Washington: Predictions of a nuclear war in South Asia by American analysts always churn the stomachs of, well, South Asians who sit in the audience listening to dire warnings silently praying that their leaders have more sense than are given credit for. The more daring taunt the Americans for having the dubious distinction of actually using a nuclear weapon.
Your columnist recently sat through another one of these gut-wrenching sessions at the Hudson Institute where Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who dealt with South Asia and advised four presidents, promoted his new book. The title captures the gist of his fears -- “Avoiding Armageddon: America, India and Pakistan to the Brink and Back.” He examines this scalene triangle of failed policies and America’s refusal to learn from history.
His central thesis: India and Pakistan have fought four wars and there is no reason to believe that they are done. Next time they go about this business, it will be, well, Armageddon. It is like Russian roulette and sooner or later “you get a live round.”
The two countries need to talk, solve the Kashmir dispute while thwarting the “dark forces” in Pakistan that will surely try to sabotage any progress. The United States can be a “cheer leader” with “clever and innovative policies” but it can’t and shouldn’t be a mediator.
Is Riedel another believer of the Pakistan military’s narrative that unless Kashmir is resolved – to Pakistan’s satisfaction – nothing would really improve in absolute terms? He says while resolving Kashmir may or may not help, leaving it to fester guarantees that the India-Pakistan problem will go “on and on and on.”
While India is an important partner for the United States, Pakistan is no less important if only for its negative value. It has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal – pegged at a 100 weapons by many analysts but Riedel estimates the number to be double. It is Pakistan that Americans need to worry about, not Iran.
If that were not enough to wet the brow, consider this: the world’s three most wanted terrorists are in Pakistan. Hafiz Saeed, the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba now parading as a politician, is a “darling of the ISI,” according to Riedel. He roams openly and freely. Then there is Mullah Omar, the Taliban big boss, who is hiding in Karachi or Quetta in an “ISI safehouse.” And finally Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new leader of al-Qaeda who is probably hiding in a house similar to Osama bin Laden’s fortified compound.
The wealth of detail that Riedel brings because of his access to secret CIA documents is chilling. He is convinced that someone senior in the ISI knew about bin Laden. Bin Laden’s compound was less than a 100 yards from the gate to Pakistan’s Kakul Military Academy in Abbottabad, home of three regiments. It is in a closed military zone to which you need a pass to enter. Military helicopters flew over the compound daily.
“We believe it was built by a contractor who was a former ISI officer. ISI claims to be clueless but we have pretty powerful evidence that someone knew, someone high-up.”
These guys are not hiding in caves but in the front yard. Sooner or later, the CIA will find out who was hiding bin-Laden but here’s the catch – no one in the Obama Administration wants to find out, Riedel says, because then you have to confront what to do about it.
And so it goes in Washington. Even though President Barack Obama has a clear-eyed view of Pakistani “deep state,” he has presided over chunks of military aid to Pakistan for its cooperation in fighting terrorism. By the time he ordered the raid on bin-Laden, the US had given $25 billion to Pakistan. A more astonishing detail is that Pakistan got more US military aid than Israel in the last decade – a superb job of “leading Washington by its nose.”
Leaving the prescriptions aside for the moment, the book’s true value lies in Riedel’s willingness to look honestly at the history of US policies toward Pakistan. Americans have been taken by false promises and the hope that money will buy everything. “We have committed the same mistakes over and over again,” Riedel said in a welcome bout of honesty. But during his long career, did he raise his voice against this policy habit? We will never know, but then people in the policy machinery in all countries generally find their voices only after retirement.
Riedel shows how various US presidents fell in love with various Pakistani rulers for various reasons. Personalities played a more important role than one might imagine – Ronald Reagan “fell in love” with Zia-ul-Haq, and mourned his death “deeply.” Together they built the ISI and by the 1980s, the organisation was 100,000-strong. The US paid for most of it and when in doubt, nudged the Saudis to fill in the blanks. Today the ISI is the “foremost patron of terror in the world,” according to Riedel.
George W. Bush saw something in Pervez Musharraf’s eyes that convinced him that the general was actually an honest partner in the war against terrorism. According to Riedel, Musharraf “hoodwinked” Bush for seven long years, a fact that Bush reluctantly admitted in his own memoirs. Those times are captured well here.
Then were the secret projects with Pakistan that became the drivers of US policy to the exclusion of all else. Dwight Eisenhower convinced Pakistan in 1957 to allow a secret facility for U-2 spy planes to watch the Soviet Union. One such plane piloted by Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviets in 1960, embarrassing the US. Richard Nixon used Pakistan to conduct secret forays to China for the famed “opening” while Reagan used Zia’s Pakistan to launch his proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The fourth not-so-secret project was the war against al-Qaeda in which Pakistan has played both sides.
How to break the habit? With some clear sunlight, hard-nosed policies and reorganization of the US bureaucracy. Riedel is down on separating Pakistan and Afghanistan from India for policy-making purposes. The Af-Pak idea was promoted by Richard Holbrooke, a diplomat who pushed it through to the detriment of US policy. Holbrooke died in 2010 but the bureaucratic division survives. South Asia should be treated as a unit both in the State Department and in the Pentagon. Pakistan comes under Pentagon’s Central command while India is under Pacific Command for some reason where China and Japan loom larger.
Riedel’s remedy is to create a new command and put India and Pakistan under it. “Good organization is not a guarantee of good policy but bad organization almost always guarantees bad policy.” The book draws from evidence on Pakistan’s role gathered from documents and from Taliban prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan.
But don’t hold your breath for major policy changes at least until 2014, the deadline for US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Even after that, it might be hard to break the habit.