Bob Woodward’s books have an uncanny ability to create palpable nervousness in Washington. They almost always expose some government officials in a poor light. But though many figures in his latest, Obama’s Wars, don’t come off particularly well, there is one clear, overwhelming, and irreconcilable villain. It isn’t a member of Barack Obama’s administration, the Taliban, or even al Qaeda. In fact, it’s not a person at all.
In the opening chapter, Woodward introduces his bad guy: “the immediate threat to the United States [comes] … from Pakistan, an unstable country with a population of about 170 million, a 1,500 mile border with southern Afghanistan, and an arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons.” Never mind the Woodward effect in Washington; in Obama’s Wars, the villain is an entire country.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan have never been more fraught. Last month, NATO helicopters breached Pakistani airspace several times. In the first instance, they engaged a group of suspected terrorists, killing more than 30. On Sept. 30, in another breach of Pakistani territory and airspace, NATO gunships fired on Pakistani paramilitary troops from the Frontier Constabulary (FC). Three Pakistani soldiers were killed and another three were badly injured. No one even attempted to dismiss the incident as friendly fire. In response, Pakistan has shut down the main border crossing and supply route into Afghanistan at Torkham, and militants have attacked convoys bringing fuel to NATO forces. All this comes after the most intense month of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since the campaign began.
Into this environment comes Woodward’s account of the Obama administration’s decision to embrace a surge strategy in Afghanistan, which also offers a pretty good window into what American power sees when it looks at Pakistan. Woodward’s emphasis on the “Pak” in AfPak reflects a larger shift in emphasis in official Washington. Perhaps inadvertently, the book is also likely to confirm many of the darkest suspicions that ordinary Pakistanis have about their erstwhile American allies.
Before 9/11, Pakistan’s hot and cold relationship with the United States was the object of obsession for three generations of Pakistani foreign-policy analysts, but there were hardly a dozen serious Pakistan scholars in the United States. The imbalance was for good reason. America was a massive ATM for corrupt and lazy Pakistani governments — especially military dictatorships. Conversely, though Pakistan periodically offered an interesting and useful ally in the South Asia region, it was too cumbersome to trust as a long-term friend.
It isn’t surprising therefore that no matter how sincerely U.S. presidents have wanted to befriend and help Pakistan — and it is clear that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all have made serious and sincere efforts to “get” the country — the outcome of the efforts tends to look alarmingly more like a relationship between adversaries than friends.
Woodward’s book is advertised as an insider’s peek into how Obama has chosen the team and run the plays on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. And a large factor in this process has been the increasingly tense and complicated calculus that describes the relationship between the Obama administration and the Pakistani government. This calculus is made more convoluted by the fact that a large part of the U.S. military effort in Pakistan entails a covert war, parts of which have the blessing of Pakistan’s military and political leaders, and parts of which fall into some tricky gray areas.
It should be self-evident that this covert war is not designed to kill Pakistanis or weaken the Pakistani state. It would be hard to convince reasonable people that key U.S. leaders, from Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, from Vice President Joe Biden to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, seek to damage Pakistan, or Pakistanis. Indeed, Kerry and Biden have been huge supporters of Pakistan and of the need to establish a deeper relationship with the Pakistani people. Kerry, in particular, has been at the forefront in pushing civilian aid funds to Pakistan through Congress. Still, for the U.S. leadership under Obama, the prize is simple. Hunt down al Qaeda and its enablers hiding out in Pakistan. Kill them all. And move on. But today, it’s increasingly unclear just who Enemy No. 1 is anymore.
And this message is heard loud and clear back on the Pakistani main street. As much as supporters of the effort — both in Washington and Islamabad — may go to great pains to explain that this war is for Pakistan’s own good and that the United States is not waging a war on Pakistan, such appeals are likely to fall on deaf ears, and not just among the conspiratorial hypernationalist types.
Even among some of the most stalwart supporters of the United States, suspicion of Washington’s intentions runs deep and wide. In an account of a meeting between President Asif Ali Zardari and U.S. diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, Woodward describes Zardari’s passionate elaboration of why he is convinced that the TTP — often called the Pakistani Taliban — are being financed and directed by the United States to weaken Pakistan so that Washington can grab Islamabad’s nukes. This kind of ridiculous suspicion of the United States is, of course, as Woodward also notes, a regional disease, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai routinely blaming the United States for supporting the insurgency. But dismissing the ridiculous without understanding its resonance is also dangerous. If this account of Zardari’s meeting with Khalilzad ever made the front page in Pakistan, Zardari, whose popularity has suffered for being a U.S. ally, would get an immediate boost. That’s how deep the suspicion runs.
All conspiracies, no matter how wild, need to be oxygenated by facts. Since that meeting, at the beginning of May 2009, drone attacks in Federally Administered Tribal Areas have consistently increased. Most damning for the U.S. presence has been the enduring presence of contractors like the company formally known as Blackwater. All of these issues are huge stories in Pakistan’s vibrant 24/7 news culture — largely because they feed the fear-based narrative of what the United States really wants in Pakistan.
