Vali Nasr’s 2007 book, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts within Islam Will Shape the Future, revealed how the anti-Shia mayhem in Pakistan was rooted in Lucknow, India, after the Rabita Alam Islami funded Nadwatul Ulema seminary’s chief cleric Manzur Numani to start the sectarian war with an incendiary text. In my book The Sectarian War, I write that this funding culminated in Numani demanding—and getting—“apostatization” fatwas against the Shia from all the major seminaries in Pakistan.
Nasr, a professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, was a senior advisor to the late Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. State Department’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Nasr is well known in Pakistan—his books on Jamaat-e-Islami and its founder remain authoritative in the academic world—and he knows Iran, his native country, well. (Nasr’s father, Hossein, was a top intellectual in the Shah regime; I had met him in Lahore in the 1960s.)
In April, I met Nasr at a book-signing in Chicago for his latest work, The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat, which is critical of the White House for its diplomatic missteps, as the title makes clear, and for ignoring Holbrooke’s advice on how to deal with Pakistan. With the drawdown deadline for U.S.-led foreign troops in Afghanistan closing in, the Obama administration should pay heed to Nasr’s and Holbrooke’s words.
Agreeing with his late boss, Nasr writes that the Afghanistan crisis can be resolved by engaging with Pakistan and by roping in Iran as an important interlocutor. Afghanistan’s sovereignty is shared by its neighbors: Pakistan has unusual influence in Jalalabad, Iran virtually controls the economy of Herat in the west, and Uzbekistan has influence in Mazar-e-Sharif in the north. Holbrooke believed a political settlement was only possible if Afghanistan’s key neighbors and other important regional actors (India, Russia, and Saudi Arabia) could be induced to support it.
Holbrooke also thought the U.S. should pay more positive attention to Pakistan because of its clearly expressed commitment to internal developments in Afghanistan. Nasr recalls: “In October 2010, during a visit to the White House, Pakistan’s Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, gave President Obama a 13-page white paper he had written to explain his views on the outstanding strategic issues between Pakistan and the United States. Kayani 3.0, as the paper was dubbed (since it was the third paper Pakistanis gave the White House on the subject), could be summarized as follows: ‘You are not going to win the war, and you are not going to transform Afghanistan. This place has devoured empires before you; it will defy you as well. Stop your grandiose plans and let’s get practical, sit down, and discuss how you will leave, and what is an end state we can both live with.’”
Hardnosed Nasr concludes: “The Afghanistan fight is starting to eerily resemble Vietnam, with Pakistan acting roughly like Laos, Cambodia, and Maoist China all rolled into one.” He knows Pakistan is fielding 35,000 “nonstate actors” to safeguard its interests in Afghanistan, among whom the largest number, 20,000 or more, are mercenaries. Holbrooke fell afoul of ex-CIA officer Bruce Riedel, whom Obama had asked to review Afghanistan: “Holbrooke did not favor committing America to fully-resourced counterinsurgency and thought America would get more out of Pakistan through engagement.”
Holbrooke died in 2010, but what has followed since proves him right. There is no military solution to Afghanistan, where a war against terrorism has gone wrong thanks to Pakistan. He was not allowed to exhaust the diplomatic channel and was overruled by the White House through the simple stratagem of not listening to him. What he proposed was nothing outlandish: talk and fight, and fight in order to “make your foe find talking more appealing.” He had enough knowledge of what was going on inside Taliban, Inc. to sense that the Taliban were ready to break with Al Qaeda and talk to the U.S. But the CIA nixed the idea, saying “reconciliation was a Pakistani ploy to slow down the American offensive in Afghanistan and reduce American pressure on Pakistan.” The White House followed by undermining his diplomacy with Kabul.
Holbrooke thought America would get more out of Pakistan through engagement.
