Book Review: No Win War - The Paradox of US-Pakistan Relations in Afghanistan’s Shadow

The book ‘No Win War’ by Zahid Hussain, who also authored books like Frontline Pakistan and Scorpion Tales, provides a lucid insight into the convergences and divergences between states that became part of the War on Terror after the unfortunate 9/11 attacks. The book explores the complex relationship between the United States and Pakistan. It reiterates back to the bilateral ties that revived when President Bush in 2001 decided to lift sanctions; of nearly 1 billion dollars from Pakistan and reiterated debt relief for Pakistan.

Hussain has enigmatically called the relationship between the US and Pakistan after 2001 a ‘shotgun marriage’. He attempts to state that the desire for cooperation was not the motivation behind the newly formed alliance. However, it was an element of compulsion where evident convergences and divergences existed. Whilst the US carried out operations against the Taliban, which received Pakistani support from 1996 onwards, the latter had to join the very alliance aimed to uproot the Taliban.

Miscalculating Options for Afghanistan

The theme of the US misgauged approach towards Afghanistan at the time of its invasion-to the policy decisions Washington took in its two decades campaign is evident from the pages. Especially when the US did not have an in-depth comprehension of Afghan dynamics as it only had the objective of retribution in crosshairs against the perpetrators of the Twin Towers attacks. Whilst the US ousted the Taliban, and placed loyalist governments in Kabul, increasing Indian influence in the region became a source of insecurity for Pakistan. Pakistan efficiently cooperated with the US in joint intelligence operations against Al Qaeda. This resulted in the arrest of many top Al Qaeda leaders.

The writer elucidates cited flaws in US military operations in Afghanistan. The UNHRC report on June 3rd, 2009 condemned the US tactics on war and stated that the US government failed to keep a check on civilians casualties during the war and failed to provide means to bring an account of civilian casualties.

The ‘PlayStation’ mentality linked with the US usage of drones was said to be giving impetus to other countries to follow the same. The writer has not only highlighted the criticism on the US but has also entailed the rational making by the US policymakers who supported these actions.

Uncovering the Complexities

The author does a commendable job in taking the lid from intrinsic dimensions that marred the Afghan question for the last two decades. He offers a crisp insight of ‘not so public occurrences’ during the war on terror which could not be grasped in entirety. These include insider accounts of events like the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Deputy Director of CIA’s meeting with former Pakistani Premier Yusuf Raza Gelani and the harsh response of Mike Mullen to ISI chief.

Writing on drones, Hussain asserts that Pakistan provided bases to the US at Jacobabad, Pasni, Dalbadin and Shamsi as per the deals signed in 2001. What the author unravels is that even the top Pakistani military brass was not aware of the extent and nature of activities being carried out from those bases. Pakistan was only guarding the outer perimeters of those bases. This secret utilization of bases continued till 2011, even though the Pakistani Government declared in 2006 that the US has left the bases.

COIN for Afghanistan

Highlighting the divergence of Pakistani and the US approach to Afghan issues, the author pens down detailed accounts of engagements of top military juntas and their unease in the conduct of operations. He writes the reservations of Pakistan’s Army Chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani on the US approach towards the wider insurgency. Mr Kayani considered that the US had no effective strategy for winning its Afghan war.

Mr Kayani who was not shy of presenting his reservations on the US counter-insurgence approach for Afghanistan; was also, highly disquieted by the increasing number of on-ground US troops, which as a result intensified the war. Here the writer also mentions the apparent division between President Obama and his military commanders; as the US President was not in favour of sending more troops. President Obama only approved the troop increment when the US Secretary of Defence assured that it would only take 18 months to clear the Taliban and hand over control to Afghan forces.

This approach of Counter Insurgency (COIN) which aimed at giving control to the newly elected Karzai Government after 18 months was also flawed. The author writes about the weakness of the Karzai Government and the frictions between Karzai and the West. Particularly when Karzai stopped talking to Richard Holbrooke and strain with the British.

Civil-Military Rift and CIA Operations

The author opines on the divergence of the Pakistani political elite and military establishment. Especially when he mentions the Visa liberalization policies during the People’s Party Government. Hussain Haqqani was the Pakistani ambassador to the US during the time. He was alleged to have processed 400 visa applications on a single weekend. Such actions were resented by the country’s intelligence outfits.

The author states that the expansion of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation in Pakistan; resulted in the CIA outnumbering the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The writer mentions that the US consulate in Peshawar was especially used for intelligence purposes. Reportedly, most of its staff were intelligence personnel.

Raymond Davis, a Blackwater operative, became a subject of headlines after he killed two civilians in Lahore, Pakistan. He also came to Pakistan due to the Visa liberalization policy. The US officials requested for a similar immunity for Davis; that is accorded to diplomats or consular staff, under international law, despite Raymond being none of those.

Hussain even mentions the current Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi; who was also the FM during the Raymond Davis Fiasco. He writes that Mr Qureshi took a different stance on the Davis issue than his President; who inclined more towards releasing the operative. This resulted in Mr Qureshi losing his minister portfolio.

Talking with the Taliban

The Thirteenth chapter in Zahid Hussain’s book provides an intriguing insight into the backdoor processes; which, resulted in the US engagement with the Taliban after a decade of fighting. The writer traces back this shift of policy to March of 2011. As reiterated in the chapter, this occurred when the US engaged with the former secretary to Mullah Omer, Tayyab Agha. Due to this, several classified meetings took place between the Taliban, and the US. This is just one of the several instances Zahid Hussain has penned down which led to the Doha track. After this, the Kabul Government criticized the US and Qatar for allowing the Taliban to open their Doha office. The Obama Government released the Taliban leaders from Guantanamo Bay that were going to be part of negotiating team.


Every page of the book has the power to engulf the reader in awe; due to the startling chain of events that has authored has opined. Zahid has effectively managed to enshrine the publicized as well as secret developments; that took place from 2001 to present-day Afghanistan.

No Win War, as the author named his book, becomes even a more relevant read; in the context of contemporary US withdrawal. Even a layman with no previous knowledge of the history of the US actions in Afghanistan and its complex relations with Pakistan would comfortably comprehend the pattern of different policy actions which Zahid has beautifully explained in a simplified manner. Be it the US actions in the earlier days to the perplexing time of Osama Bin Laden’s assassination in Abbottabad; or, the events that followed to political stalemates like Memo-gate and Dawn leaks. Furthermore, Zahid sheds light on the policy quagmires of Islamabad and Washington. This tends to provide an exposition for many decisions taken; particularly, in the course of the last two decades by respective governments.

The book, ‘No Win War‘ serves as a rejoinder for states that push themselves in a conflict without an explicit exit strategy. All while having little understanding of complications that await them. Resultantly, the war continued for decades. The cost of human life that comes with this conflict forms a fertile ground for even more lethal ones.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here