Saturday, June 9, 2012

Misfortune Telling By Mani Shankar Aiyar - Book Review - Book: Pakistan on the Brink By Ahmed Rashid

The Indian Express

Misfortune Telling

Mani Shankar Aiyar : Sat Jun 09 2012, 

Book: Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West
Author :Ahmed Rashid
Publisher: Allen Lane
Pages: 234
Price: Rs 399

Let me first concede, Ahmed Rashid tho Angrezi zaroor jaante hain. His apocalyptic vision and hyperbolic expression will have an instant attraction to that vast majority of Indians and growing number of Westerners who wait with bated breath for Pakistan to collapse. What is more germane, however, is to weigh how much of Rashid’s warnings is high rhetoric and how much ground reality. For the problem with Rashid is that he uses his amazing grassroots knowledge of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and in particular of terrorist groups operating in both countries, gained with huge courage at huge personal risk to himself, to predict doom and hell-fire but has little to offer by way of explaining any practical way out. Perhaps because he believes there is none.

Where it seems to me he goes fundamentally wrong is in the assumption that Pakistan is, at best, a failing state and, at worst, a failed state. It may be a failing nation but it is certainly not a failed state for, as Rashid himself concedes, it has a strong bureaucracy, an even stronger army, a resilient economy (even if one now in considerable difficulty), a dynamic civil society, a sophisticated landed aristocracy and a globalised bourgeoisie, an aspirational democracy and a powerful judiciary. Of course, there are rogue elements of the ISI and the armed forces who back the Jalaluddin Haqqani network and their comrades-in-terror, the Lashkar-e-Taiba. What needs to be emphasised, however, is that the rogues think they are using the mujahideen but have no intention or desire of being taken over by the terror network. So, the suicide bombers of the Pak-Afghan Taliban will have to not only overcome all the entrenched interests of the Pakistan state, nation and civil society, but also the rogue elements of the Pakistani ISI and armed forces, before they can take over the Pakistani nation and its institutions of state.

It is all very well for the jehadis to hide out in enclaves in the wilds of Waziristan and mount guerrilla operations against innocent civilians and guilty military targets, but as the swift Pakistani reaction (documented by Rashid) showed when the jihadis reached Swat or Buner, a hundred kilometres from Islamabad as the missile flies, or tried insurrection from within the Lal Masjid in the heart of Islamabad, the Pakistani state came into its own to protect the essential interests of the classes who have captured the Pakistani state as soon as these came under dire threat. These interests definitely do not include the mullahs and the ulema. The latter look more to the waters of the zamzama; the former draw their inspiration from the stills of the Highlands. I am persuaded that it is ultimately Scotland that will save Pakistan from Talibanisation.

Moreover, the political classes are demonstrating an unprecedented understanding that it is not in the sectional or factional interest of any of them to provide a civilian patina to military rule. Rashid’s book was completed in November 2011. The next month, Pakistan’s chief of army staff changed the commander of the 111 Brigade based in Rawalpindi, notorious for its role in all Pakistani military coups d’etat. It seemed to signal Rashid’s grave prediction that the military were waiting once again to take over. Instead, the weakest and least reputed civil government in Pakistan’s history first dismissed the defence secretary, General Lodhi, an appointee of the COAS; then rejected the COAS’ plea for Lodhi’s reinstatement; and went on to refuse an extension to ISI chief, General Shuja Pasha, all the while battling the supreme court chief justice, who eventually let off the prime minister with a sentence that lasted 19 or 42 seconds depending on which watch was being clocked. Neither did 111 move an inch nor did even the Jamaat-e-Islami offer to become the King’s party.

It is also strange that Rashid should so fear an American military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He brilliantly recounts every step of the 11-year road down which the US and its NATO allies have taken Afghanistan, from disaster to disaster. Why then be so apprehensive of a US troop withdrawal when the foreign occupation, which has already lasted longer than the US participation in both World Wars, reaches the fateful Christian figure of 13 years (and four trillion dollars) of wasted military, diplomatic and political effort? Only the Afghans can resolve their internal problems and they have shown how to do it despite centuries of the same tribal divisions that have always been Afghanistan’s lot. Pakistan is a failed nation because it has not understood the South Asian genius of unity in diversity; Afghanistan is emphatically not a failed nation because it has understood this quintessential ingenuity of the South Asian heritage. In consequence, the Pakistani army stupidly sought “strategic depth” in Afghanistan. They have ended by providing “strategic depth” to the Taliban in their own country.

The Pakistani nation might yet save the Pakistani state. For, to save itself, the Pakistani nation is now fighting off the Pakistani state. This means reversing traditional Pakistani policy on three crucial fronts: one, good relations with India to relieve the Pakistani nation of the Pakistani army which, invoking the India bogey, has thus far been conquering the only country it is capable of conquering — Pakistan; two, better relations with Afghanistan to push back the Af-Pak Taliban and preserve the Durand Line; and, three, worse relations with the US to enable Pakistan to stop being the frontline state in the interests of others, which is what it has been for 58 years since it entered the self-defeating military pacts fostered by the Cold War, and start becoming a frontline state in its own interests.

Rashid’s latest offering, Pakistan on the Brink, the last of a trilogy, will sell as well as its predecessors did because it caters to the large body of Pakistan’s ill-wishers in India, the West and even Pakistan, but Rashid is no Cassandra and much of what he fears will simply not come to pass.

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