Unfolding Nightmarish Scenarios
At the outset let me drive home the point that the author of the book under review, Bruce Riedel is a former CIA officer, and was a senior adviser to four US Presidents on Middle East and South Asian issues. At the request of President Obama he chaired an interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan for the White House, which completed in March 2009. Hence, he has written a comprehensively insightful book, as he understands the perilous situation in South Asia. The 180-page-book, which contains seven chapters, explores the forces behind the developments in South Asia, explaining how and why the history of Pakistan-US relations has unfolded. The book explains what the United States can do now to repair the damage and how it can avoid making similar mistakes in dealing with extremist forces in Pakistan and beyond. According to the author, Pakistan can be frustrating for Americans. Some observers of Pakistan suggest the USA should deal with it harshly. But they must also be careful with terminology they use to describe Pakistani behaviour. Jihad like the word ‘crusade’, for example, means different things to different people, and its meaning has changed overtime. For the historical record, the book is well written and historically accurate, although a good deal of information seems to have been held back that could have truly made the book interesting and challenging. It appears to be a self-censored work, with the author claiming as usual that the ideas expressed are entirely his own and not reflective of “the official positions or views of the CIA or any other office of the US government”; nor do they imply “any branch of government has authenticated the information or endorsed the author’s view.” Further, the material was vetted by the CIA “to prevent the disclosure of classified information”.
Somewhat surprisingly for a self-styled realist, Riedel argues that a relationship based on momentary self-interest has not worked for either Pakistan. The writer maintains that the United States must do better in Pakistan or these nightmare scenarios will come to pass. In calling for the “defeat of the jihadist monster” that is forming in Pakistan, the author emphasises that engagement is the best means. Increased military involvement, such as drone strikes and raids, by contrast, will only create long-term problems. The first half of book is also his most interesting, thorough and convincing section. It recounts the history of US-Pakistan relations with an emphasis on American mistakes. For younger Americans, the Pakistan relationship seems one-sided: Washington provides aid and weapons, and in return is loathed by the Pakistani public for excessive meddling and is betrayed by a government in Islamabad that sponsors and safeguards America’s enemies.
The book defines policy ideas–supporting democracy, generous aid programmes, “red lines” (absolutely no support for terrorists), and regional peace—are noble but require American involvement ad nauseam in Pakistani affairs. And while a less cynical relationship with a democratic Pakistan would help, the transformative effect of sincerity on Islamabad’s strategic calculus is, at best, doubtful. The book is a good read, and supports the best rhetorical intentions of the US towards Pakistan. But surely the US made some mistakes. However, it’s not really its fault, as, according to the book, it is only trying its best to protect itself in this desperate and inchoate land, the birthplace of 9/11 and global jihad. Yet the author maintains that the US can correct its actions in order to help Pakistan achieve its goals. However, along the way, many questions arise where good opportunities for larger contextual information would have been very helpful and more truthful to the overall narrative.
By Ashok Kumar