The South Asia Channel

The Most Magnificent Delusion

The Most Magnificent Delusion

Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding (New York: Public Affairs, 2013). 

In April 1977, an embattled Zulfikar Ali Bhutto delivered a fiery anti-American speech to Pakistan’s parliament. Violent anti-government demonstrations were convulsing the country, and the prime minister lambasted them as part of a "conspiracy" bankrolled by the United States.

Bhutto cited a recent phone conversation between U.S. diplomats. According to the premier, eight words from this exchange — "The party’s over, the party’s over. He’s gone" — suggested that the opposition would successfully remove Bhutto from power. (Pakistan’s army would in fact oust him just weeks later.)

"Well gentlemen," Bhutto proclaimed to a cheering legislature, "The party is not over."

It was a great applause line — and apparently rooted in a lie. As Boston University professor Husain Haqqani reveals in his excellent new book, Magnificent Delusions: Pakistan, the United States, and an Epic History of Misunderstanding, the diplomats were actually referring to a Karachi dinner party Bhutto attended. One of these diplomats later told Haqqani that he had simply asked a colleague if the soirée was over. The response was "The party is over. He’s gone."

Haqqani speculates that Pakistani intelligence officials recorded the conversation. Either they misled Bhutto about the meaning of the eight words, or Bhutto knew the truth and was simply "playing to Pakistanis’ emotions."

This anecdote, amusing as it is, captures the essence of the troubled U.S.-Pakistan partnership. Magnificent Delusions presents the history of this frequently acrimonious and manipulative relationship, from Pakistan’s independence in 1947 to the discovery of Osama bin Laden in a Pakistani villa in May 2011.

Recent bilateral tensions are well-known, thanks to headline-grabbing disagreements about drones, militancy, and Afghanistan. Haqqani, however, underscores that the discord and disconnects are as old as the 66-year-old relationship itself. One month after independence, Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah told his cabinet that Pakistan must ally with the United States against the Soviet Union. Yet America then had little interest in Pakistan. It perceived no Communist threat to South Asia that justified a new anti-Soviet sub-continental ally. It was also preoccupied with post-war reconstruction activities in Europe and East Asia.

And then there’s the deception — a facet of the relationship of particular interest to Haqqani.

After its nemesis India staged a nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan pressured the United States for military assistance, arguing that India’s nuclear status — and Pakistan’s resulting insecurity — required Pakistan to strengthen its defense capacities in order to attain parity with India’s conventional forces. Washington obliged — even though Pakistan was secretly developing its own nuclear weapons program. In the succeeding years, according to Haqqani, Pakistani leader, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, repeatedly lied to American officials by denying Pakistan had such a program.

One of the book’s chief themes is Pakistan’s constant ability to secure U.S. military aid, even though Pakistan has often used this aid, not to help pursue U.S. interests — tackling Communism or combating Islamist militancy for example — but rather to serve Pakistani interests at odds with America’s, such as fighting India. Islamabad, Haqqani notes, has openly flouted its subterfuge. After the Soviets entered Afghanistan, Pakistan asked Washington for tanks, supposedly to target the Soviet threat in Afghanistan. Tanks, however, can’t navigate the mountainous Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier, and are better suited for the flatter India-Pakistan border region.

So why has Washington kept the aid flowing? According to Haqqani, it’s remained naively wedded to the mistaken assumption that aid provision gives America leverage to secure its interests. For example, the Carter administration believed Pakistan would "hesitate to proceed" with its nuclear weapons program if Washington threatened to withhold aid. Such miscalculations, in Haqqani’s view, are a hallmark of U.S.-Pakistan relations.

Some of the book’s most striking revelations amplify how little the two governments understand each other. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, wanted Pakistan in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) because "we could never get along without the Gurkas." (Gurkas are Nepalese, not Pakistani.) A 1989 U.S. intelligence profile described Hamid Gul — a virulently anti-American, pro-Taliban former head of Pakistan’s spy agency who now makes public appearances with Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed — as "a strong supporter of Pakistan’s ties to the U.S." And Pakistan demanded in the 1950s that the United States treat it like Turkey, even though that country, unlike Pakistan, had provided military bases to the United States, had fought alongside it in the Korean War, and had a staunchly Western outlook

In essence, the United States and Pakistan have continuously been bamboozled and befuddled by each other. And yet, remarkably, their relationship has paid strategic dividends — a reality Haqqani doesn’t fully acknowledge. Pakistan has secured billions in military and economic assistance from the United States, but it has also provided Washington with its own goodies — from a Cold War-era listening post near Peshawar to supply routes for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and bases in Balochistan for the CIA to operate drones. The two have joined (admittedly weak) collective defense organizations such as SEATO and the Central Treaty Organization (CENTO), and pursued strategic dialogues on a range of issues.

