‘The Battle for Pakistan – The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood’ review: An ‘arc of instability’

A commentator with access to ISI spymasters explains why South Asia, and India, has paid heavily for the state of relations between the United States and Pakistan

Published - November 30, 2019 05:25 pm IST

As a Washington-based analyst and commentator with deep roots in Pakistan, Shuja Nawaz is uniquely placed to write about the state of relations between the United States and Pakistan with, of course, India somewhere in between.

Obvious from the book under review and a previous volume, Crossed Swords: Pakistan, Its Army, and the Wars Within, Nawaz’s strength is his first-hand access to the world of Pakistan’s army chiefs (his brother Asif Nawaz was Army chief between 1991-93) and ISI spymasters.

Looking at it from an Indian perspective, there are several nuggets of new information. Based on a phone conversation with Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz reports that the then army chief had “even crossed the Indian LoC [Line of Control] in Kargil.” For a man who transformed himself into a man of peace post 9/11, the level of personal adventurism during Kargil displays the personality of the Army chief who led the two countries into a mini-war.

Mumbai attacks

Though the book hails Musharraf’s successor, Ashfaq Kayani, as a master strategist, a theme that runs through the book, Nawaz has little to offer by way of new information on the Mumbai 2008 attacks other than quoting then ISI chief Ahmed Pasha as saying “these were our guys but not our operation.”

Given that Kayani was army chief at the time of the Mumbai attacks, and Nawaz clearly had good access to him, the book is silent on the responses and actions of the army chief at a time many fingers were being pointed to the Pakistani army and ISI as being the architects of the Mumbai attacks.

He is careful to describe the Mumbai attackers as a “well-armed and well-trained group of terrorists with links to Pakistan-based jihadi outfits,” but stops short of calling Ajmal Kasab, the terrorist captured and later executed by India, a Pakistani national.

Powerful freelancers

For long, there has been a belief that coups in Pakistan have been a disciplined affair and have only happened when army chiefs either willed them or led them. Efforts from freelance army officers have usually been nipped in the bud.

So, when Nawaz refers to a coup attempt by none other than then ISI chief Zahir-ul-Islam in 2014, it’s time to sit up and take notice. “We received information that Zahir... was mobilising for a coup in September of 2014. [Army chief] Raheel [Sharif] blocked it by, in effect, removing Zahir, by announcing his successor... [Zahir] was talking to the corps commanders and was talking to like-minded army officers... He was prepared to do it had the chief been willing, even tacitly, it would have happened. But the chief was not willing, so it didn’t happen,” Nawaz quotes former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Richard Olson as telling him.

This is evidence that powerful freelancers inside the army can mobilise for a coup, but in the end it did not happen because the army chief merely transferred the plotter. So, in this backdrop, it’s quite possible that an ISI chief might have given the green signal to the Lashkar-e-Taiba to hit Mumbai without the express permission of his chief.

‘Strategic restraint’

The book is meticulous in its examination of U.S.-Pakistan relations and argues that Pakistan does not have to choose between its traditional ally, the U.S., and its “relatively newer friend,” China. Nawaz warns that a conflict scenario is possible in the region if major players, especially the U.S., help in setting up India as the “regional hegemon and local power broker.” He also suggests that the U.S. could help persuade India to move one of its three strike corps facing Pakistan to the Chinese border.

The author also endorses a Pakistan-U.S.-backed “strategic restraint regime” between India and Pakistan, an idea that has been aggressively pushed by Islamabad and Washington since the 1998 nuclear tests, without much success.

He ends by looking at the future of U.S.-Pakistan relations: “History has taught us that crises will continue to erupt in the Arc of Instability that extends from Turkey to Indonesia. Who knows when the U.S. may need Pakistan on its side again?”

U.S.-Pakistan relations, in my view, have been an example of decades-long “abusive” relationship, where neither partner can abandon each other.

After the permissiveness displayed by the U.S. in allowing Pakistan to build a nuclear weapons’ capability, today its core concerns lie in ensuring that these weapons don’t land in the lap of terrorists.

And, who created the terrorists in the region? The CIA and the ISI, which fought the Afghan jihad shoulder-to-shoulder, dollar-for-dollar, leaving the region in a massive mess from which recovery hasn’t still been possible. South Asia has paid heavily for the continuance of this “relationship.”

The Battle for Pakistan: The Bitter US Friendship and a Tough Neighbourhood; Shuja Nawaz, Vintage/PRH, ₹799.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.