Nasr saw Holbrooke becoming obsessed with the idea of Pakistan-India trade, not so much for the unraveling of the war knot in Afghanistan as for its transformative role in the region. His persuasion was effective in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistan Army is headquartered: “That he got the Pakistan military to give its okay (given that the deal would connect Afghanistan and India economically and would require Pakistan to open its border to India) was a mighty achievement.” But U.S.-Pakistan relations plummeted thereafter and Pakistan backtracked in light of its own myopic strategic thinking pitting it against India and the U.S. on the side of China. It backtracked ominously again, swallowing its word on giving New Delhi the Most Favored Nation status in 2012. The State Department, within which Holbrooke operated, warmed to the idea and proposed revival of the historic Silk Road trade with Central Asia, quickly dubbed as an American plot in Pakistan’s hostile Urdu press.
If there was any meaningful American initiative in the region it was scuttled by the tiresome regurgitation of Pakistan-India rivalry cauterized into Pakistan’s military memory by the fact that the two countries backed opposite sides during the Taliban’s war on the Northern Alliance in the 1990s and “continued to see Afghanistan’s future as a zero-sum game that could change the balance of power between them.” India was convincing when it pointed to Pakistan’s terrorist interference in India through its nonstate actors; Pakistan was less so about Indian interference in Balochistan, given the embarrassing fact that the Baloch despised Pakistan as the Army allegedly made them disappear on the charge that they not so much pressed their legitimate demands as a neglected nationality as acted as instruments of Indian policy.
Nasr’s thoughts in the post-Holbrooke period are encapsulated thus: “America was trying to fix Afghanistan while actually escalating tensions with both Iran and Pakistan, as if peace could somehow be made to take hold in Afghanistan when the country’s immediate neighborhood was roiled by acute instability. A chaotic Afghanistan in a stable region was hard enough to handle; a chaotic Afghanistan in an unstable region, and with its two most important neighbors in conflict with America, seems nearly impossible.”
He is not sure that a “wobbly” 300,000-strong Afghan National Army will be able to fight the Taliban fielded by the Pakistan Army. Nasr’s book carries a blunt rejoinder by General Kayani to President Obama: It will not stand up for long. The ANA will splinter and become cannon fodder for the warlords who will rule Afghanistan once again. Hidden behind this prognostication was the likely fear that the Afghan security force will have trained a large number of Pakistan’s enemies left out of the compass of Pakistani diplomacy in Afghanistan.
Then in September 2011 the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that the Haqqani network was “in many ways, a strategic arm” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Nasr traces the ISI policy backwards to Musharraf: “In reality, Musharraf had been the architect of the Taliban revival. The Taliban surge of 2008 and 2009 would never have been possible without preparations, recruiting, training, and capability-building activities that the Taliban undertook in Pakistan or with Pakistani help and that went back several years—to the time when Musharraf was in charge. The fact was that Pakistan had strategic objectives in Afghanistan, and it was pursuing them with us there and despite its own budding partnership with us.”
But was it wise to hit back at Pakistan? “Several levers came to [Nasr’s] mind: we relied on Pakistan to supply our troops in Afghanistan with everything from fuel to drinking water; we needed Pakistan’s cooperation to gather the intelligence necessary to make drone strikes effective; and above all we needed Pakistan to make our Afghanistan strategy work. Given these dependencies, we had done ourselves a disservice by taking an ax to the relationship. Bullying wasn’t going to pay.”
‘We had done ourselves a disservice by taking an ax to the relation-ship. Bullying wasn’t going to pay.’
The Mumbai attack had taken place in 2008 but the U.S. decided to put a bounty on the head of Hafiz Saeed, the founder of the organization widely believed to have perpetrated the attack, in 2012 which was seen by Rawalpindi as the extension of the American war on terror to Pakistan. Of course, the military mind unrealistically projected Pakistan as a pawn in China’s imagined ingress into the region to ward off a similar America strategy with the help of India, in other words, setting up India as the unchallenged hegemon of South Asia. The frequent unsettling realization in GHQ that China is unwilling to pit itself against either the U.S. or India—both important trading partners—goes without normal retribution for lack of understanding.
The book sums up the American mistake: “We could have managed Pakistan better. We did not have to break the relationship and put Pakistan’s stability at risk. That course of action has not gotten us any further than the more prudent course of greater engagement—in fact it’s gotten us a lot less. We have not realized our immediate security goals there and have put our long-run strategic interests in jeopardy.” He continues, categorically: “Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.”
