Book review: Pakistan’s descent into chaos

The Road to Terroristan

Brahma Chellaney, India Today, July 31, 2008


Descent Into Chaos

Ahmed Rashid

(Allen Lane)

This book is more about Pakistan’s tumble into chaos than about Afghanistan’s continuing bedlam. Central Asia appears only in passing, despite its subtitle, “How the War Against Islamic Extremism is Being Lost in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Central Asia”. Written in the narrative style of a reporter, the book recounts the events and actions that have earned Pakistan disparaging labels like “Problemistan”, “Terroristan” and “Al Qaidastan” — epithets that underline its potential threat to global security.

Jihad culture is now deeply woven into Pakistan’s national fabric. Unravelling it won’t be easy. But it is essential for regional and global security. Pakistan remains a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism. India has officially blamed “elements in Pakistan” for the deadly bombing at its embassy in Kabul.

The book is well-timed, with growing recognition among U.S. analysts of the need for a broader, post-Iraq focus on Pakistan and Afghanistan — a theme central to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s foreign-policy agenda. The book indeed is a trenchant compendium of the Bush administration’s blunders that have undermined the global war on terror and helped fan Islamic extremism. Its author is well-known for a previous, equally well-timed book on the Taliban, published just before 9/11.

Rashid, one of Pakistan’s most-respected journalists, has an unusual background: As a youth, he spent 10 years as a guerrilla fighter and underground revolutionary in the hills of Baluchistan. When the April 1978 Marxist coup occurred in Afghanistan, Rashid was living in exile in Kabul. His mutinous credentials and Afghan links subsequently helped him as a writer to gain access to the Taliban.

Rashid’s objectivity stands out in his latest book. He is unsparingly critical of the Bush administration’s indulgent approach toward Pervez Musharraf in the years the general ran a one-man dictatorship. While then Secretary of State Colin Powell “liked Musharraf enormously and had developed a close relationship with him”, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was reluctant to “put pressure on Pakistan”. Such lenience spilled over into President Bush’s second term, according to Rashid, even as the Pakistan military and its powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency aided and abetted the Taliban and the Islamist groups waging a terror campaign against India. The 2003 Iraq invasion only helped derail the war on terror. “Ultimately the strategies of the Bush administration have created a far bigger crisis in South and Central Asia than existed before 9/11”, Rashid writes. “There are more failing states in the Muslim world, while Al Qaeda has expanded around the world”.

Hobbled by a domineering military, militant Islam, endemic corruption and dependency on foreign aid, Pakistan remains a main breeding ground of global terror and the likely hideout of the most wanted terrorists, including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. Yet, as Rashid says, “the Taliban are now expanding in Pakistan much faster than anyone could have imagined”. Pakistan’s success in meeting its central challenge — to move away from militarism and extremism, and toward a stable, moderate state — hinges on “the army and the ISI being pressured or persuaded to give up their twisted logic of insecurity, national pride and expansion in the region, [so as] to help sort out the country’s problems, and to be good friends to Pakistan’s neighbours, instead of constantly trying to undermine them. The army’s insecurity, which since 1947 has essentially bred a covert policy of undermining neighbours, has now come full circle, for Pakistan’s very future is at stake as extremists threaten to undermine Pakistan itself”. 

While such writings clearly do not sit well with the military establishment, with the author disclosing that he was once summoned by Musharraf and warned to stop writing about the ISI’s continuing assistance to the Afghan Taliban, Rashid at times is unable to rise above Pakistani prejudices against India in his book, alleging for example “the systematic use of rape as a weapon of terror by Indian soldiers” in Kashmir. He also equates Indian intelligence with the ISI in waging “a non-stop proxy war”.

The book’s main weakness, however, is that it is neither investigative nor scholarly but mainly a collation of events of recent years, up to Benazir Bhutto’s assassination. The author narrates some events at length but other equally significant developments are inexplicably ignored or under reported. For instance, he dismisses the Kargil War in one sentence but spends several pages on the highjacking of Flight IC-814. Still, the book overall is good and worth reading. It rightly argues that without elimination of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan, Afghanistan cannot be pacified.

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