No-Win War: The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow
By Zahid Hussain, Oxford University Press, Pakistan 2021, 355 pages
The United States and Pakistan became the oddest of odd couples on the global stage in the period after the Second World War, caught in a tragic embrace that failed to deliver on their mutual promises. Each country’s leaders heard what the other’s leaders said but they did not listen. What was said did not match what was meant or left unsaid. Both sides also had trouble remembering or understanding their history, leaving both in a maze of confusion and disappointment.
This new book by Pakistan’s eminent chronicler Zahid Hussain opens with the scene of “best buddies” George W Bush and Pervez Musharraf standing together in the celebrated Hotel Waldorf Astoria on November 10, 2001. Musharraf, hitherto an ostracised dictator, was basking in the newly found glory of having been readmitted by Bush into the club of America’s friends. “Pakistan will hope for a very sustainable and longstanding, futuristic relationship developing between Pakistan and the United States, a relationship which we always have had in the past”, proclaimed Musharraf. He was wrong, both in his understanding of the past rollercoaster relationship between these unequal “friends” and his hope for the future.
Hussain captures the many twists and turns of the journey of Bush and Musharraf and their successors, through his detailed reporting and deft explanations of how each side’s wishful thinking clouded its judgement about the other’s ability to meet their common goals: the eradication of terror and militancy from Afghanistan and the region and thus the prevention of another attack on the American mainland by Al Qaeda or any other group from that neighbourhood.
America lumped Afghanistan and Pakistan together, but in the wrong order, with the much larger, nuclear-armed Pakistan becoming the coda to Afghanistan in the poorly named Af-Pak theatre. Moreover, as Hussain explains, the United States did not have a clearly defined endgame for Afghanistan nor an exit plan that would allow its allies and partners like Pakistan, who were pressed into service, to make their own decisions with confidence. The war lurched on and on as some 19 field commanders from NATO and America came and went through the revolving doors in Kabul, on average every 13 months. Tactics became strategy. No one knew how the story would end.
Hussain clearly had good access to Kayani and builds the story of Kayani’s US relationship as it crumbled under the suspicions of the Americans and Kayani’s own impatience with the inability of the Americans to seal the eastern border of Afghanistan with Pakistan
The result, as detailed in Hussain’s incisive reporting and interviews with key players, especially in the Pakistani military, was a growing distrust of each other that was masked by false smiles and carefully wrought language that was just enough to keep US aid flowing to Pakistan. Meanwhile, Pakistan returned the favour by doing just enough to indicate that its military was fighting terrorism in America’s war.
For those who wish to get a guided tour of the past two decades of this unequal partnership between a super power and its client state, this book offers a clear and well documented journey through the labyrinth of events beginning with the botched effort to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden at Tora Bora, his escape to Pakistan and eventual hideout in Abbottabad. It then explains how Musharraf lost favour after failing to deliver on his promises and the ill-fated Benazir Bhutto was anointed as his potential successor. America, under a new and popular president, Barack Obama, who had promised to end this “necessary war” and the unnecessary one in Iraq, ratcheted up the drone attacks on Pakistani soil. What the Pakistani people did not know, because they were misled by their government and military, was the fact that the drone campaign was in collaboration with the Pakistani leadership and often the drones were being launched from inside Pakistan. Governments of both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif participated in this charade. The people of Pakistan remained and continue to remain in the dark.
The United States paid lip service to its consultations with the civilian governments while relying heavily on its military partners in Rawalpindi, and especially the Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani. Hussain clearly had good access to Kayani and builds the story of Kayani’s US relationship as it crumbled under the suspicions of the Americans and Kayani’s own impatience with the inability of the Americans to seal the eastern border of Afghanistan with Pakistan. This allowed Pakistani insurgents to use the Afghan borderlands as sanctuaries, much the way the Afghan Taliban used Pakistani territory to rest and recuperate and to park their families. All with a wink and a nod from the Pakistani military.
The raid on Abbottabad to kill Bin Laden effectively sealed the fate of this pretend relationship. It exposed US distrust of Pakistan as well as the gradual build-up of US intelligence activity inside Pakistan, culminating in a series of events in 2011 that broke the alliance. The US-led NATO attack on Pakistani soldiers at the border post of Salala on 26 November 2011 that killed 26 and wounded 12 was the culmination of the aggressive US posture in 2011. The relationship with Pakistan began crumbling rapidly as the US dithered in issuing an unequivocal apology. Pakistan shut down the ground routes into Afghanistan. The US shut off aid flows and the reimbursements under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF). This pattern continued through the tumultuous period of Obama’s successor, the irascible and easily irritated Donald J Trump who cut off most aid to Pakistan. Hussain’s narrative helps us understand the manner in which Pakistan failed to fight the terror networks inside its borders and how America penetrated Pakistan’s institutions to find complaint and buyable civilians and military officers who opened doors and helped cover up the misdeeds of others. A fuller examination of the Abbottabad Commission and the subsequent trials of senior military officers reportedly for espionage would have added much needed details and enhanced public understanding. Pakistan continues to place a cloak of secrecy on all such matters, leaving it vulnerable to repeating its mistakes in the future.
‘No-Win War’ is a sad but true story of how America and Pakistan lost their way to finding trust and stability in the region. Hussain does a huge service to his compatriots by succinctly presenting the facts and hidden details of much that happened since 2001 inside Pakistan and with Afghanistan. In a country that relies on the oral tradition to pass information and analysis, Zahid Hussain has made a necessary and important contribution to help us understand Pakistan. It is time others, in the civil and the military, who were involved in decision-making during these past turbulent two decades came out with their versions of what happened and why. That would be a good way for Pakistan to confront its past and prepare for its future.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council in Washington DC and was the Center’s founding director in 2009. He is author of ‘The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship
and a Tough Neighbourhood’ and ‘Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within’. He tweets @shujanawaz and his website can be found at: http://www.shujanawaz