz recognises the challenges that Pakistan faces in retaining its goodwill towards the US, especially after the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad in 2011, and notes that ‘Pakistan continues to view its regional interests and strategies at a tangent from the views of the US and its Coalition Partners, while ostensibly working with the Coalition Forces in return for Coalition Support Funding (or any successor arrangement)’.

This aspect is what he sees as a major challenge before the incumbent Imran Khan government. He notes in the book that Pakistan needs to free itself from economic dependence on US aid by undertaking reforms internally and reducing tensions with India and Afghanistan. ‘It can do this. Rather, it must do this,’ he writes.

Indeed, the author’s diagnosis of Pakistan’s domestic problems offers tremendous insights. Nawaz is anxious about the rising power of the states in Pakistan and his prescription is to divide the country further into more provinces to fight centrifugal tendencies that are gaining in momentum.

He is right in his concerns about a country that faces ‘a persistent dynastic corrupt political system under which major Old Guard political parties are led by autocrats.’ Khan’s victory in 2018 was a breakaway moment, yet such forces of the past continue to wield influence. Nawaz’s pronouncement about the powerful military establishment is that it continues to foster a ‘culture of entitlement’ for its senior ranks. He rues that this culture is mimicked by civilian entities.

One silver lining he sees is that the Pakistani military is now far more preoccupied with fighting internal militancy and insurgency. ‘Younger officers are routinely sent from the PMA (Pakistan Military Academy) in Kakul to the border region. They are all battle-inoculated and tend to view unfavourably the corruption of their civilian masters as well as visible wealth acquired by senior military officers through the acquisition of real estate via the proliferation of the defence housing schemes that provide windfall profits with relatively small investments. Continued urban recruitment will strengthen such views among younger recruits,’ states the book.

Nawaz, who has famously and publicly voiced his support for the domination of civilian authorities in Pakistan, is also dead against the state and the military ‘strengthening the hands’ of militant sectarian groups by ‘so-called ‘mainstreaming’ activities’. He emphasises, ‘As in the past, the fostering of such groups may boomerang on the patrons over time.’

In the introduction to the book, Nawaz, who has in this work meticulously dug out details of the rapidly changing US-Pakistan relations from the point of view of grandees involved in the high-level negotiations from both sides, has stated, however, that he has nothing against the army.

In fact, he has respect for all those who wear the uniform ‘for their desire and willingness to serve and protect their homeland’. He discloses that he belongs to ‘a military family and a warrior clan, the Januja Rajputs,’ and takes ‘pride in his heritage’.

He adds, ‘But I do not support the military as a substitute for civil government. Nor do I favour politicisation of the military, in Pakistan and the US, both’. Pakistan, evidently, has a long and fractured history of such trends. Nawaz doesn’t approve of anyone who speaks truth to power being seen as traitors.

In fact, he states categorically that ‘America failed Pakistan by relying too much on its military partners in Pakistan and mollycoddling the corrupt civilian government’. He regrets that in the process it is the people of Pakistan that successive American governments have failed.

He also compares the stance of the US with that of the country’s leaders who, according to him, ‘failed to recognize the centrality of their own youthful and highly urbanized population to the future strength and stability of their country’.

Notwithstanding US President Donald Trump’s muscular foreign policy that typically promotes ‘shortsighted’ regional tie-ups besides being unpredictable and erratic, he writes about what the US can do to retain old ties with Pakistan as part of efforts to maintain stability in the whole of Middle East.

For a man who had worn multiple hats in his life, as an adviser to the great economist Dr Mahbub ul Haq while the latter was minister; executive with IAEA, IMF, a renowned journalist and Director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council, Nawaz writes with clarity that comes from extreme familiarity of the subject he deals with.

Certain critics may tag his work as being overly optimistic about the future of the country of his origin, yet his analysis of the series of events over the past several decades that marked the evolving geopolitics of the sub-continent is profound. Like in Crossed Swords, here too, he comes up with a multi-layered and historical take on Pakistan’s key stakeholders in power and their relationship with the US in peace as well as during war.

