Book Reviews

Ignorance, Meet Self-Pity

It doesn’t matter that the administration and Americans know almost nothing about Pakistan. And Pakistan’s neuroses only make things worse.

By Jeffrey Goldberg

Tagged Pakistan

Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding By Husain Haqqani • PublicAffairs Books • 2013 • 432 pages • $28.99

The intersection of Van Ness Street and International Drive in the northwest quadrant of Washington may be the capital’s epicenter of foreign surveillance. The embassies of Pakistan, the People’s Republic of China, and Israel are situated on three of the intersection’s four corners. The embassies are home to intelligence agencies interested in the activities of the American government, and America’s national security apparatus is obviously preoccupied with the activities of the diplomats and spies who work inside these intensely guarded, fortress-like buildings. Ubiquity of listening devices in the neighborhood is assumed. It might be possible to microwave popcorn simply by laying it on the street and waiting a few minutes.

A recent Pakistani ambassador to the United States, however, faced a different, more insidious counterintelligence challenge than the quotidian pressures of American surveillance. The activities of Husain Haqqani, who served as ambassador from 2008 until 2011, were naturally of some interest to various American intelligence agencies. This sort of attention would be standard for an ambassador who represents that rarest of nation-state archetypes, the country that is both an ally and an enemy of the United States.

But Haqqani’s activities were apparently of much greater interest to the agents of his own country’s main spy agency, the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI. During his service in Washington, Haqqani was widely understood to be something of a dissident ambassador. In 2005, he had written a book, Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, which detailed the manner in which the all-powerful Pakistani military and its intelligence branch unleashed fundamentalist Muslim fervor to advance their own goals (mainly having to do, as ever, with confronting India), and then failed to control these fundamentalists as they became a danger to the entire world. The leaders of the ISI, perhaps the most powerful force in a country only nominally ruled by civilians, saw him as a fierce critic of their activities, habits, and priorities.

According to numerous officials I have spoken with in both Washington and Islamabad, Haqqani, while serving as the chief of Pakistan’s embassy, was a regular surveillance target of the ISI, which maintains a large presence in the embassy. In many ways, the ISI was correct to fear him. I write this not because he was working against them—he was, in fact, an invaluable advocate for a country, and a military, that have very little credibility among American policy-makers and media figures. As a reporter who writes about Pakistan extensively, I got to know Haqqani a bit and watched as he defended various dubious-to-appalling activities of the Pakistani government, and I observed, with a kind of admiration, his ability to temper American rage after Osama bin Laden was discovered living just down the road from Pakistan’s West Point. In other words, he performed his assigned task well. (It should be noted here though that Haqqani’s acerbic view of Pakistani duplicity and American naïveté, combined with a feeling in some quarters that he has been, on occasion, something of a political opportunist, mean that certain corners of the American policy community have been immune to his charms.)

But the ISI should have feared Haqqani—and should continue to fear him today—because he was at the same time arguing for democracy and against military rule. A journalist, academic, and political activist, Haqqani was appointed with the blessing of then-President Asif Ali Zardari to the ambassadorship over the objections of the ISI. By 2011, Haqqani’s enemies in Pakistan—and there are many, particularly in the ISI-influenced press—exacted revenge on the ambassador by accusing him of seeking Pentagon aid to stymie an imaginary military coup. (To explain this bizarre drama in full would be a waste of time and space. The only reason to do so would be to demonstrate how even elite, Western-educated Pakistanis are prone to believing the most outlandish and elaborate conspiracy theories, particularly if these theories buttress their belief that some nefarious cabal of Americans, Hindus, and Jews is out to undermine their existence.) The charges against Haqqani were groundless, but they were enough to end his ambassadorship and even to threaten his life: Called back to Islamabad for investigation, he was forced to take refuge at the prime minister’s compound as death threats proliferated.

The case against Haqqani disintegrated soon enough, and he was allowed to leave Pakistan. (He lives now in the United States.) The assumption among those who know him is that he shall not be able to return home soon. In part because he is a free man now, and in part because he is predisposed to exposing the hypocrisies of Pakistan’s ruling elite anyway, he has written another book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, that, if anything, makes an even stronger case than the first that Pakistan’s military, which has governed the country either directly or indirectly through most of its 66-year existence, is a malevolent, corrosive force: supporting terrorism; introducing nuclear weapons into an unstable and dangerous region, and exporting nuclear technology to rogue states; and taking billions of dollars worth of weapon systems from the United States that were meant to contain the Soviet Union and battle Islamist terror, but instead are used to menace India, a country whose threat to Pakistan’s existence is exaggerated by Pakistani nationalists beyond all reason. Most of all, Haqqani shows that the people of Pakistan—now roughly 190 million of them, 35 percent under the age of 15—have consistently been victimized by an endless series of cynical religious nationalists and self-dealing generalissimos who have retarded Pakistan’s growth and trained its people to blame outsiders for their country’s debased state.

