Michael KreponTragedy, Farce & Divorce

Is it any wonder why Pakistan produces excellent fiction writers? Fiction has to be exceptional to top newspaper accounts. The latest saga begins with outgoing Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, Mike Mullen, who speaks the unvarnished truth that Pakistan’s intelligence services are working hand-in-glove with the Haqqani network on both sides of the Afghan border. Mullen rings alarm bells in Pakistan because it is so unusual and embarrassing for a U.S. government official or senior military offer to say so in public.

National political leaders gather in Islamabad – with the exception of the President, who is hosting a star Pakistani cricket player and his lovely wife, an Indian tennis pro – in an all-party conclave to defend the country’s sovereignty from the Americans, even though the Government of Pakistan’s writ does not extend to the region in question. Politicians of all stripes close ranks with those in uniform who respond to embarrassment by fanning anti-US sentiment. The President refrains from dousing these flames but does place an op-ed in the Washington Post.

Rawalpindi’s Afghan policy is thereby reaffirmed, as is the vicious circle of more US drone strikes, more anti-Americanism, and continued loss of sovereignty within Pakistan. The ISI’s links to the Taliban remain intact, ties that offer no prospect of economic or strategic benefit, as was evident in the 1990s, when Pakistan first discovered that its partners would not repay their debts by following orders or listening to reason.

Tragic history, when repeated, becomes farce. Afghanistan is a bottomless pit for the hubris of great powers as well as a ceaseless drain on Pakistan’s national security, economic well being, and international standing. When last viewed in the rear-view mirror, Pakistan and the United States suffered a divorce after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan. Unless common sense prevails, Pakistan and the United States are headed for another divorce.

The Soviet expulsion meant that there was insufficient cause to continue to paper over divisive bilateral issues — foremost among them being the Pakistani nuclear program which was accelerated during a crisis in 1990 with India, triggering US sanctions. The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan or the end of their resupply through Pakistan could also result in insufficient cause to continue to paper over divisive issues.

The last divorce was in effect for ten years and caused great damage to Pakistan. Freed from heavy-handed US attention or pressure, Rawalpindi sought presumed gains from backing the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen in Kashmir. These plans backfired, resulting in the loss of domestic cohesion, much bloodletting, and declining economic prospects.

Washington also paid dearly for walking away from Pakistan and Afghanistan after the Soviet departure, and then overcompensated after 9/11, when it weighed in deeply but not wisely on both sides of the Durand Line. Rawalpindi’s choices have been no wiser this time around. Another divorce looms, which will cause even greater damage to Pakistan and far worse security dilemmas for the United States.

Given these prospects, diplomats and senior military officers in both countries are again trying to make room for cooperation by parsing the truth. Pakistani Parliamentarians are reportedly advised that the ISI only retains contacts with the political arm of the Haqqani network, not its militant wing — the same is said for the Lashkar-e-Toiba – and that only retirees, free-lancers and low-level operatives are involved. Washington’s onion peelers add that it’s hard to determine how high up the chain of command information is shared and collusion occurs for spectacular mass-casualty attacks carried out by the Haqqani network and the LeT.

These carefully crafted statements are unlikely to be convincing after the next embarrassing US strike or spectacular mass-casualty assault that can be tracked back to those with whom the ISI keeps contact. It strains credulity to repeatedly profess surprise over these events. If contact with those who enjoy safe havens does not prevent bloodshed, or at least provide early warning to those in harm’s way, then others may be excused for concluding that contact is either ineffectual or complicit. If partners cannot be controlled, how exactly do they constitute assets? And if Rawalpindi’s partners can neither be pacified nor co-opted, how can Pakistan’s security advanced?

Pakistan and its neighbors have already suffered dearly for the use of militancy as an instrument of its Afghan and Indian policy. Suffering will be compounded – as well as directed more intensely against Pakistan’s security forces — if “contact” groups and their erstwhile partners within Pakistan turn against each other.

Pakistan and the United States are now situated on the sharp horns of brutal dilemmas. Those of us who support improved Pakistan-US ties in both countries are losing ground. Somehow, against lengthening odds, we are obliged to figure out ways in which the US withdrawal from Afghanistan can be turned into a new start instead of an impending divorce.

Note to readers: This piece appeared in Dawn, a Pakistani daily.


  1. blowback (History)

    “Is it any wonder why Pakistan produces excellent fiction writers?”

    It takes one to know one, “Washington” produces excellent fiction as well and it’s far more harmful than the dross coming out of Islamabad. And why shouldn’t any government lie through their back teeth with “Washington” being run the way it is.

  2. narender sangwan (History)

    I liked your article which also figured in Dawn.US should continue friendshi with its ally to stablise this region.China would certainly like to fill the vaccum and India is equally hankering for world status to have its say in world affairs.US needs to balance things along with EU.

