Listen to this article
The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan 2001-2014, by Carlotta Gall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, RRP$28, 352 pages
Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, by Husain Haqqani, PublicAffairs, RRP£19.99/RRP$28.99, 432 page
Pakistan as the source of Afghanistan’s troubles, and as a breeding ground for international Islamist terror: these are not new realities, but it has taken more than a decade for the world fully to grasp the dangers posed by an unstable Muslim country of nearly 200m people that has supposedly been a US ally since the cold war.
Carlotta Gall’s The Wrong Enemy is an enthralling and largely first-hand account of the war in Afghanistan since the 9/11 terror attacks on the US provoked the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001. The title refers not to any Afghan faction but to neighbouring Pakistan. It was the late Richard Holbrooke, US special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who made the remark: “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country.”
Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, has paid the price in death threats and a life in exile for coming to much the same conclusion as Holbrooke. His Magnificent Delusions, a history of his country from the perspective of Pakistani-US relations, explains from the inside how successive Islamabad governments have demanded money and weapons from Washington while simultaneously promoting Islamic extremism to the detriment of both the US and Pakistan.
These two books suggest not only that western policy towards Pakistan is too accommodating after repeated betrayals and lies from Islamabad but also that there is something terribly wrong with nuclear-armed Pakistan itself. Three years after US Navy Seals killed Osama bin Laden in his safe house in Pakistan, security services from New Delhi and Beijing to London and Washington are struggling to foil extremist plots hatched on Pakistani soil with the connivance of Pakistani intelligence officers.
Neighbouring Afghanistan – the target of successive Pakistani governments fearful of Indian influence in Kabul and of Pashtun nationalism – is for the moment the country worst affected. Yet on April 5, millions of Afghans defied a boycott and threats of violence from the Pakistan-backed Taliban to vote in the first round of their presidential election. Hamid Karzai is preparing to step down after two terms, while the US is trying to end eventually the longest war in its history.
Gall, a New York Times reporter whose father Sandy Gall also reported on Afghanistan and set up a charity for injured Afghans, might be accused of having a soft spot for her Afghan hosts and being too hard on the scheming Pakistanis of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency over the border. She rather airily rejects the notion that Islamist terrorism should be blamed on US-Pakistani support for the Mujahideen who fought the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s “since the vast majority of Afghan mujahideen were moderate and did not support terrorism”. And she struggles to back up the largely circumstantial evidence that senior Pakistanis knew that Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan.
But the accumulation of her eyewitness reports and the evidence from her Afghan, Pakistani and American sources is ultimately convincing. Pakistani officials and intelligence officers have created or nurtured most of the Islamist extremist groups operating in the two countries, among them Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and several connected to al-Qaeda.
This support continues even after the militants have turned on Pakistan’s own people and institutions – including the army and the ISI itself. Extremist groups send madrassa students to blow up Pakistanis as well as Afghans and Americans with their suicide bombers’ vests, while the ISI intimidates or kills local journalists and expels the foreign ones who come too close to the truth.
“After ten years, the military’s dual policy of supporting the United States in the war on terror while trying to keep Taliban and Kashmiri militants in the wings and loyal had confused and angered many in the lower ranks of the army,” writes Gall. “They were fighting, and dying, in campaigns against Islamist militants, apparently at the request of America, but at the same time they were being fed a constant flow of anti-American and pro-Taliban propaganda, peddled by the military, which considered the Islamist forces as critical to Pakistan’s strategic interests.” It is no wonder, then, that many Pakistanis are angry at the US for killing Bin Laden, not at their own country for protecting a mass murderer. Nor is it surprising that tip-offs about terrorist activities in Pakistan from Kabul or Washington to Islamabad have sometimes resulted not in the arrests of the suspects but in their escape with ISI help – or even in the murder of the informant.
Haqqani voices similar concerns about the influence of extremists – he does not reject the US conclusion that the ISI was “deeply penetrated by Jihadist sympathisers” – and about the circular lunacy of Pakistani government policy: demand help from the US, and then react to Islamist protests about the US alliance by demanding more aid on the grounds that hostile public opinion will topple the government without it.
“My countrymen will someday have to come to terms with global realities,” Haqqani concludes. “Pakistan cannot become a regional leader in South Asia while it supports terrorism. To think that the United States would indefinitely provide economic and military assistance in return for partial support of US objectives is delusional.” For now, however, the US aid still flows, terror persists and the delusion continues.
Victor Mallet is the FT’s South Asia bureau chief