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By George Jagels Contributor February 7, 2011

The term “AfPak” is more than just blog shorthand; the American strategy in South Asia rests on the belief that Afghanistan and Pakistan are intertwined. Both states must be stabilized or neither will be. The ongoing American air strikes and raids in Pakistan attest to the fact that the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda cannot be confined to one side of the Durand Line. Yet, with the widened war deeply unpopular among the Pakistani public, how can the United States find a way to disrupt its enemies without increasing the extremists’ popularity (or hatred toward America)? In Deadly Embrace, former CIA officer and current Brookings Institution senior fellow Bruce Riedel offers his solution.

Deadly Embrace is obviously adapted from the first Afghan strategy review, which Riedel conducted for President Obama in early 2009. According to Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars, Riedel wanted the “focus shifted to Pakistan and away from Afghanistan” because the focal point of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda rest in the former. He also suggested that President Obama consider the terrible implications of an attack launched from Pakistan on the United States or India, raising the specter of nuclear war on the subcontinent. While Afghanistan is dangerous, Riedel thought, the catastrophic threat emanates from Pakistan. He told the President that Washington would have to “change the strategic direction in Pakistan.” Obama has publicly stated that he agreed with Riedel’s assessment. The analysis and recommendations recounted in Woodward’s book all reappear in Deadly Embrace.

The book’s historical overview effectively shows that the Pakistanis’ anti-American sentiments and actions are not solely based on irrational hatred or zealotry; for the balance of Pakistan’s history, the United States has acted remarkably inconsistent toward the country and bears some responsibility for its radicalization. But, though that is an important point, Riedel uses well-worn descriptions of the consequences of Pakistan’s possible “fall” to underline the necessity of addressing the problems of extremism—and he provides little new or in-depth analysis on this subject. His policy prescriptions, which correctly focus on diplomacy rather than military action—after all, America’s military footprint is what everyone’s so angry about—call for assisting a democratic civilian government in Pakistan. Riedel counsels Washington to attempt to resolve some of the most complicated and entrenched issues in the region—Kashmir, for one—in order to sever the ties between local terrorists and their global counterparts. Yet his notion that a sincere America is all it takes to bring about regional peace vastly overestimates U.S. influence and assumes that less cynicism automatically means an open door for deeper involvement in a wide range of problems.

The first half of Riedel’s work is also his most interesting, thorough and convincing section. It recounts the history of U.S.-Pakistan relations with an emphasis on American mistakes. For younger Americans, the Pakistan relationship seems one-sided: Washington provides aid and weapons, and in return is loathed by the Pakistani public for excessive meddling and is betrayed by a government in Islamabad that sponsors and safeguards America’s enemies. But, as is so often the case, the longer view is more complicated. “For good reasons and bad,” writes Riedel, “successive U.S. presidents from both parties have pursued narrow short-term interests in Pakistan that have contributed to its instability and radicalization, and thereby created fertile ground for global jihad.”

Somewhat surprisingly for a self-styled realist, Riedel argues that a relationship based on momentary self-interest has not worked for either Pakistan or the United States. Both sides must be willing to “agree to disagree” on some issues while defining the core purpose of their alliance: defeating terrorism and settling the grievances that nurture extremism. Supporting Pakistani democracy, the former CIA officer contends, is the best way to achieve these goals. And an overview of Pakistani history does lend weight to Riedel’s thesis that a consistent American relationship with a democratic Pakistan is most likely to serve the United States’ long-term interest.

In spite of the massive media coverage given to Pakistan, one does not often hear about its strained relations with the United States before and after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. During this time, Washington was anything but Islamabad’s reliable ally (especially toward its democratic governments). After declaring the country an indispensable bulwark against Soviet expansion in the 1950s, American administrations cast their lot with an unpopular military dictator, only to lose the Pakistani army’s confidence by failing to support their side during wars with India in 1965 and 1971. Here Riedel sees the beginnings of distrust: neither the people nor the military consider the United States a sincere friend.

