Bruce Riedel’s underwhelming new book

It doesn’t tell us any more than we already know

It is hard to see what Bruce Riedel’s new book “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad” seeks to do.

It covers the history of the United States’ relationship with Pakistan from Partition onwards, but is too brief and too shallow to provide a good picture. Dennis Kux and Howard Schaffer deal with this in much greater detail. As an analysis of Pakistani politics and civil-military relations, it is a subset of Stephen P Cohen’s excellent book. As a narrative of the creation and growth of the military-jihadi complex, it is supered by Ahmed Rashid and Hussain Haqqani, who go much deeper. Finally, as an account of the Obama administration’s handling of the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan, it has little to add to Bob Woodward’s book published last year.

Coming from one of the most astute analysts of Pakistan, and from someone who was “in the room” during important moments in contemporary history, the book is a disappointment. Mr Riedel could well have cited Kux, Schaffer, Cohen & Rashid as references in his introductory chapter and gone on to provide us with a deeper, broader analysis of Pakistan’s current situation and fleshed out the possible directions it may take in the future. Yet, we are left with just one single chapter on the implications of one single—what he calls “possible (but not probable)”—outcome: the implications of a jihadist state in Pakistan. That begs the question: what about the probable outcomes? Shouldn’t the book be discussing those in detail?

Perhaps because he is still too close to the policy-making in Washington, Mr Riedel uses statements like “the United States currently has better relations with both India and Pakistan than any other time in the past several decades”. This, after he lays out in great detail how deeply unpopular the United States is in Pakistan (not least because of Washington’s improved relations with India), how the Pakistani military is at loggerheads with its US counterpart, and after mentioning incidents like the suicide attack on the CIA base in Khost. Let’s hope Mr Riedel was merely being diplomatic and politically correct, because the alternative is unflattering.

The disappointment deepens when you see the author accepting the trite argument that Pakistan’s insecurities vis-a-vis India will be assuaged if there is a settlement of the Kashmir dispute, even on Pakistan’s own terms. A person who correctly sees a hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan as a victory for al-Qaeda’s global jihad somehow fails to consider the geopolitical implications of India yielding to Pakistan’s military-jihadi blackmail. To be fair, Mr Riedel recommends nothing more than what was agreed in India-Pakistan back channel talks, but even so, the premise that Pakistan will pose less of a threat to international security if only India were to make some concessions takes the heat off the protagonists—Pakistan and its scaffold states. And no, privately nudging the Indian leadership to pursue dialogue with Pakistan is unlikely to be any more effective than doing so publicly.

What is the book’s big prescription for Pakistan? The combination of carrots (Kerry-Lugar long-term aid) and sticks (drone attacks and suchlike) that are currently employed by the Obama administration. There is very little by way of identification and evaluation of other options. This might, again, be due to the fact the Mr Riedel was recently a part of, and still very close to, the ongoing deadly embrace. By that token, this book might have come too early.

2 thoughts on “Bruce Riedel’s underwhelming new book”

  1. For a man, who was supposed to be a CIA operative during the hyper active days of fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Mr Bruce Riedels analysis of AfPak conflict is often shallow, and without much substance, bringing in nothing new that has not been told already.

    It is really funny to see people praising his book for its brilliant analysis, which seems like a piece in a big conspiracy.

  2. Hi,

    It is quite possible that Reidel’s book contains a fair amount of information which is fairly new in the context of the U.S. debate about Pakistan, while having very little in it that would strike readers of B.Raman as new or interesting. Remeber that here in the U.S. there is a tradition of assuming that Pakistan is on our side. If someone starts out by assuming that Pakistan and the U.S. are allies against radical Islam, Reidel’s book may put a useful dent in this assumption. Especially if it is combined with other books that raise questions about this assumption.

    In thinking about these things, it is useful to remember that Pakistan has historically not been a big deal in the U.S. India under Indira was not a friend of the U.S., so we tilted toward Pakistan. We were against the Soviet Union, Pakistan was against the Soviet Union in Afghnaistan,, so there was a natural basis for an alliance in the 1980’s. Neither of these justifications really required us to pay much attention to Pakistan, So we didn’t, Reality in Pakistan is now attracting more attention in the U.S., and is coming as something of a shock.


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