Saturday, 16 June 2012

Book Review: “Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West” by Ahmed Rashid

Ahmed Rashid, the author of critically acclaimed books such as Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia and Descent into Chaos, has come up with yet another book on the various dilemmas facing AfPak. Pakistan on the Brink – The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West is not really a book. Rather, it is a collection of essays on the present state of Pakistan and Afghanistan with a few predictions on what the future foretells. To quote the author from the preface, ‘it resembles a book of essays, each dealing with a different aspect of the same problem, discussing the processes that have led to the present impasse. As such, it can be opened anywhere, and any chapter can be read separately from the rest.’ What Rashid doesn’t say is that Pakistan On The Brink is a rambling narrative from an author who has a good insight and sensible views, but doesn’t say a lot that is unknown to one who has followed AfPak, Taliban and the Al Qaeda for the last ten years.

In Descent into Chaos, Rashid had confessed that Hamid Karzai is a good friend and there was little criticism of Karzai. As if to make up for that shortcoming, Pakistan On The Brink ruthlessly takes Karzai to task and almost puts him to the sword. Rashid tells us that in January 2008, he had advised Karzai to not to take part in the next elections and to step down and handover power to someone else. Karzai did not heed Rashid’s advice and in that he was supported by the Americans for whom ‘elections had become a litmus test determining everything else. A U.S. intervention in any third-world country now consisted of holding an early election so that the country could be dubbed a democracy, and then the United States could head for the exit. By contrast, the European philosophy, favoured by the UN, was to first build governance and an economic infrastructure – nation building – so that elections could be both meaningful and sustainable.

Despite its rambling nature, Pakistan On The Brink provides an excellent insight into how the US-Pakistani relationship broke down. Rashid places a fair amount of the blame on Obama for America’s inability to connect with Afghanistan. According to Rashid, unlike George W. Bush, Obama never connected with any group of Afghans. ‘Michelle Obama travelled the world and promoted her favourite interests involving women and children and health, but sadly none were related to Afghanistan’s women and children and the Afghans noticed that too.’ Obama’s Afghan policy was set by the military and did not involve consultations with the Pakistanis or Afghans. Soon the US and Pakistan were talking past each other.

The Americans did not really believe in talking to the Taliban. Even when they did, they continued killing the Taliban by night, something which did not persuade the Taliban to talk to the U.S. Finally when the Germans got the Americans talking to the Taliban, Pakistan’s ISI, which also did not want the U.S to hold talks with the Taliban, arrested Mullah Baradar, the number two Taliban leader who was responsible for the peace talks.

One of the things I like about Rashid’s writing is that he does not hesitate to voice an opinion on the personal abilities of various movers and shakers. In Descent into Chaos, he had expressed a not so flattering opinion on Nawaz Sharif. In Pakistan On The Brink, Rashid says that in contrast to Musharaff, who for all his faults was decisive, Chief of Staff Kiyani has shown himself to be indecisive and unable to hold anyone to account. ‘When Osama bin Laden was killed and the ISI Chief General Pasha offered his resignation, Kayani refused to accept it. Ultimately nobody was punished for Bin Laden’s six-year long presence in Abbottabad.’ With regard to Asif Zardari and Yousaf Gilani, Rashid says both men are terrified of the Pakistani army and only want to have a long and safe term in office. To do so, they do their best to avoid riling the army.

Rashid says that Pakistan lost its 1965 war with India. I was under the impression that it was a stalemate. Rashid also says that in all probability India is supporting Baluchi insurgents. Rashid is sympathetic towards India’s attempts to gain a foothold in Afghanistan. Since India is the most dominant economy in South Asia, Rashid feels that Afghanistan can only benefit from an association with India. Similarly, Rashid wants Pakistan to come to terms with Iranian influence in Afghanistan. Iran has a long border with Afghanistan and Persian is spoken in a large part of Afghanistan. Given such links, it is only inevitable that Iran would want to play a role.

The relationship between Pakistan and the United States has practically broken down and it is now a case of enemies working together because they need each other. Rashid suggests that even the Taliban don’t like the ISI all that much – they resent the fact that Pakistan and the ISI want to keep the Afghan pot boiling rather than bring peace to Afghanistan. As Rashid discusses the current situation in Afghanistan and its neighbourhood threadbare, he poses a few interesting questions. Currently many Pakistani ex-servicemen are employed by various Sheikhdoms and in the past Pakistan has despatched its troops to Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries to protect those in power. How would Iran react if Pakistani troops were to help a gulf emirate crush an Arab spring uprising?

Rashid’s final chapter has more of gloomy forebodings than advice to make things better. The only takeaway I got was that nuclear power Pakistan is a much bigger problem than Afghanistan and has to mend itself. Pakistan’s elites must learn to pay taxes and Pakistan’s ruler must stop distinguishing between good and bad Taliban. When Swat was taken over by the Pakistani Taliban, the Pakistani army was able to defeat the militants and drive them away because it did not seek to distinguish between different categories of militants and there was no hidden agenda of protecting one group, as the Pakistani army is currently doing with the Haqqani faction in North Waziristan.

Pakistan On The Brink is a good read for anyone who hasn’t been following the news from Afghanistan and wants to bring himself upto speed on Afghanistan.

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