South Asia's zero-sum war

How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War
Myra MacDonald
Hurst & Co, London, 2017
313 pages; Rs 599

The author, Myra MacDonald, who served in India as a Reuters correspondent from 2000, has written extensively on South Asian affairs. This book follows one she has written on the Indo-Pak conflict over the Siachen glacier.

This book is a good account of the numerous assaults that Pakistan has mounted on the Indian state, starting with the Kashmir infiltrations in 1947 and culminating with the most recent attacks in Gurdaspur, Pathankot and Uri, with the last one leading to the “surgical” retaliation by Indian forces across the Line of Control (LoC), the effective boundary between the two estranged neighbours since Partition.

Most Indians will find little that is new in what Ms MacDonald has to say, since this is familiar territory, though she has managed to get comments from a number of anonymous Indian diplomats who are familiar with specific developments. What will of course encourage Indians to read the book is the sub-title that tantalisingly suggests that there has been a “Great South Asian War” over the last several decades that Pakistan now seems to have lost. Sadly, there is hardly anything in the book that would confirm this conclusion.

Two points emerge most forcefully from Ms MacDonald’s narrative: first, that the Pakistan army has a visceral animosity for India and is committed to inflicting the maximum possible harm upon India. And, second, for most of the last 50 years or so, the US has been an effective associate of Pakistan in its nefarious designs. In fact, these two factors have fed off each other.

While referring to the US interaction with the two South Asian powers, the term that Ms MacDonald uses most often is “blind eye” to describe US accommodation of the Pakistani generals’ wars on India. Thus, the US turned a blind eye to the three terrorists released by India after the 1999 Indian Airlines hijacking roaming freely in Pakistani cities, even as one of them, Masood Azhar, went on to set up Jaish-e-Mohammed. The US again failed to see the dangers emerging from Pakistan’s increasing affiliation with jihad, and then turned a blind eye to the expansion of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons programme.

More seriously for India, Ms MacDonald confirms what most Indians have suspected, that the US after the 9/11 attacks entered into a “Faustian bargain” with General Musharraf in terms of which he would help the US against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan in return for a free hand to organise terrorist attacks against India: Attacks on the J&K Assembly, the Red Fort and Parliament followed in quick order. 

And, yet, the US continued to see General Musharraf as a reliable ally against jihad, even though the ISI advised the Taliban not to surrender Osama bin Laden. In fact, the then ISI chief told the Taliban that Pakistan would be their ally in the jihad against the US! Later, after 9/11, Musharraf gave the top jihadi leaderships sanctuary in Pakistan.

Regarding the Mumbai attacks, Ms MacDonald tells us that the CIA turned a “blind eye” to the role of the Lashkar-e-Toiba and other domestic jihadi groups so as “to avoid destabilising Musharraf”. After the attacks, the US did everything possible to avoid naming Pakistan for ordering the attacks “in exchange for its cooperation in Afghanistan”.

At the end of the book, Ms MacDonald points out that after General Musharraf’s departure the military establishment has again asserted its authority over the elected civilian government and has taken full control over foreign and security policy so that a formidable “deep state” is well-entrenched in the country. It has also consolidated the various jihadi groups into the “Difa-e-Pakistan” (Defence of Pakistan), whose “ideology (is) based on enmity with India”, which outlives “any individual or general”. 

Ms MacDonald says that these Islamic extremists embody “the hyper-nationalism, militancy, sectarianism and faith-based politics” that defines the Pakistani security state, which then promotes “a vision of a country besieged by external enemies”. This Pakistani affiliation with extremism has exacted a heavy price: between 2003-15, about 60,000 people have been killed, half of them militants, a third civilians and 6,000 security personnel, as the Pakistani army simultaneously combats and supports militant groups in the country.

To justify her sub-title, Ms MacDonald notes that while India has promoted the democratic process in Kashmir, Pakistan has opted for militancy; while India has become the world’s fastest growing economy, Pakistan is generally viewed as a failing state backing jihadi militants. She concludes: Pakistan has lost the Kashmir valley “without India truly gaining it”. 

But, Pakistan’s generals do not believe they have lost the war: they indicate no change in their confrontationist approach to India and, with the real possibility of continuing jihadi assaults upon India, it makes no sense to suggest that “Pakistan has lost the Great South Asian War”. In fact, the sad fact is that, unless there are dramatic changes in Pakistan (for which there is no evidence) the Great South Asian War will continue for years to come.

The reviewer is a former diplomat

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