From a historical standpoint, Pakistanis have reason to view American actions as distinctly cynical. Washington shunned Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s democratic government for its pursuit of nuclear weapons in the 1970s, only to embrace General Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship when it suited U.S. Cold War interests. That dictator, with his extreme religious zeal and American money, shaped the modern jihad movement—elements of which Pakistan’s security services still support—during the Afghan-Soviet war. Aid to Zia helped create the “Frankenstein” Pakistani state, in which the government is divided in its support between Western allies and jihadists. It also soured the people’s attitude toward the United States. This distrust was only magnified after September 11, 2001, when the United States again called a military dictator an ally, this time General Pervez Musharraf, in order to better pursue its own objectives in Afghanistan.

To impart a sense of urgency on the consequences of a religious-extremist takeover of Pakistan, Riedel imagines scenarios in which a nuclear-armed Pakistan falls prey to the Taliban or a like organization: a “9/11 redux” and a “Mumbai redux.” Choosing these scenarios indirectly lends credence to Riedel’s belief in strengthening the Pakistani civilian government—the potential military responses from the United States would be bloody and inconclusive, whereas another attack on India could lead to nuclear war. These things we know. While the coalescing of terrorist strength in Pakistan is disturbing, Riedel seems to ignore other possibilities (again, surprisingly for a realist). Catastrophe is not the only option; might Pakistani Islamists have learned that harboring international terrorists can only lead to their overthrow? And what is the potential for splitting the burgeoning terrorist syndicate? The analysis of the potential problems caused by an “Emirate of Pakistan” is alarming but not particularly insightful.

Riedel believes the United States must do better in Pakistan or these nightmare scenarios will come to pass. In calling for the “defeat of the jihadist monster” that is forming in Pakistan, the author posits that “engagement” is the best means. Increased military involvement, such as drone strikes and raids, by contrast, will only create long-term problems. His policy ideas—supporting democracy, generous aid programs, “red lines” (absolutely no support for terrorists), and regional peace—are noble but require American involvement ad nauseam in Pakistani affairs. And while a less cynical relationship with a democratic Pakistan would help, the transformative effect of sincerity on Islamabad’s strategic calculus is, at best, doubtful.

Greater American involvement in rapprochement between India and Pakistan is a critical element of his plan—and an excessively fanciful one. Riedel envisions a State Department and military bureaucratic realignment (the creation of a separate South Asia desk as well as a combatant command dedicated to the region) that will clearly signal America’s long-term intentions. Settling the Kashmir issue with India, an assignment denied by the late special envoy Richard Holbrooke, is certainly in the American interest. Yet there is no compelling reason for Islamabad and New Delhi to ask for Washington’s brokerage. Saying the United States will consistently aid Pakistan’s democratically elected government is one thing, but trying to insert itself in every regional issue will only give Washington the illusion of control while potentially losing the trust of the Pakistani people. This is an issue where America might actually enhance its image as an honest broker by taking a back seat. The United States is more capable of shaping events by resolving the conflict in Afghanistan—whether that means seeing it through to “victory” (whatever that means), or negotiating a political settlement with the insurgents—yet Riedel almost completely ignores this tool for ameliorating relations with Pakistan.

The ongoing protests in the Arab world seem to bolster Riedel’s argument that failure to support a democratic Pakistan will only come back to haunt the United States. He might be right, but there is a disconnect between the conclusion of Riedel’s historical analysis—which contends that Washington was overly involved and cynical—and his policy prescriptions—which call for a (public) commitment to solving (and interfering in) all of Pakistan’s complex predicaments. Though a more sincere, consistent, and involved relationship with Islamabad could serve American interests, might such involvement increase Pakistani fears of encroachment on their sovereignty? Would U.S. meddling in Kashmir only serve to empower extremists? Deadly Embrace is a reminder that there are consequences to inconsistent policy choices—and that those consequences have the potential to be even more dangerous in the future. Riedel’s solutions, unfortunately, are also inconsistent—requiring too much American involvement, which is contradictory to the sincerity and humility he believes essential for success.

About the Book: Riedel, Bruce. Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of Global Jihad. (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2011). $24.95; 180 pages.

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