Nasr resents the “disengagement” with Pakistan as part of a much larger “demission” from the Middle East, and confronting or containing China through Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy—“a forward-deployed diplomacy to face China in its backyard.”
An otherwise pliant boss of Holbrooke at the State Department, Hillary Clinton had concocted the strategic vision that Nasr’s book resents the most. She argued in Foreign Policy “the administration’s case that America ought to pay less attention to the Middle East and more attention to Asia; that China (and not the Middle East) is the real strategic challenge facing America.” Her verdict was: the future of the United States is intimately intertwined with the future of Asia-Pacific; and global politics “will be decided in Asia, not Afghanistan or Iraq, and the United States will be right at the center of the action.”
Unfortunately, Nasr is confronting a rival that no one can win against: the shrinking American economy and the thoughts of global “retreat” it inspires. Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, writing recently in Foreign Affairs triumphantly expresses the prevalent point of view: “Six and a half years ago, I … argued that the era of American domination of the region was coming to an end and that the Middle East’s future would be characterized by considerable but reduced U.S. influence … The Greater Middle East had come to dominate and distort American foreign and defense policy, and a course correction was called for. The Obama administration’s vehicle for this correction was the announcement of a ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalancing’ toward Asia, a region home to many of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies and one likely to be more central than the Middle East in shaping the world’s future.”
Nasr’s book insists that the Middle East should matter more to America because China sees the region growing in importance, even more than Africa or Latin America. He agrees that China doesn’t favor confrontation with the U.S., but it might cause it to happen through economic expansion; and that the American retreat from the Middle East will, instead of strengthening the hands of Washington in its Asian pivot strategy, simply lessen America’s capacity to manage that competition.
‘China wants Pakistan as a strategic base, not a source of fresh headaches.’
We get an idea of the American “retreat” and Chinese “expansion” in the following statistics: “Today the Middle East accounts for 5 percent of U.S. trade and only 1 percent of its direct foreign investment ($54 billion out of $3.4 trillion), a paltry amount compared with Asia-Pacific, which accounted for 16 percent of American investment abroad. We are now doing less trade with the region than China is. The big story of the past decade that we missed amid our preoccupation with wars in the Middle East is the explosion of Chinese trade with the region.
“China’s trade with Iran has grown from $1.3 billion in 1999 to $45 billion in 2011; with Saudi Arabia from $4 billion in 2001 to $50 billion in 2011; and with Egypt from less than a billion in 2001 to $9 billion in 2011. Since 2006, China has been exporting more to the Middle East than the United States does, and the same is true for imports since 2009. In 2010, Chinese exports to the region were close to double that of the United States (China is now the largest exporter to the region), and Chinese direct foreign investment took off, leaving America far behind: 30 percent of China’s global contracts in that year were with Arab enterprises. We have essentially ceded the Middle East to China and others to profit from just as we geared up to prevent the same happening in the Asia-Pacific and Africa.”
Why should Pakistan not be abandoned? Because China is going to use it to get close to the Indian Ocean: “China has earmarked $12 billion to develop the port of Gwadar on Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast. The idea is to create a place where petrochemicals piped down from Central Asia (Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan) and minerals shipped from Afghanistan can be loaded onto tankers and cargo ships bound for China.”
He grasps the Chinese mind more accurately than most in Pakistan do. India too understands China as it increases its cooperation—instead of confrontation—in Bangladesh and Burma, apart from bilateral trade which is certain to go from $70 billion to $100 billion in the near future.
He writes: “China does not like it when Pakistan pushes too hard with India, or provokes American anger. China wants Pakistan as a strategic base, not a source of fresh headaches. Waves of extremists trained in Pakistan may stoke fires of separatism in Xinjiang, and, as happened before, countless Chinese engineers can be abducted by Pakistani tribesmen for ransom; yet China’s true anger at Pakistan is directed at its threat of a regional power play. China wants to use Pakistan to serve Chinese interests, and it will not be made a pawn in Islamabad’s regional games. So it was that even as China was stepping up its investment in Pakistan’s military capability, it was winding down its support for Pakistan on the Kashmir issue.”
From our June 21, 2013, issue.