September 1, 2009

Sometimes for America, always for itself

Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within is perhaps one of the most definitive and authoritative attempts at an honest appraisal of the Pakistan Army since its creation after Partition—how it began seeing India and the world and eventually, how it began shaping the political destiny of Pakistan through political control, mismanagement and military misadventures.

What sets this book apart is the insider’s per-spective that Shuja Nawaz takes and sustains throughout the discourse. Several members of his family have held high military ranks and General Asif Nawaz, his late brother, was the army chief between 1991 and 1993. The result is a careful examination of the institution that has gradually positioned itself as one of the most powerful institutions in Pakistan. This is not just in relation to the several military coups witnessed in the past, but also how it has eventually controlled policies it sees beyond the capabilities of any civilian arrangement—let alone the one today headed by Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan’s relations with the United States form the common narrative through the book. Right from its initial days as a new-born country seeking legitimacy within the larger international system to one where it became the more dominant, if not demanding partner of the two, Pakistan’s policies have been an on-and-off affair. What began as an exercise to procure military aid from the United States with a constant invoking of possible Indian aggression from the east gradually progressed to stockpiling weapons for a later war against India. The United States, having seen Pakistan’s location as intrinsically strategic to its geopolitics, also began to cave in to Pakistan’s “lip-service”. The exchanges between the early Pakistani heads of states and their US counterparts—Liaquat Ali Khan and President Truman, for instance—were largely centred around how Pakistan’s geo-strategic position in the world could help the United States in its sustained effort to firstly keep a check against the growing influence of communism and later, fight against it if required. And having fallen out with Jawaharlal Nehru’s India (after what Robert McMahon described Nehru’s trip to the United States in 1949 as the “least successful state visits in recent history”) the United States zeroed in on Pakistan as the country they would want to befriend and cultivate relations with—one that would last much beyond the threat of communism.

As slow and steady as it was, Pakistan became the beneficiary of heavy military and non-military US aid, which came with strings attached—dispatching troops to places where the US was fighting wars—Korea and subsequently Vietnam. But, even at this point, as Mr Nawaz notes regularly, US administrations knew of Pakistan’s real intentions—a war against India to seek a military solution to Kashmir. Yet, the Americans kept quiet, constantly giving in to President Ayub Khan’s demands. Khan played the anti-communism card perfectly, so much so that President Nixon is reported to have once remarked, “that he will do anything for Pakistan.” Even in the 1971 war over Bangladesh, the United States released unconditional military supplies to Pakistan, against what it saw as naked Indian ag-gression. Pakistan also acted as a noted emissary of the United States to China and helped the Americans improve their relations with Beijing. It also  received support from the Chinese against India.

The 1980s, as Mr Nawaz describes, was a game-changer in US-Pakistan relations, with the Soviets invading Pakistan. And for once, it wasn’t pure lip-service, but an actual Communist invading force. Enter the Soviet Union, and enter the ISI to the forefront of Pakistan’s covert war against them. Until then, the ISI was restricted to being the back-benchers of  Pakistani military and foreign policy. But, as trouble ensued in Afghanistan, there was more direct collaboration between the CIA and ISI. The role of the paramilitary mujahideens has been well-documented. But, even after the war was done and dusted, troubles began between the US and Pakistan over its covert nuclear programme and AQ Khan’s proclamation of helping lesser (Muslim majority) nations in their quest for an Islamic bomb. That’s when things changed. As Mr Nawaz notes, the misinformation campaign by Zia-ul-Haq and his aides added to the disenchantment within the US administration and its policies towards Pakistan.

The subsequent decade where Pakistan’s intel-ligence grew itself out of the background and into its notorious self is something Mr Nawaz could have examined in greater depth as Ahmed Rashid and Zahid Hussain have done in their works. In the 1990s, when Pakistan’s descent into political chaos began, with the musical chairs well in place—Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and the Army—relations with the United States froze over Pakistan’s Islamic bend, and of course, its nuclear test in 1998. But as it has been time and again observed, when there is a lull in relations, out comes the storm—in this case, 9/11. Even as Pakistan positioned itself as one of the earliest partners in the ‘War on Terror’, Mr Nawaz notes that the ISI did what it could to stall the American efforts. He quotes Mahmud Ahmed, the then ISI chief, saying “Why would I, a Muslim go against another Muslim?” when he was quizzed about him letting the Taliban leader Mullah Omar go scot-free.

Apart from just the nature of US-Pakistani re-lations, which dominates much of the book, there is a wider analysis of failed civilian governments, and why the military saw itself as the only alternative to Pakistan’s polity. Corruption not just among the political brass, but also within the bureaucracy was one of the military’s reasons for occupying a larger political role and space in Pakistan.

Also, one of the interesting aspects about the research of the book is the wider analysis of the way the Pakistani army is structured and composed of in terms of ethnic groups. While it is still a predominantly Punjabi Mussalman army, recent trends and figures have shown a rise in recruitment from provinces that have historically been ignored—Sindh and Balochistan. Ever since the Zia years, the Pakistan Army, as Mr Nawaz says, has emerged as  a lucrative and attractive bread-winning profession for the urban youth. As a country that has seen military rule for a majority of its 62 years, Mr Nawaz suggests a significant revamp of the political system in Pakistan to help stave off repeated coups. As he concludes, “If Pakistan is to mature, thrive and survive as a suc-cessful state and a nation, the army has to take a back seat and allow the politicians and the civil societies to make their mistakes and allow the other critically important elements of the society—mass media, educational institutions, businesses, professionals and lawyers etc to function unfettered.”

That is perhaps the long road ahead for Pakistan in its constant search for legitimacy and a transformation from just a country into a nation.

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