Bob Woodward's books have an uncanny ability to create palpable nervousness in Washington. They almost always expose some government officials in a poor light. But though many figures in his latest, Obama's Wars, don't come off particularly well, there is one clear, overwhelming, and irreconcilable villain. It isn't a member of Barack Obama's administration, the Taliban, or even al Qaeda. In fact, it's not a person at all.
In the opening chapter, Woodward introduces his bad guy: "the immediate threat to the United States [comes] ... from Pakistan, an unstable country with a population of about 170 million, a 1,500 mile border with southern Afghanistan, and an arsenal of some 100 nuclear weapons." Never mind the Woodward effect in Washington; in Obama's Wars, the villain is an entire country.
Relations between the United States and Pakistan have never been more fraught. Last month, NATO helicopters breached Pakistani airspace several times. In the first instance, they engaged a group of suspected terrorists, killing more than 30. On Sept. 30, in another breach of Pakistani territory and airspace, NATO gunships fired on Pakistani paramilitary troops from the Frontier Constabulary (FC). Three Pakistani soldiers were killed and another three were badly injured. No one even attempted to dismiss the incident as friendly fire. In response, Pakistan has shut down the main border crossing and supply route into Afghanistan at Torkham, and militants have attacked convoys bringing fuel to NATO forces. All this comes after the most intense month of U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan since the campaign began.
Into this environment comes Woodward's account of the Obama administration's decision to embrace a surge strategy in Afghanistan, which also offers a pretty good window into what American power sees when it looks at Pakistan. Woodward's emphasis on the "Pak" in AfPak reflects a larger shift in emphasis in official Washington. Perhaps inadvertently, the book is also likely to confirm many of the darkest suspicions that ordinary Pakistanis have about their erstwhile American allies.
Before 9/11, Pakistan's hot and cold relationship with the United States was the object of obsession for three generations of Pakistani foreign-policy analysts, but there were hardly a dozen serious Pakistan scholars in the United States. The imbalance was for good reason. America was a massive ATM for corrupt and lazy Pakistani governments -- especially military dictatorships. Conversely, though Pakistan periodically offered an interesting and useful ally in the South Asia region, it was too cumbersome to trust as a long-term friend.