Such strategic cooperation has had troubling ramifications. Magnificent Delusions recounts Washington’s stubborn refusal to call out the Pakistani military for its brutalities (some say genocide) in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) in 1971. We now know that Washington’s silence amid the savagery — the subject of another stellar new book, Gary J. Bass’s The Blood Telegram — was rooted in the Nixon administration’s desire to use Pakistan as an intermediary for opening up relations with China. Opposing Pakistan’s bloody policies in East Pakistan, the White House calculated, would jeopardize its strategic imperative of employing Islamabad as a go-between with Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan has not seemed particularly grateful for America’s help. Haqqani writes how Washington was blamed by many Pakistanis for the plane crash that killed Haq, even though the U.S. supported him; for failing to prevent t
he partition of East Pakistan, despite the U.S.’s refusal to condemn Pakistan’s brutalities there; and for abandoning Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, even though the United States continued to send guns and money to the Pakistanis into the 1990s.

Furthermore, while Haqqani — who is often harder on his own country than on the United States — doesn’t say so outright, the reverse is also true. Washington has blamed Islamabad for not doing enough to combat militancy, and American journalists have denigrated Pakistan as "the ally from hell" — even though Pakistan renounced ties to some extremist groups after the 9/11 attacks, and its military conducts countermilitancy operations that have claimed thousands of soldiers’ lives. Such apparent ingratitude is a natural consequence of a relationship that, for all its warm personal relationships (Nixon, for example, was quite fond of Gen. Yahya Khan), is driven more by coldly calculated strategic considerations than genuine affection.

Other than some sloppy copyediting and several unnecessarily long digressions, there’s little to quibble about with Magnificent Delusions. It is impeccably researched, with an overwhelming reliance on primary sources — thereby making its often controversial findings impossible to dispute. The book’s tone is strikingly restrained, subjective yet never polemical. This is admirable, given that its author’s public service career has been damaged, if not destroyed, by the toxic nature of his subject. Haqqani was forced to resign as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington in 2011 after he was accused — wrongfully, he insists — of asking U.S. officials to prevent Pakistan’s military from launching a coup.

The book’s one limitation is its lack of prescriptive material. Haqqani recommends that the two sides recognize their fundamentally divergent interests, and scale back expectations and objectives. This makes good sense. But then what?

Here, the two sides should heed the advice of former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman. In September 2011, he told Haqqani that a staggering 90 percent of U.S.-Pakistan relations were government-to-government. A key to improving the relationship, he said, is to privatize it more.

Indeed, a remarkable aspect of U.S.-Pakistan relations is how unofficial, private relations have flourished, even when official relations have lapsed. Public opinion in both countries may be hostile, but this hasn’t stopped private American and Pakistani citizens from visiting each other’s countries for education (Pakistan’s Fulbright program is the largest of any country) and the arts (decades ago, Hollywood stars flocked to Pakistan to make movies). I’ve previously chronicled the modest yet meaningful efforts of ordinary Americans and Pakistanis to foster bilateral goodwill. The fast-growing and prosperous Pakistani-American diaspora helps drive this engagement. So does the fact that, despite their immense differences, Pakistan and the United States — both pious nations with ultra-partisan politics and powerful private media — are actually rather similar.

Ultimately, the most magnificent delusion about U.S.-Pakistan ties is that the two countries aren’t destined to get along. They are — on unofficial levels. Better leveraging the goodwill proliferating from these private channels can improve the overall relationship.

Today, despite persevering for nearly 70 tumultuous years, it wouldn’t take much for the relationship to go up in smoke. U.S. officials — including President Obama, we learn in the book — have recently warned Pakistan that any terror attack on U.S. soil traced back to Pakistan could devastate bilateral ties. Either way, Washington’s strategic focus on Pakistan will likely weaken in the coming year as U.S. troops complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan.

So, to paraphrase Bhutto, could the party soon be over for U.S.-Pakistan relations? Such a scenario is unlikely, yet not inconceivable. Here’s hoping the relationship’s unofficial interlocutors — investors, educators, scientists, entertainers — can help keep the partnership afloat.

Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org or on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.