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Review: Magnificent Delusions

Husain Haqqani tries to explain the origins of this dichotomy. His title and subtitle sum up what he believes underlies US-Pakistan relations and why its future is bleak — ‘Magnificent Delusions’ and ‘An epic history of misunderstanding.’

books Updated: Oct 21, 2013 14:02 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhari

Magnificent Delusions

Husain Haqqani


Rs. 799, Pgs 416

Indians often express bafflement at the bond between the United States and Pakistan. Americans are the first to fret about Pakistan’s trajectory, complain about its military’s love for playing footsie with terrorists and its present habit of negotiating "with a gun to its own head." And yet, historically, they have been the prime providers of money, arms and global support for Pakistan. Husain Haqqani tries to explain the origins of this dichotomy. His title and subtitle sum up what he believes underlies US-Pakistan relations and why its future is bleak — ‘Magnificent Delusions’ and ‘An epic history of misunderstanding.’

Starting with Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for the Partition and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Haqqani traces the twists and turns of the US-Pakistan relations through its Cold War closeness, the nuclear estrangement temporarily put on hold after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the wary alliance that underlay the two countries during the ‘War on Terror’. It is striking how, at the end of all this, Americans and Pakistanis have little or no affection for each other. The Pakistani public is among the most anti-American in the world today. Barack Obama’s order that Rawalpindi should be kept in the dark about the Abbotabad raid reflected staggering distrust. Haqqani gives reasons for the flawed relationship. One is that it is lopsided. “The US has loomed large among Pakistanis since independence as their protector and source of development funds,” he said at a meeting in New Delhi. Pakistan has been a matter of geopolitical expediency for the US, important for three brief periods, a nuisance at other times, but ultimately, as one US strategist said, “matters as much to the US as the Maldives matters to Pakistan”.

Two, the basis of relations was always “something other than what was publicly stated”. Pakistan told the US it wanted to be its great anti-communist bulwark but really wanted guns to take on India. As Haqqani notes, “Pakistan never sent a single soldier to fight a single war against communism”. The US would speak of undying friendship but struggled to find common ground as Pakistan moved on an Islamicist, non-democratic path. “This was a relationship in which neither got what they wanted.” Three, and arguably the main reason Pakistan doesn’t have its geopolitical head screwed on straight, is the degree to which its leadership has deluded itself about its foreign relations and the nature of its own nationalism. Pakistan’s worldview, Haqqani sums up pithily, is about “US desertions, Indian perfidy and Afghan unreliability”. It boils down, he says, to “nationhood based on xenophobia”.

Almost all the high-level US-Pakistani interactions that the book describes follow a similar pattern: the Pakistanis, civilian or military, asking the US, “How many weapons and how much money can you give us?” The US officials respond that perhaps Pakistan had other priorities, give up the argument, and sign on the dotted line. Even after the catastrophic defeat of 1971, US officials who met Zulfikar Ali Bhutto were shocked to find that his team’s priority was rearmament. The rationale as to why “aid and arms” should be provided changed — fighting communism to “fears of Pakistan’s disintegration and radicalisation” — but the storyline is remarkably consistent. Haqqani says that when he was reading the letter of General Ashfaq Kayani, the outgoing Pakistani army chief, to Obama he thought “this sounds familiar”. He dug up Ayub Khan’s letter to Dwight Eisenhower and found them identical. “Pakistan’s strategic worldview hasn’t changed in all that time.” Students of South Asian foreign relations will be interested to learn that Bhutto offered bases to the US. Haqqani also shows that the entire strategy to use the mujahedin to bleed the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was originally devised by General Zia ul Haq and later sold to Washington.

The book is overly dependent on US sources and, therefore, less is learnt about what was going on in the minds of Pakistan’s leaders during crucial events. Haqqani says he’s saving that for a second book. One also doesn’t get a definite sense of why, even when the geopolitical variable was zero, the US’s tendency was to say, “The Pakistanis are lying, but give them stuff anyway”.

Haqqani says the delusions that afflict Pakistan will not be dispelled because open debate on these topics has been stilled. “At some point, illusions will run into reality,” he says, and the result will be trauma. He fears the rock on which Pakistan may run aground is an American backlash. “I feared Bin Laden’s discovery in Pakistan would trigger something, but it looks like it will be something else.” His message to his countrymen: “The successful nations of the 21st century will not be angry nations, but those with energy, optimism and plans.”