Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The Scorpion's Tail by Zahid Hussain – Book Review

Zahid Hussain is a Pakistan based journalist and correspondent who has worked for the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and Newsweek. His book The Scorpion's Tail was released almost a year ago, but I got around to reading it only now.

Minus its notes and index, The Scorpion's Tail runs to just over 200 pages and is an easy read because a large chunk of it is written in the style of reportage. Hussain traces the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan from the time of its creation when clerics of the Deobandi sect opposed India’s partition because they felt it would weaken Muslim power in the Indian subcontinent. Though Hussain is short on analysis, The Scorpion’s Tail is an excellent description of the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in Pakistan. One gets a ring-side view of events as they unfolded and as Pakistan moved away from democracy towards dictatorship and gave Islamic fundamentalists a greater say in public affairs.

Hussain’s sources are mainly news reports from the BBC, CNN and similar news vendors. He has also relied on his own interviews with various people, such as friends of Benazir Bhutto. Hussain commences his books thus: ‘On a hot August night in the remote town of Makin in Pakistan’s South Waziristan tribal region, a short and stocky bearded man, hooked up to an intravenous drip, lay on a cot on the rooftop of a vast house. A young woman in her late teens massaged his legs. Nearby a predator drone hovered in the clear sky, then zoomed in on the couple………

While describing the attack on the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi on 10 October 2009, Hussain tells us that ‘the men in crisp white fatigues riding a white Suzuki van with a military registration plate evoked no suspicion. The guards at the first security checkpoint waved them through………….As the van made its way past the checkpoint, gunmen suddenly jumped out and started firing indiscriminately………the gunmen ran towards the heavy iron gates. Apparently out of nowhere appeared another group of gunmen in uniform, and before the guards could realise what was happening several of them were shot. An intense firefight broke out when the soldiers in the watchtowers began firing on the intruders, killing three of them and injuring another. Gunmen coming up just behind the injured attacker then shot their wounded colleague dead in an attempt to confuse the guards. The trick worked: the guards made no attempt to stop the attackers as they rushed towards…….Brig. Anwar ul-Haq, the director of security, was in a conference in his office in the building when the melee broke out. Interrupting the meeting and rushing into the hallway, he saw a man in military uniform with his back turned to him and called out, “Move away from here.” The man turned around and shot him dead.

How did Hussain know what exactly Brig. Anwar ul-Haq said to the gunman before he was shot dead? Hussain does not reveal his source. No, I am not disputing Hussain’s version since various newsreports, such as this New York Times report, have said something very similar.

While describing the 4 December 2009 terrorist attack on a mosque in Rawalpindi frequented by military officers which killed 36 people, Hussain does not tell us if the mosque was Shia or Sunni. The name Askari suggests Shia, but then I am no expert on these matters.

What I didn’t like about The Scorpion’s Tail is that Hussain avoids expressing his own view even when the circumstances beg him to do so. For example, Hussain tells us that after Benazir Bhutto was killed ‘Zardari produced Benazir’s will which declared that he should lead the party in the event she was killed. Many of her friends and associates believed that the will was fabricated, but given the turmoil in the party due to her death, he faced little opposition in the party ranks.’ A footnote tells us that Hussain bases this report ‘on author interviews with close friends and aides to Benazir Bhutto.’ However, what’s Hussain’s view? Does he feel the will produced by Zardari was fabricated? We never know.

Hussain’s conclusions are very simple. According to Hussain, there is a fundamental flaw in the U.S approach to the war, namely a failure to appreciate that the Taliban are essentially Pashtuns fighting to evict outsiders in their historical homelands, just as they fought the Red Army and other earlier invaders. Hussain feels that this war is unwinnable for the US and feels that a political settlement is the only solution. Hussain makes a few references to India’s attempts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan and hints that Pakistan’s ISI is justified in supporting the Taliban in an effort to counter Indian influence over non-Pashtu ethnic groups in Afghanistan, especially northern Afghanistan. In short (though he doesn’t spell it out), Hussain wants the Pashtu dominated Taliban to be given control over Afghanistan, at least the Pashtu majority areas, and hopes that such a settlement will put an end to the terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

As Aryn Baker, Time's bureau chief for Pakistan and Afghanistan has written in this article, it is clear that the US troops in Afghanistan are fighting a losing battle and it is only a matter of time before they leave Afghanistan. Once they do, the Taliban are bound to defeat the rag-tag Afghan National Army and re-establish the control they had prior to 9/11. A few Tajik and Uzbek warlords may control a few slices of territory in the north. However, will that put an end to fighting in Pakistan? What’s the guarantee that the Pakistani Taliban will not continue the fight in Pakistan for a greater say in government? Wouldn’t the Al Qaeda like the idea of controlling a state which has nuclear weapons? With a safe haven in Afghanistan, wouldn’t Islamic fundamentalists want to continue the good fight which started out as revenge attacks in retaliation for Pakistani support for the US forces and the drone campaign? It is very unlikely that Islamic fundamentalists will manage to take over Pakistan. Most Pakistanis are happy to use the militants to fight in Kashmir and elsewhere, but as explained by Anatol Lieven in his brilliant book Pakistan: A Hard Country, Pakistanis do not want mullahs to rule Pakistan. The Pakistani army carried out a successful campaign against the Taliban in Swat and (to a lesser extent) in South Waziristan. If needed, the Pakistani army has the ability and determination to fight the Taliban if they attempt to takeover Pakistan. However, none of this precludes the Taliban from making a bloody and very expensive (for everybody) attempt to do so.

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