The questions Haqqani answers in this book—among them, Why do Pakistan and the United States perpetually careen from one crisis to another?—should make it indispensable reading for U.S. Presidents and secretaries of state, all of whom seem to believe upon entering office that they will be able to right the relationship but then, without exception, fail.

Why do they fail? Two main reasons: The first is American attention deficit disorder and ignorance of the region and its complexities; the second is Pakistani paranoia and self-pity. Haqqani’s dissident understanding of the world becomes clear in the book’s opening pages, when he makes a declaration exceedingly rare for a Pakistani. “Over all these years I have seen Americans make mistakes in their dealings with Pakistan as well as in their overall foreign policy,” Haqqani writes. “Nonetheless I have always been convinced that the United States remains a force for good in the world. Pakistan has benefited from its relations with the United States and would benefit even more if it could overcome erroneous assumptions about its own national security and role in the world.”

Haqqani argues throughout Magnificent Delusions that nothing in this relationship is actually new. Many of the dysfunctions, resentments, and miscommunications that characterize the relationship between Pakistan and the United States today are mere echoes of disputes that took place decades ago. The arguments over the use of Pakistani bases for U.S. intelligence operations that we hear today? The same debates erupted in the 1960s, the difference being that the bases back then were used for spying on the Soviet Union instead of watching—and attacking—the Taliban. There is also the issue of Pakistani hypersensitivity to insult. This is a phenomenon as old as Pakistan itself. After the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, died in September 1948, a Reuters report suggested that U.S. diplomats were asking whether “Mr. Jinnah’s disappearance from the political scene would weaken Muslim determination to maintain the partition of India.” Haqqani writes that “this anonymous report stirred an emotional reaction that U.S. representatives were not accustomed to.” The Dawn newspaper, then Pakistan’s most important, reacted with rage, arguing that the quote was proof of an “insidious conspiracy.” Haqqani adds:

That a simple speculative comment should elicit such reaction indicated Pakistanis’ prickliness about observations of the country’s viability. In the six decades since this first Pakistani claim that a single remark in a news report somehow amounted to an attack on Pakistan integrity, American officials would have to issue many more clarifications, explanations, and apologies. This first angry riposte foretold the rage Americans could expect if they question Pakistan’s view of events and the nation’s sense of self.

One other frequently recurring theme in Pakistan-U.S. relations: The Pakistani tendency to blame Hindus and Jews for their woes. After Time magazine in 1948 described the recently deceased Jinnah as a “man of hate” and “the best showman,” a fury erupted. One prominent Pakistani columnist asserted that “[s]ome wretched malicious Hindu must have said these things to [the] Time Correspondent in India and he swallowed it and so did his editor at home.” He went on to write, “Another friend suggests that all this is due to Jewish money and influence.” More than 60 years later, I can report—from personal experience—that such accusations of Hindu and Jewish perfidy remain unchanged.

There was never a golden age in U.S.-Pakistan relations, Haqqani argues. American officials generally were skeptical—even during some stretches of the Cold War—about Pakistan’s utility to the United States; the Pakistanis, for their part, never seemed to forgive Americans for this ambivalence, and appeared to resent the United States for the billions of dollars in aid that it provided them. Even as Pakistan’s rulers accepted the aid, they suspected that the United States cared not at all for them, and that many American policy-makers even questioned the rationale for their country’s existence as a homeland and refuge for the subcontinent’s Muslims. In this suspicion, they weren’t always wrong. “From the American perspective, the notion of a significant minority seeking separation rather than safeguards for itself opened doors for perennial conflict,” Haqqani writes. “Postcolonial nations all over the world would fragment as a result of similar separate demands.”

Perhaps the most acerbic commentary on Pakistan in the early years of American engagement came from Hans Morgenthau. Writing in The New Republic in 1956, Morgenthau averred: “Pakistan is not a nation and hardly a state. It has no justification in history, ethnic origin, language, civilization or the consciousness of those who make up its population. They have no interest in common, save one: fear of Hindu domination. It is to that fear, and to nothing else, that Pakistan owes its existence.”

