Reading this flawed but important book is like watching an endless replaying of the same conversation. Partly that’s because the book – Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, by Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States – is repetitive and about 100 pages too long. But the more significant reason is that the US-Pakistani relationship is a tale of depressing history repeating itself.
It is the story of 67 years of the same threats, demands, excuses, wishful thinking, missed signals, manipulation, miscalculations, backtracking and naivete.
Starting with its independence in 1947, and continuing through wars, floods, China opening to the US, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Taliban, and a dozen dictators, presidents, juntas, prime ministers and other rulers, Pakistan has single-mindedly directed one message over and over to the world: India wants to destroy us, so give us weapons to protect ourselves. Sometimes the message has been cloaked in overlays of broader American interests, such as promises that Pakistan would use the weapons to fight the Soviet Union or terrorists.
And too often, the US has chosen to hear only the overlays.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, for instance, Pakistan’s military ruler, Muhammad Zia Ul Haq, promptly presented Washington with a long shopping list of armaments, allegedly to bolster the Afghan resistance and block any moves by Moscow across the Afghan-Pakistan border. Pakistan, Gen Zia declared, was the “back door to the Gulf”. If America skimped on these supplies, that would subject his country to “greater animosity from the Soviet Union, which is now more influential in this region than the US”.
What neither Zia nor the US acknowledged was that many of the items on his list, such as tanks, “could not conceivably be used along Pakistan’s mountainous border with Afghanistan; they were clearly intended for the plains of the Punjab and Sindh, along the border with India,” Haqqani writes.
Although Pakistan itself may be only a minor player in the great global chess game, its history has major implications. For one thing, it is an unstable country with nuclear weapons and ties to some nasty terrorist groups, evoking the distinct fear that Al Qaeda or others of its ilk could gain access to the atom bomb.
There are also worrisome parallels to contemporary Iran, which most of the world assumes is pursuing nuclear weapons, though Tehran denies it. “The game of hide-and-seek over Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme continued for almost two decades,” according to Magnificent Delusions. Almost every time Islamabad was caught violating some previous promise, Washington backtracked and drew a new line in the sand, with a new threat of sanctions. Finally, Haqqani writes, matters reached the point where “the United States had failed to recognise that no Pakistani government could curtail the nuclear programme”.
Problems with the outside world were probably inevitable, because Pakistan was born without a clearly defined reason for being. In theory, “the creation of Pakistan was intended to save South Asia’s Muslims from being a permanent minority within India,” Haqqani says. However, one-third of that supposedly protected population stayed in India. (A quarter-century later, when Bangladesh broke away to form a separate, Muslim-majority nation, Pakistan lost even more of its religious-protectorate claim.) Meanwhile, Pakistan’s initial ruling elite was generally British-trained and secular, not devoutly Muslim.
Over the years, the country’s leaders – whether civilian or military – relied on two strategies to bolster both the national identity and their own power. Every time something went wrong, they would heat up the rhetoric against the existential enemy, India – particularly regarding control over the disputed territory of Kashmir. And they became increasingly Islamist, promising to govern according to Sharia, seeking allies among the Arab states, and adding Israel to the hated “Hindu-Zionist lobby”.
Weak nations often use external enemies as a unifier or an excuse. For Pakistan, this has had especially disastrous consequences. In four largely unsuccessful wars against India, it lost Bangladesh and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars that were and still are desperately needed for economic development, infrastructure, health care, education and food. Then, when New Delhi began pursuing nuclear weapons, the never-ending rivalry inevitably forced Islamabad to waste yet more money to keep up.
The ultimate – and most dangerous – manifestation of its self-declared identity as a Muslim homeland has been Pakistan’s growing closeness with the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups.
But the US also bears plenty of blame for the poor bilateral relationship. As this book describes it, the American strategy has been inconsistent and weak, and the White House has simply been outmanoeuvred over and over by Islamabad’s generals. Sometimes, US presidents were understandably distracted by more important crises such as the Vietnam War, the 1979 Iranian revolution or domestic politics. Too often, however, they relied on a handful of westernised Pakistani leaders who mouthed the proper clichés, rarely following up to see if the promises were kept.
Throwing dollars at Pakistan’s army seemed like a quick fix. Pakistan would then take the money in secret while publicly condemning US policy – a practice that continues today with Islamabad’s wink-and-nod attitude toward US drone attacks.
“Americans must also overcome their fantasy that aid always translates into leverage and that personal relations with foreign officials can change what those officials consider to be their national priorities,” Haqqani warns.
Washington did enjoy some limited pay-offs from its connections to Pakistan over the years. General Yahya Khan was a key conduit for President Richard Nixon’s outreach to China, and Pakistan did funnel weapons to the mujahedeen who fought the Soviets in Afghanistan.
But even after the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the Washington area, when the US seemed to hold its strongest hand ever – when it was able to demand that Pakistan break off relations with the Taliban, share intelligence and take other steps to fight terrorism – Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president, kept a few cards up his sleeve. Militant groups that were supposedly banned “emerged under new names, and courts freed the detained leaders, claiming lack of evidence,” Haqqani writes. “Pakistan made no fundamental shift in attitude toward Afghanistan or India.”
Interestingly, the American presidents who have held most firm against Pakistan were usually not the supposedly hard-nosed Republicans like Nixon or Ronald Reagan. Perhaps they were more easily fooled by Islamabad’s anti-Soviet rhetoric. Indeed, one of the few American leaders ever to suspend a weapons deal – for A-7 fighter-bombers, in 1977 – was Jimmy Carter, the president often mocked as “soft” for his human rights activism. “Carter, with his concern for human rights, could not ignore [Pakistani dictator] Zia’s conduct at home,” such as the televised lashings of journalists and mass arrests of political opponents.
An understanding of this history is important for western, Middle Eastern and South Asian audiences alike. And on paper, Haqqani looks like the perfect person to tell it. A professor at Boston University and a veteran diplomat, he was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US from 2008 to 2011. After the killing of Osama bin Laden, he was caught up in Pakistan’s domestic politics and bizarrely accused of writing a secret memo requesting the Obama administration’s help to block a military coup in his native country. He spent two months under house arrest before essentially being allowed to escape to the US.
Unfortunately, this book offers few insights from Haqqani’s unique experience. Mainly, it consists of page after page of numbingly boring quotes from apparently every conversation ever held between American and Pakistani officials since 1947, and every memo written about their conversations.
Rarely does the author stop to analyse these conversations, explain the motivations or put them into a larger context. He ignores the effect of major events such as Vietnam, the assassination of President John F Kennedy, the Iran hostage crisis and the September 11 attacks, which dramatically altered Americans’ view of their security and their role in the world.
Even once he enters the story himself, in the final quarter, Haqqani never offers the kind of personal reactions that could have lifted this book above its dry quotations. Surely he could have spared a few lines to describe the national shock and grief – and his own – at the murder of Benazir Bhutto, whom he had advised for a decade? And did he really, really believe her claim that, as prime minister in 1989, that her own ministers had violated the country’s commitment not to go beyond a particular level of nuclear enrichment “without her full knowledge”?
To his credit, Haqqani makes a few suggestions for a more productive, less tense relationship between the two countries. The first step is honesty. And for that, this book is a valuable tool.
Fran Hawthorne is an author and journalist based in the US who specialises in business, finance and social policy.