  3. Mark Lincoln (History)

    As the US press functions as little more that a means of conveying press releases and government spin on events in South Asia I have to monitor the local press for perspective an detail.

    I thought the following article would be of interest: http://www.dawn.com/2011/10/08/nuclear-disarmament-and-the-youth.html

  4. Sharif (History)

    Not only does Pakistan produce excellent fiction writers but some of them have rather deep insights into some of America’s self-inflicted problems — Mohsin Hamid’s (“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”) 2007 Washington Post OpEd comes to mind:


    “Why Do They Hate Us?

    ….there is another major reason for anti-Americanism: the accreted residue of many years of U.S. foreign policies. These policies are unknown to most Americans. They form only minor footnotes in U.S. history. But they are the chapter titles of the histories of other countries, where they have had enormous consequences. America’s strength has made it a sort of Gulliver in world affairs: By wiggling its toes it can, often inadvertently, break the arm of a Lilliputian.

    …Soviet troops had recently rolled into Afghanistan, and the U.S. government, concerned about Afghanistan’s proximity to the oil-rich Persian Gulf and eager to avenge the humiliating debacle of the Vietnam War, decided to respond. Building on President Jimmy Carter’s tough line, President Ronald Reagan offered billions of dollars in economic aid and sophisticated weapons to Pakistan’s dictator, Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq. In exchange, Zia supported the mujaheddin, the Afghan guerrillas waging a modern-day holy war against the Soviet occupation. With the help of the CIA, jihadist training camps sprung up in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Soon Kalashnikov assault rifles from those camps began to flood the streets of Lahore, setting in motion a crime wave that put an end to my days of pedaling unsupervised through the streets.

    Meanwhile, Zia began an ongoing attempt to Islamize Pakistan and thus make it a more fertile breeding ground for the anti-Soviet jihad. Public female dance performances were banned, female newscasters were told to cover their heads and laws undermining women’s rights were passed. Secular politicians, academics and journalists were intimidated, imprisoned and worse.

    ….Americans need to educate themselves, from elementary school onward, about what their country has done abroad. And they need to play a more active role in ensuring that what the United States does abroad is not merely in keeping with a foreign policy elite’s sense of realpolitik but also with the American public’s own sense of American values.

    Because at their core, those values are sound. That is why, even in places where you’ll find virulent anti-Americanism, you’ll also find enormous affection for things American. That’s why Pakistani rock musicians listen to Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, why Pakistani cities are full of kids wearing blue jeans and T-shirts, and why Pakistanis have been protesting to give their supreme court the same protection from meddling by their president held by its model: the Supreme Court of the United States. ”

    Basically, until such time as the US can carry out a foreign policy in tune with core US constitutional values it would be well advised to be less interventionist.

    The best thing the US can do is stop enabling the ISI by continued military funding: if the US wants to send funds to Pakistan make them non-military and not delivered to the GOP.

    Much Afghanistan spending is ending up in the hands of the Taliban:


    Both the ISI and the USG (and Saudi Arabia) are hurting Pakistani citizens.

    George Perkovich at Carnegie had some good ideas on what US needs to do about Pakistan —



    See also his LA Times OpEd:


    “Washington could foster Pakistan’s economic development, self-regard and confidence in American intentions by removing barriers to Pakistani textile and apparel exports to the United States. Americans often profess that trade is better than aid. But to protect the tiny and unviable remaining textile and apparel sector in the United States, Congress blocks efforts to lower tariffs on Pakistani imports of these goods. By removing these protectionist tariffs, Washington would help spur Pakistan’s economic growth without the psychological baggage often attached to aid when it is perceived as charity. Rather than harming the tiny American export sector, Pakistan would gain at China’s and other Asian exporters’ expense.

    The United States also needs to correct the impression that Pakistani interests and lives mean less than the interests and lives of Indians. When Indians are killed by terrorists linked to Pakistan, the U.S. rightly decries the loss of life and demands that Pakistan bring the perpetrators to justice and curtail the operations of violent extremists. But when Pakistanis and Muslims in Kashmir and other parts of India have been the victims of terrorism, pogrom-like attacks and excessive use of state force, Washington has been relatively quiescent, not wanting to complicate improving relations with India. This demoralizes and often enrages Pakistanis, undermines U.S. credibility and makes it more difficult for progressive Pakistanis to campaign against violent extremist forces in their society.”

  5. Pete (History)

    As ususal Mr. Krepon, very informative. I’ve never read any Pakistani fiction, any suggestions?

    • krepon (History)


      I asked a friend who is far more knowledgeable than I to offer her list of suggested readings. Here it is:

      1. “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders” by Danyal Moeenuddin.

      2. “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” by Mohammad Hanif.

      3. “The Heart Divided” by Mumtaz Shahnawaz.

      4. “Meatless Days” by Sara Suleri.

      5. “The Wishmaker”, by Ali Sethi.

      6. “Tenderhooks” by Moni Mohsin.