A timely history lesson

A gripping, sad and agitating account of America’s approach to South Asia in the decades preceding 9/11 and the rise of Taliban

September 02, 2017 07:30 pm | Updated September 03, 2017 12:45 am IST

Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent
Larry Pressler 
Penguin Random House

Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent Larry Pressler Penguin Random House ₹699

In the torrent of expert opinions on President Donald Trump’s new South Asia policy in recent days, the history of America’s 16-year-old military engagement in Afghanistan — its longest war — begins with the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington D.C. In the dominant media account spun by the American establishment, an image of three women in mini skirts on a Kabul street captured in the early 1970s convinced the President that the Afghan society was once modern and can be once again.

It was the rise of Taliban in the 1990s that set Afghanistan on a regressive course and made it the launchpad of the 9/11 strikes. Pakistan has been the key promoter of Islamist terrorist groups in the region that continue to target America, Afghanistan and India.

For those who intuitively sense that there are missing links in this edited version of history, there is a new book to turn to. Former U.S Senator Larry Pressler’s Neighbours in Arms is a gripping, sad and agitating account of America’s approach to South Asia in the decades preceding 9/11 and the rise of Taliban. As an influential lawmaker in the 1980s, Pressler was prudent enough to foresee what was looming in South Asia — a nuclear rivalry, now embroidered with religious fanaticism and terrorism by numerous non-state actors. But his voice was a cry in the wilderness as the American establishment’s single-minded focus on defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan pushed them into the embrace of the Islamists and their puppeteers in Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI).

“President Carter, and later President Reagan put their concerns about Pakistan’s development of the nuclear weapon on the back-burner. They now needed Pakistan to bolster the resistance fighters trying to oust the Soviets in Afghanistan. These resistance fighters were Islamic fundamentalists — the same fundamentalists we are fighting all over the world today in the War on Terror. But at the time, because they were fighting communists, the Islamic fundamentalists were our allies,” Pressler writes.

‘War mongering’

Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1979, Pressler, soft-spoken and non-confrontational, landed a critical job as the head of the Senate Arms Control Subcommittee as a compromise choice when two Republican heavyweights fought. He remembers that he was ‘just expected to stand there and smile.’ He was not prepared to do that. As a Vietnam war veteran, Pressler had come to deeply detest war mongering and the influence of what President Eisenhower called the ‘military industrial complex’ on the American political system. He developed a friendship with President Reagan and did not mince words calling out the U.S. Defence Department for its Pakistan-Afghanistan policy. “We are helping Pakistan get nuclear weapons — and in fact our Pentagon is helping Pakistan pay for its nuclear weapons!” Presser recalls telling Reagan, triggering a furious reaction from the Defence Secretary, who was present.

With such forthrightness, it is not easy to survive in the American capital controlled by a web of personal, political and business relationships based on the principle of mutually assured aggrandisement. Pressler became a household name in India and Pakistan when he championed what came to be known as the Pressler Amendment to the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act.

The new law that came into effect in 1985 tied the continuation of American aid to Pakistan to an annual certification by the President that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. This legislation was intended to give the President more elbowroom, compared to Glenn and Symington Amendment that had barred aid to countries with unsafeguarded nuclear programs. But the non-proliferation warrior was soon shocked and surprised when Reagan certified that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear weapon — a spurious claim crafted by the Pentagon and American agencies fighting the Afghan war. The farce continued till 1990, when George Bush finally invoked the amendment to stop aid to Pakistan. By then, the Cold War had ended.

Losing it big

President Clinton who followed Bush undermined the Pressler Amendment. Pressler lost his Senate seat from South Dakota narrowly in 1996 as the Pakistani lobby and American business interests joined hands to bring him down.

Equating India and Pakistan has been a big mistake in American foreign policy, Pressler writes in the book. “India is our ally and has our values. Pakistan is not our ally except when it wants money….”

This book could not have been better timed, as alliances and military strategies are being redrawn in South Asia, with defining stakes for India.

The correlation between the U.S. military industrial complex and the conduct of Washington’s foreign policy is not a new subject, but this tale of how a lawmaker’s campaign against proliferation was stifled by arms traders and their friends in politics offers a unique perspective.

Secondly, this book is a reflection on the alleged ability of the American strategic establishment to foresee and steer its strategic interests around the world. Thirdly, this book is a challenge to the widely prevalent ‘scholarly’ habit these days of overlooking inconvenient portions of history, and customising it for the politics of the present.

Fourthly, this must act as a guide to policy makers who deal with current challenges including terrorism so that they don’t end up with a solution that is dangerous than the problem. In a wicked way, Pressler’s book also tells us why today we don’t see that picture of Kabul that convinced Trump to stay engaged in Afghanistan.

Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent ; Larry Pressler, Penguin Random House, ₹699.

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