Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan lost the great South Asian War by Myra MacDonald
MacDonald who was based in India at the beginning of this millennium, serving as the New Delhi Bureau Chief of Reuters, has extensively covered India and Pakistan in her journalistic career spanning many decades. Her previous work on Siachen, Heights of Madness: One Woman’s Journey in Pursuit of a Secret War (2008) provided an interesting insight into the world’s highest battlefield and how the region plays a significant role in the geopolitical rivalry between India and Pakistan.
For the present book, MacDonald focuses on the period between 1998 and 2016 to examine the bilateral relationship. Her central premise is that in the aftermath of the nuclearisation of South Asia in 1998, Pakistan has lost ground to India on all fronts: economic, political and strategic. While both countries emerged as pariah states after their respective nuclear tests in the summer of 1998, India decisively marched ahead to sit at the high table of world politics while Pakistan came to acquire epithets like ‘failed state’, ‘fountainhead of international terrorism’, ‘epicentre of terror, ‘terror cauldron’ etc. Today, the contrast in both the countries’ international standing could not have been starker. Behind this failure of Pakistan, were the myopic policies of Pakistan which prioritised terrorism over trade, facilitated insurgency over infrastructure and promoted a ‘war through proxies’, rather than a ‘war on poverty’. These policies may have fetched tactical victories to Rawalpindi and Islamabad but ultimately ended up costing a strategic loss of legitimacy and nationhood for Pakistani state. As the author says, “…its (Pakistan’s) downward trend relative to its eastern neighbour (India), a country Pakistan had once aspired to match or outshine, appears irreversible” (p 30).
The author begins with the gripping account of the IC-814 hijacking episode in 1999 when an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked by the Pakistan-based terrorist groups from Kathmandu to Kandahar. The hijacking came to an end when India was forced to release Masood Azhar (who went on to establish the terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammed), Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar (chief of Al Umar which focused on militant attacks in the Kashmir Valley) and Sheikh Omar Ahmed Saeed (who organised funding for the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States and later on convicted of killing the American journalist, Daniel Pearl). Examined in detail by MacDonald, the episode appeared as a major tactical victory for Pakistan over India, but it also firmly merged Pakistan’s foreign policy priorities with the pan-Islamic international terrorist movement led by Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
MacDonald brings out the repeated urge in Pakistan’s policymakers to settle a score with India by way of a misadventure which sought to exceed in scale the previous misadventure, repeatedly testing India’s patience. If Kargil looked like a ‘brilliant tactical operation’, it was indeed a strategic disaster (p. 57) as Pakistan had to scurry for a cover after India upped the ante in the Himalayas. As she rightly points out, the entire episode discredited Pakistan by portraying it as an aggressor and further undermined its position on Kashmir issue, which in any case had been in tatters with its promotion of Kashmiri terrorist groups.
Yet that did not stop India from rolling out a red carpet for General Parvez Musharraf - the mastermind of Kargil, at the Agra Summit in 2001. But it is to the credit of Musharraf’s immaturity that he missed a golden opportunity to normalise ties with India. However, since then the Pakistani belligerence only increased as evident from the increased support to terrorist groups to carry out attacks in India and the Kashmir Valley- from the 2001 Parliament attack and the Srinagar Assembly attack and culminating in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
The genesis of Pakistan’s terrorism fetish as has been correctly pointed out by MacDonald is that blinded by competition with India and an unwillingness to recognise the changes wrought in part by its own security policies, Pakistan never formed a coherent clear-sighted strategy towards Afghanistan and its northwest (p. 211). The result was a muddled, reactive policy that exacerbated its domestic upheaval caused by the Afghanistan War and gave it the illusion of a ‘strategic depth’ against India, but in reality encouraged the religious fundamentalist groups, who could never be accommodated with the Pakistani state.
MacDonald argues that the more Pakistan continued to drag its feet on religious radicals and terrorist groups operating on its soil, the clearer it became that as a state Pakistan was not able to think of a compromise with India, as vividly brought out by the painstaking negotiations between the two countries between 2004 and 2007 on draft agreement on Kashmir which came to a naught when Musharraf was thrown out of power. Pakistan’s continued denial of any involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks further convinced its citizens that their country can do no wrong, even as it continued to be affected by the terrorist violence.
The book is also a damning indictment of the US strategy towards South Asia, which it claimed had de-hyphenated India and Pakistan in the post-Cold War era, yet continued to view each country through the other’s prism. The Mumbai attacks and the explicit involvement of the Pakistani security establishment in planning and perpetrating the conspiracy were overlooked by the US, in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan. There was also a naïve belief, as the author has brought out, that Pakistan could be convinced to change course (p. 205), despite all the evidence to the contrary. She also briefly mentions about the role of David Coleman Headley, the American Lashkar terrorist, who in effect laid the ground work for the Mumbai attacks.
MacDonald’s work convincingly demonstrates that mere possession of nuclear weapons does not necessarily make the country a great power. Rather it has to be combined with sensible, moderate policies to achieve a respectable standing in international politics. The case of Pakistan is a classic example of how security gains accrued by the nuclear weapons can be frittered away by faulty strategic policies which in ultimate analysis now threaten to eat away at the very legitimacy of the Pakistani state. And on the other hand, India, by following policies focused on economic development and social cohesion has emerged a ‘leading power’. As she concludes, the progress India has made between 1998 and 2016 is a victory that has many fathers but in Pakistan, torn between blaming its external enemies and the ‘traitors’ of its internal power struggle, defeat is an orphan (p. 261).
This book makes up for a riveting reading because MacDonald’s style of writing is an excellent combination of journalistic writing and academic rigour. She has interesting anecdotes from the interviews with the key people, not least made possible because of her being bureau chief of Reuters. One wishes she would have been more forthcoming on Pakistan’s external benefactors. The first one being the US policies in South Asia, which were right in spirit but floundered in implementation or to borrow her own phrase, appeared tactically right but proved to be strategic blunders. The second is the role of China, which propped up Pakistan from time to time and greatly complicated India’s security calculus. Had it not been for China’s ‘all weather friendship’ with Pakistan, India’s rise at the international level would have been even more meteoric. And the third which has not been dwelt in detail by many scholars is the curious role played by Saudi Arabia, which has sought to make hay of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb as the ‘Islamic bomb’.
Overall, MacDonald’s book is a great addition to the literature on India-Pakistan relationship post-1998 and it would be a valuable work of reference, for those who are keen to know the current history of South Asia.