Best Defense

After reading these books on Pakistan, O’Hanlon is ready to close the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar

Tom: All I’m reading these days are books about Vietnam — I even just found one more on the My Lai massacre — so I thought I would ask Michael O’Hanlon, the defense guru over at Brookings, to pinch hit and fill us in on what books have impressed him lately. By Michael O’Hanlon Best ...

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Tom: All I’m reading these days are books about Vietnam — I even just found one more on the My Lai massacre — so I thought I would ask Michael O’Hanlon, the defense guru over at Brookings, to pinch hit and fill us in on what books have impressed him lately.

By Michael O’Hanlon
Best Defense guest book reviewer

At the risk of promoting colleagues and friends, I’d like to make a plug for two excellent and short books about Pakistan that have come out this year. In contrast to the longer fine histories of this general part of the world — by the likes of Steve Coll, Seth Jones, Peter Bergen, Lawrence Wright — these books are thematic histories. They are cogent and concise. Yet they are reader friendly as well, not expecting you already to have a degree in South Asia studies before picking them up.

The first book, Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad, is by Brookings’ Bruce Riedel. In 144 pages of text, Riedel lucidly provides an overview of the last 30 years of Pakistan’s internal politics, its relationship with the United States, as well as the various insurgent and terrorist groups with which it has had close association. The book is informed by his own experiences over most of this period as an intelligence analyst for the U.S. government. As usual with Bruce, it is brilliant, and quite sobering — yet hardly without hope.

Riedel is well aware of the differences between the United States and Pakistan. He considers this difference of opinion inevitable, even natural between two different states, especially since so much of Pakistan’s recent past has been informed by extremist agendas. (Riedel’s main chapters are titled Zia’s jihad, Omar’s jihad, Osama’s jihad, and global jihad, and the penultimate chapter examines the foreboding if unlikely prospect of a jihadist Pakistani state.) Riedel is sensitive to regional sensibilities on issues like Kashmir and nuclear weapons, where he expects no easy answers in dealings with Islamabad or anyone else in South Asia. But he does call emphatically for Pakistan to clamp down on Afghan Taliban sanctuaries on its soil as well as on the anti-India group Lashkar-e-Taiba. His case for doing so is not just the usual American position that these groups are dangerous for Americans, and Indians, but also his compelling argument that terrorists "don’t stay in their lanes," meaning that cooperation occurs across different groups and it is not realistic for Pakistan to protect and promote the Afghan Taliban and LeT while hoping that groups like the Pakistani Taliban will be contained. Riedel’s knowledge of specifics on these points is so solid and difficult to challenge that one hopes the book will be well read in Pakistan as well as other places.

The Schaffers’ new book, How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster, is equally good, and at 182 pages of text, almost equally concise. It is a fascinating account of how Pakistanis have historically used a mix of charm, military polish, occasional deception, guilt trips, pleas of national weakness, knowledge of Afghanistan, and strategically advantageous geography right next to Afghanistan to induce the United States to do more for them. It is hardly a broadside against Islamabad or an apology for U.S. behavior, however. The Schaffers explain how Pakistan’s core strategic interests are in fact substantially different from those of the United States — specifically in regard to the rivalry with India, and how Pakistanis interpret that rivalry for what they must do in Afghanistan. They explain how Pakistan has also come to mistrust the United States, and how Pakistanis often expect that after their third "marriage" to Washington after 9/11, their third "divorce" from Washington is just a matter of time (the first two being in the mid-1960s and the 1990s).

The books are fascinating. They are fairly easy reads. And taken individually or even more so when taken together, they point the way towards some new policy ideas. I for one would be more likely, as a result of these books and some recent conversations in Kabul, to encourage Afghanistan to ask New Delhi to shut down the Indian consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. This is not because India is doing anything wrong in either place, but because Pakistan’s phobias on India matters are so deep-rooted and real that Islamabad will probably not rein in the Afghan Taliban until such measures are taken. Regardless of where one comes out on specific policy ideas, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is so crucial to U.S. national security interests that these books should both be bestsellers.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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