PAKISTAN ON THE BRINK: The future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan By Ahmed Rashid, Allen Lane, Rs 399
The title itself of Ahmed Rashid’s book is indicative of the substance contained in the 234 pages. That all is not well with the author’s country is demonstrated in nine chapters, beginning with “Osama and Obama” through “Pakistan in crisis”, “Pakistan: broken relations, crimes, and misdemeanours” and ending with “Preparing for the worst”.
Rashid’s storytelling begins with the US Navy SEALs operations which killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Bin Laden’s death had an unforeseen and undesirable fallout: “Suddenly Kayani’s own soldiers appeared more unwilling than ever to fight the Pakistani Taliban in what they were convinced was an American war.”
Unsurprisingly, Rashid’s overall assessment of Pakistan resembles the existing perception, in the Pakistani neighbourhood, of “an irresponsible and corrupt elite, and a powerful military which dictates the country’s foreign policy, especially towards India, Afghanistan and the USA, eats 30% of the national budget, and runs several unaccountable intelligence services”.
The most depressing scenario, however, emerges from the fact that Pakistan’s population of 185 million will reach 275 million by 2050. Its present agricultural economy can barely support its population; how will it deal with the additional heads in the near future? With a literacy rate of 57 per cent — the lowest in South Asia — “half the population is not even looking for jobs, since they know they will not be able to find them”. And this happens to the country’s “under twenties, who make up 60% of the population”. This low literacy, coupled with the “constant feeding of false narratives by the government and the military further exacerbate Pakistan’s crisis-ridden state”. So, talk about “Pakistan’s vulnerability” and “India’s demon-hood” can dominate newspapers and television talk shows that impact public opinion. These “false narratives” give excellent “cover to anti-Indian jihadist groups... that have been trained by the ISI” with “working relationships with the al-Qaeda and the Taliban”. The State does not only “protect the jihadist groups”, but also “allows them to recruit and train cadres and mobilize funds” and portrays them “not as terrorists” but as “benign social workers”.
One of the most serious of all such developments is a minority of officers from the ISI and from the Pakistani special forces having jihadist sympathies. They left the army and joined militant groups. A rapid Talibanization of large swathes of the Punjab province is a reality, emphatic official denial notwithstanding.
The author’s take on relations between the United States of America and Pakistan is that “both sides are trapped in their own double-dealing”. While the State “talks” from a high diplomatic table, the Central Intelligence Agency bombs the hostile terrain. The end result of the US drone attacks on Pakistani soil “lies on both sides”, resulting in a collapse of the justification of the programme.
Rashid’s points — about Pakistan’s nuclear capability; its India-obsession; the existence and nurturing of terror camps; its fragile economy — are well known and well documented. But his statistics of suicide attacks is interesting: “In 2010, a total of 87 suicide attacks in Pakistan killed more than 3000 people.” What began in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers, and in Kashmir with the Pakistan-trained Lashkar-e-Toiba, came back to haunt the terror-trainers of Pakistan. This put the terror operation upside down: from Kashmir to Khyber, Kohat, Karachi and Quetta. Today, the creator of the terrorist appears to be at the receiving end, facing the hostility that was once Pakistan’s strategic asset to fire and fix its enemies.
The most enduring and deep-rooted factor in the Pakistani psyche is its neighbour, Afghanistan, which appears poised to run or ruin Pakistan simply because “97% of Afghanistan’s economy was related to international military spending and that once troops pulled out, it would experience a massive depression.” The situation in Afghanistan — deeply linked to Pakistan’s tribal society and security forces — is so bad that “no recent Afghan ruler has died peacefully in his bed”. To a great extent, Pakistan gives the same vibes to its leaders. And that is the danger.
Rashid clearly perceives common crises in the Pakistan-Afghanistan duo, reminding one of Hamid Karzai’s repeated allegations of Pakistan’s clandestine support of the Taliban. The US had remained blissfully unmoved: war is a business. It means death for the warriors and wealth for the merchants.
The book does highlight some rays of hope, as the US-led Nato powers try to break the ice with the Taliban through diplomacy, and the Pakistani armed forces wake up to deal with fundamentalism and terrorism. All this has happened after a long time; “Pakistan’s entire top leadership — Zardari, Gilani and General Kayani — are in a state of denial about the reality of what Pakistan is becoming”. Asif Ali Zardari’s statement to the author makes things clearer: “We are not a failed state yet, but we may become one in 10 years if we do not receive international support to combat the Taliban threat.”
One feels like asking whether or not the international community had anything to do with the creation of the Taliban in Pakistan. Rashid makes a point implying that Zardari’s personal agenda itself will lead to his statement failing in the future. It was he who gave the army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, a three-year extension in July 2010. This diminished Kayani’s stature in the armed forces and among the politicians. Kayani was now less secure in ordering his troops into combat against the Taliban. Zardari thus had a comparatively “weak” army chief; this rendered a possible political intervention or coup by Kayani controversial and problematic. Overall, Ahmed Rashid has once again proved himself to be an engaging author — with a style of his own — on Pakistan-Afghanistan, on which he can aptly claim to be an expert. The editing of the book, however, could have been better.