Woodward’s book confirms the covert war in Pakistan and provides some measure of its extent in an account of Obama’s first serious intelligence briefing lead by Michael Hayden, who preceded current CIA Director Leon Panetta. In that briefing, on Dec. 9, 2008, Hayden gave Obama a full rundown of every category of covert activity the United States was involved in across the globe. The first and most significant was a package of clandestine counterterrorism operations around the world that included Predator drone strikes against suspected terrorists. When Obama asked, “How much are you doing in Pakistan?” the answer Hayden gave was about 80 percent. We own the sky, Hayden said, and informed Obama that the drones take off and land at secret bases in Pakistan.
But Hayden wasn’t boasting; he was well aware of the limited value of remote warfare. And his concerns were eerily prescient in the context of September’s record-breaking drone strikes. He repeatedly warned the incoming Obama administration that the drones did not represent a strategy, but a tactic: “Unless you’re prepared to do this forever, you have to change the facts on the ground.” Hayden was convinced that without successful counterinsurgency on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, those facts on the ground would not change.
Of course, we know what has happened since. The drones have become one of the primary instruments of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan. Planeloads of young State Department officers, accompanied by dozens of private and public-sector security personnel, land in Islamabad on a weekly basis. They bring with them promises of increased aid, more effective aid, more civilian aid, and more transparent aid. Yet every meeting they attend, every cocktail party they are invited to, every op-ed section they scan is littered with references to drone attacks.
Is it any surprise that Pakistanis see conflicting messages coming out of Washington? Within this deeply negative and gloomy context, Woodward’s book exposes some of the U.S. government’s contingency plans for Pakistan, including military strikes on as many as 150 suspected terrorist training sites. One conspiracy theory popular in Islamabad, which the book will no doubt feed, is that U.S. special-operations forces will one day come and take Pakistan’s beloved crown jewels — the more than 100 nuclear weapons thecountry bankrupted itself to develop.
Biden, according to Woodward, broached this topic at a strategy meeting in the fall of 2009, saying, “We can’t lose sight of Pakistan and stability there. The way I understand this, Afghanistan is a means to accomplish our top mission, which is to kill al Qaeda and secure Pakistan’s nukes.” Of course, Biden is not suggesting that the United States would take Pakistan’s nukes, but rather that it would ensure that there isn’t an overthrow of the Pakistani government by terrorist groups, but his words are still likely to be interpreted as the ultimate proof of what this whole fuss — 9/11, the war on terror, the reorientation of the Afghan campaign, and the covert war in Pakistan — has all been about. For the ordinary Pakistani, there is no better or more comforting explanation for the three years of nonstop suicide bombings and violence that Pakistan has been plunged into.
But what might be most offensive to Pakistanis may be the sense among U.S. officials, as conveyed by Woodward, that Pakistanis are not taking the militant threat seriously. Pakistanis are keenly aware of the 30-year-old monster of extremists and radicals that their governments and military have cultivated in the name of national security. The terrorists of the TTP and other al Qaeda affiliates that have wreaked so much destruction — causing more than 30,000 deaths since 2001 in Pakistan — are deeply unpopular.
But these enemies are, at least, domestic and familiar. The public knows full well that the monster of extremism is an intergenerational challenge, one that will require careful and assiduous attention. Anti-American hatred, on the other hand, is fueled by a simpler narrative. There is no ideological commitment or religious fervor that fuels the Pakistani public’s anti-Americanism. Nor is there a particularly civilizational flavor to it. Pakistani anti-Americanism comes from a sustained narrative in which Pakistan is the undignified and humiliated recipient of U.S. financial support — provided at the expense of Pakistani blood. This may not be reflective of the intentions of Obama’s war, but it is reflective of the outcome of this war on main street in Pakistan. And perception is reality.
One of the most telling accounts in the book is of Husain Haqqani, the Pakistani ambassador to the United States, trying to explain to members of the Obama administration how to engage with Pakistan. After trying a number of analogies, the unflappable Haqqani finally just lays it out plainly, “Give us a little bit of respect. Don’t humiliate us publicly.”
The public humiliation of being the subject of Obama’s war, without being able to publicly acknowledge its myriad dimensions, is a pressure that is crushing Pakistan’s fragile democracy and hurting wider U.S. goals. If one of the objectives of Obama’s war was to stabilize and secure Pakistan, then, by that measure, the war is not doing well at all. The surge has been a massive failure, notwithstanding the achievements of the clandestine war and the drone strikes.
That perfectly captures the American conundrum in Pakistan. The things that have the most value for the Obama administration — using covert actions and drone strikes to take out known al Qaeda members — provoke the most disquiet in Pakistan. Pakistanis will not come away from reading Obama’s Wars with any confidence in the warm sincerity of Hillary Clinton’s multiple visits to the country to build bridges and spur the U.S. public diplomacy machine. Instead, the suspicious instincts of Pakistanis will be vindicated. The irony could not be richer. No U.S. administration has ever invested so much effort and time in trying to understand and accommodate Pakistan’s complex realities into its own calculus. Woodward’s book confirms what this outpouring of U.S. interest and attention is all about: It is about fear.