Pakistan's Dilemma

Correcting institutional imbalances in Pakistan, however, is easier said than done. From a fledgling democracy in 1947 when it was carved out of India, that country’s military establishment, as opposed to that of India, amassed power too early and too easily and it has shown no signs of yielding.

On the other hand, fleeting occasions when political classes had come together to stand up against the might of the army were met with retaliations of extreme bias. For such a correction, therefore, to happen, the Pakistani military has to take the initiative and that looks like a great idea confined to seminar rooms.

Which explains why America, brutally realistic in its trysts with governments and historically insistent on immediate quid pro quo, found a problem parleying with those who do not call the shots in a country. But then, scholars, be they from India or Pakistan, tend to be positive in their outlook about the future of their country, perhaps for all the right reasons notwithstanding dollops of emotionalism.

Before I talk about the author’s views on how the Pakistan army thinks about India’s strategies and tactics, let’s take a look at some key submissions Nawaz has made to the US and Pakistan to boost each other’s sagging ties. The author wants the US to work to help Pakistan understand that it will not assist any foreign attempt to undermine Pakistan’s integrity and independence.

He writes, ‘Employ the US influence directly and through international financial institutions to transform Pakistan’s management of the economy, especially its longer-term strategies to deal with growing demographic pressures and changing economic situations in the Middle East…. Help Pakistan achieve a bigger bang for its military dollars. This could be done by providing Pakistan advice and assistance in adopting a practicable taxonomy for defence planning and management, revamping the budget system….. The US could improve Pakistan’s defences while exercising greater influence over its offensive capabilities in the neighbourhood….. If India could be persuaded to shift one more of its three strike corps facing Pakistan to the Chinese border or deeper into the heartland, the signaling effect on Pakistan would be enormous… The White House and Department of State also need to work in tandem with the Pakistani government and the US Congress with the Pakistani Parliament to help make the government more open, inclusive and pluralistic in running the country… The US needs to craft a clearer and longer-term Pakistan strategy and not see it as a spin-off or subset of its Afghanistan or India strategies.’

While Nawaz’s hopes stem from his credentials as true patriot of two of his homelands, it certainly also mirrors, in general, the aspirations of countries that have had a long-term association with the US. Americans, on the other hand, have historically given least value to emotionalism, right from the time of Suharto in Indonesia to several others elsewhere, and instead lays greater thrust on ruthless pragmatism that borders on the selfish.

In the chapter ‘Pakistan’s Military Dilemma’, Nawaz makes compelling arguments about India’s military designs and Pakistan’s perception of threat. It is a peek into what the Pakistani army thinks about the possibility of a full-fledged war, including a nuclear one, with India.

Though India has publicly been soft about its Cold Start, a strategy it devised after the 2001 Parliament attack and stresses on amassing troops on the border to target key locations in Pakistan in the event of a similar attack even before global powers call for ceasefire, Pakistan continues to feel uneasy about it because such a policy would deny Islamabad an opportunity for launching a nuclear strike.

This had forced Pakistan to come up with a new doctrine and in the wake of India’s recent aggressive stance, it has far more reasons to be fidgety about the possibility of a war. The answer to all this, Nawaz avers in his book, rests on a Strategic Restraint Regime, rooted in continuing and deepening contacts between India and Pakistan at all levels of government and society to reduce the risk of an accidental conflict.

Nawaz, who is worried about the growth of right-wing politics in the subcontinent and elsewhere, is crestfallen about the tendencies of leaders, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is endowed with great authority and political backing to pursue politically skewed goals instead of playing the statesman to turn the region into a robust economic powerhouse.

When you finish reading the book, you cannot help sensing a tinge of sadness that Nawaz feels about the new realities in the subcontinent and odds stacked against Pakistan. But what makes this book a must-read for those who want to know about the intriguing world of defence and military cooperation between the US and Pakistan, involving China, India and Afghanistan, is that many things he tells us here are untold stories.

It is impossible not to feel an admiration for the authoritative account of military history of one of the most interesting geographies of the world. Of all his interviews with men and women who matter carried in the book, those with General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani leave the most lasting impression. For, Shuja Nawaz combines the skills of an investigative journalist and an accomplished scholar in his latest work.

First published in Open

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