Morgenthau may have been bitingly harsh, but to his credit, he at least understood some basic facts. The same could not be said for many American officials whose portfolios included Pakistan. Most famously, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once told the columnist Walter Lippmann that Pakistan’s supply of fierce fighters would make the country a valuable ally. “I’ve got to get some real fighting men into South Asia,” Dulles said. “The Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.” Haqqani, who writes with admirable dispassion, notes that “Dulles was, of course, wrong, because the Gurkhas are Hindus from Nepal, not Pakistanis. Nineteenth-century British theories about the martial races of the subcontinent had obviously influenced Dulles’s views.”

If ignorance, inattention, and intermittent disrespect have been hallmarks of the American approach to Pakistan, Pakistan’s posture toward the United States could be defined by its duplicity. Haqqani argues boldly that Pakistani leaders lie to the United States about their support for terror organizations; that they lied about their nuclear intentions; and that they have lied—over a span of decades—about the real reason they wanted to own so much advanced American weaponry. Pakistan was never the Cold War ally it seemed to be; Haqqani argues that Pakistan’s Cold War rhetoric was meant to induce the United States to supply the weapons it needed for its confrontation with the putatively hegemonic Hindus of India.

I have watched officials of three different American administrations convince themselves—conditionally, and ephemerally—that Pakistan could be converted into a true, trustworthy ally of the United States. Immediately after 9/11, President George W. Bush believed that his with-us-or-against-us rhetoric had moved Pakistan firmly into the column of allies. And superficially, it may have. The unlamented former military ruler of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, learning lessons from a previous generation of autocrats, told the Americans what they wanted to hear: We are with you in the struggle against jihadism. And yet, 12 years on, radical organizations supported by the ISI are killing American soldiers in Afghanistan, and terror groups responsible for such atrocities as the Mumbai massacre of 2008 are allowed to operate freely on Pakistani soil and are often aided by the security agency.

Pakistan’s failure to manage its relationship with the United States is the main subject of this book, but Magnificent Delusions is ultimately about Pakistan’s failure to break free of a victimization narrative imposed on it by the country’s rulers—in particular, the military men who need to promote fear of India in order to justify their privileges.

The most persistently interesting question to me, in the 15 years since I started visiting Pakistan, is this: In 1947, the Asian subcontinent was divided into two parts. One became the world’s largest democracy, a society with enormous problems but also terrific economic and social potential; the other became Pakistan, a country that has been fairly described as a nuclear-armed, oil-free Nigeria. Why has Pakistan slipped so terribly?

In one of our conversations, Haqqani gave me his theory of the case: “India embraced two things that Pakistan chose not to embrace,” he said. “One was a combination of pluralism and democracy, and the other was nonalignment in foreign policy.” He went on, “Nehru [India’s first prime minister] decided that India was too weak to become embroiled in international power politics. He thought it made sense for India to get help from all international actors.”

In Pakistan, by contrast, Haqqani said that a small, elite, military-heavy establishment

tried to impose an idea of nationhood. Instead of recognizing Pakistan’s own diversity, certain ethnic groups were deemed less Pakistani—the Bengalis, the Pashtuns, the Baloch—and then, to make matters worse, Pakistan decided to maintain a military capability totally disproportionate to the resources it had on hand. To maintain that capability, they needed American weapons, and to get those weapons, they promised to confront Communism, when in fact they were most interested in maintaining tensions with India.

Haqqani argued that the same holds true today: “This desire to have military parity with India by acquiring American weapons on false pretenses ends up undermining the potential for prosperity in Pakistan.”

On one of my most recent visits to Pakistan, I visited an area near the Swat Valley, the location of a great deal of Taliban activity. I ran into a friendly army officer (most Pakistani army officers don’t have warm feelings toward the United States, despite their love of American weapons systems), and he shared with me, enthusiastically, his ideas about confronting the sort of Muslim fundamentalists who threaten the integrity of Pakistan. His ideas were good ones—a combination of counterinsurgency and counter-radicalization—and I asked him if he was in a position to implement them. No, he said: He and his unit were being redeployed to the Indian border, to confront Pakistan’s main menace.

Husain Haqqani would not have been surprised by this conversation. As he shows in his latest book, nothing in Pakistan actually changes, except to get worse.

Read more about Pakistan

Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.

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