Within the context of the chronically unhinged US-Pak relationship, truth seems to have a Holy Grail-like existence, a perpetual not-being. Every aspect of this relationship seems to be based on projected motives, half-truths, distrust, covert missions, divergent interests and blatant lies.
I’ll lay out the perceived truths of the matter. America thinks: Pakistan is obsessed with India. Any weapons or military aid given to Pakistan will go to the eastern, rather than western frontier. Pakistan wants ‘strategic depth’ – it wants a friendly Afghanistan in case of war with India, in case of geographical, tactical and political maneuverability. It wants elements within the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network to be in power after the US packs up to achieve that friendly government. It is afraid of Indian influence in Afghanistan – Pakistan does not want to be flanked with hostile governments on both sides. Pakistan, hence, has an interest in fueling in the conflict in Afghanistan so that it could wield influence in ‘endgame’ negotiations. Hence, Pakistan, a supposed ally, is providing the very weapons and funds that the United States is supplying to Pakistan, to the people that the United States is fighting against.
Pakistan thinks: The United States is not to be trusted. They abandoned Pakistan in 1989, when the Soviet-Afghan war wrapped up, and this occasion will be no different. Pakistan needs to think of a post-US map of South Asia, getting as much influence, and as many concessions as it can before the withdrawal. As for Pakistan’s stance towards the militants, Pakistan is the biggest casualty in the War on Terror – a war not started by Pakistan. Pakistan has suffered thousands of military and civilian deaths at the hands of militants, and Pakistan has been stretched to the limit in fighting this menace. The Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network does not threaten or endanger Pakistan. Pakistan would be stretched even thinner, and be even more insecure if Pakistan expanded its theater of military operations. Furthermore, the United States does not respect Pakistan as an ally, expanding drone operations on Pakistani sovereign territory despite Pakistan’s continuous calls for the abandonment of the program. The United States consistently favors India over Pakistan, legitimizing, indeed enhancing, the former’s nuclear program, while constantly heckling the latter’s.
Where does this lead? Not anywhere desirable by either party. The United States assumes that the war in Afghanistan will carry on indefinitely until the security threat coming from within Pakistan’s borders is neutered. Pakistan will continue to try and muscle its way on to the negotiating table in Afghanistan and recreate a former sphere of influence. In real terms, therefore, when the matter is put in such terms, the Afghan war, drone strikes, terrorist attacks, occupation, and everything else that is ugly will continue to come out in news items, Twitter feeds and body bags – an inadvertent upholding of a status quo that nobody wants, except for militants. And like that, the interminability of it all evokes cynicism, despair, a gross acceptance of the atrocity that is war, and everything that comes with it.
There is nothing inevitable about the state of affairs between Pakistan and the United States. At the most fundamental level – and it is condescending to say so – there is a lack of empathy. The realities that Pakistan and the United States create for themselves are warped, subjective, narrow and dissimilar. They lack any objective truth, making any meaningful negotiation – even conversation – impossible. Pakistan and the United States, as political entities, are impossible to reduce to their tactical objectives. Furthermore, they both project what the other side wants rather than disclosing their own objectives. Finally, there is an expectation of deceit that renders any candor as insincere.
So why and how does truth matter? Recently, there has been a lot of academic interest in Pakistan. Journalists, authors and academics have spent time and energy to try and go deeper than simply talk across a negotiating table to better understand the dilemmas, the aspirations, the thorns in the hearts and minds of the people of Pakistan. They went to search for the truth. Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven is probably the most apt manifestation of this interest, in which he travels far and wide, interviewing day laborers, bureaucrats and army generals, painting a rich and complex canvas of a nation of a hundred and eighty million. The truth, especially in a country as multi-layered and multi-dimensioned as Pakistan, is never categorical and always nuanced.
That doesn’t suit power brokers very well. Things have to be suchandsuch in order for them to do soandso. When entities such as the Pakistani military are so fractured that one wing is Islamist while the other is secular, it is difficult to characterize the Pakistani military that takes into account such contradictions. Hence, either the secular side is pretending, or there must be two separate militaries. Pakistan’s obession with India is taken as a given, and it takes Aatish Taseer, the son of a murdered Pakistani governor to try explain why even that supposedly irrational position exists. Empathy is not extended to the other side either. The United States also has a need to have itself and its allies dissociated from any form of terrorist activity. This is not as obvious as it sounds. The United States, and most countries, have supported militant non-state actors in the past to meet particular strategic and tactical objectives, whether it be the Contras in Nicaragua, or the even the rebels in Libya in the present day. But the advent of Al-Qaeda has tempered this political phenomenon, making the United State particularly averse; a sensitivity that Pakistan does not appreciate.
I speak not of morality. I am not an idealist. I understand the strategic and pragmatic motives that compel states to act with each other with the ruthlessness and trepidation that they do, and that they are a symptom of the fundamental uncertainty that exists in international relations. What is evident, however, is the elementary mismatch of two countries trying to work together when there is nothing objective for them to work on. A comic example of this would be the meetings between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart on their respective shows. Their summits tend to be cagey and volatile, where the presenters spend most of their time in holding their own, rather than trying to seek any kind of objectivity in the current American political framework. They cognitively treat as fact the notion that there can be no agreement between rival factions. By agreement I do not mean accordance. I mean an acceptance of certain political truths. For example, Republicans think military intervention is bad when a Democratic President does it, and for Democrats, intervention is bad when a Republican President does it. There is nothing categorically ‘bad’ or ‘good’ about interventions, according to politicians.
So when Jon Stwewart and Bill O’Reilly talk to each other, there is nothing objective being discussed at all; it is, all just an articulation of their own interpretations of reality that the other chooses not to accept.
Mr Lieven’s book to me, then, is the reality that best represents the objective truth in politics. In the case of US-Pakistan relations, it is the objective reality that needs to be considered by both Pakistan and the US so that at least they can talk about the same objects, rather than simply hurl vindictive, venomous accusations at each other.
I want to make this very clear. This is not a case of ‘can’t we all just get along?’ That would be a patronizing – indeed, wrong – characterization of how international relations work. What I am calling for is the need for objective truth, an undeniable state of affairs, the undeniable object of negotiation, so that even in the case of diverging opinions, the fundamentals of what is being discussed is not in dispute. In American-Pakistani relations, and most international disputes, that is lacking. When the CIA itself says that there has not been “a single collateral death” from the drone strikes, while other reports say almost a third are civilians, then there is a fundamental need to have the truth about the drone program to assess its efficacy. Any discussion regarding the drone strikes is an exercise in futility since nobody, not even the CIA, has an idea of what reality is actually being discussed. Even if they did, it evidently is not being shared. And so, again, negotiation – discussion – becomes a tragic case of he-said-she-said – or he’ll-say-she’ll-say – that, inherently, is doomed to fail.
Strategic thinking is an integral part of politics; but when it clouds our basic fundamental interpretation of reality so much that we fail to recognize any empirical, epistemological truth, Afghanistan does indeed become a quagmire – just like it is in our heads.