Book review of Tariq Ali’s “The Duel”

A Question of Survival


Brahma Chellaney

India Today, November 17, 2008


The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

Tariq Ali

London: Simon & Schuster £12.99


At a time when Pakistan is sinking, with its economy tottering on the brink of bankruptcy and its Talibanization spreading, the book raises fundamental questions about that country’s direction. The London-based Tariq Ali is anything but optimistic about Pakistan’s ability to come to grips with its existential challenges. Ali’s first Pakistan book had prophetically predicted the country’s break-up just two years before East Pakistan seceded. His second study, published during General Zial ul-Haq’s dictatorial rule, was titled, “Can Pakistan Survive?”, a question provocative enough to prompt Islamabad to do what it did with his first book — ban it. Now, in his third book, Ali raises the tantalizing question whether Pakistan can be “recycled”. By that he means whether there could be a social and political revival in “a land of perpetual dictatorships and corrupt politicians”.


            More than six decades after it was created, Pakistan remains in search of a national identity. The questions about its future indeed have become more pressing, with many wondering whether it will be able to pull back from the brink. Between Ali’s second and third Pakistan books, the country has gone from being a regional concern to being a threat to international security. Today, Pakistan is disparaged as “Problemistan”, “Terroristan” and “Al Qaidastan”, with outgoing U.S. President George W. Bush calling it “wilder than the Wild West”. By setting up state-run terrorist complexes, Pakistan became its own enemy — and victim. The military’s domination of the country — which Ali repeatedly brings out — has been shaken but not shrunk with the installation of a civilian government following elections that the author says “were cautiously rigged to deny any single party an overall majority”.


            The book, however, is largely about America’s long-standing interventionist role in Pakistan that has helped create, according to Ali, a “U.S.-backed politico-military elite” out of sync with the masses. His thesis is that Pakistan’s problems today “are a direct result of doing Washington’s bidding in previous decades”. To be sure, a succession of U.S. presidents, giving primacy to narrow, short-term geopolitical interests, have helped fatten the very institution that constitutes the core problem — the Pakistan military. Because the U.S. is distant, they thought the fallout of their policies would be largely confined to the region. Then came the blowback from 9/11 and the subsequent events — a reminder that U.S. policy would reap what it had sowed. But has U.S. policy learned anything? As Ali reminds his readers, the U.S.-brokered deal with Benazir Bhutto was really designed to help the despotic Pervez Musharraf stay on as president. The continuing supply of offensive, India-directed weapon systems shows that U.S. policy remains wedded to the Pakistani military because it employs Pakistan as a gateway to combat operations in Afghanistan, a potential base against Iran and a vehicle for other geopolitical objectives.


            But can all of Pakistan’s ills be blamed on U.S. policy? The book is less clear on that score. In its 61-year history, Pakistan has already had four military takeovers and four Constitutions. Benazir’s murder was a horrific reminder that unravelling Pakistan’s jihad culture won’t be easy but is essential. Neither the war on international terror can be won nor Afghanistan be pacified without de-radicalizing Pakistani society and truly democratizing its polity. Ali argues Pakistan needs to break free from U.S. “satrapy”. But the next U.S. president is likely to pursue a more-activist Pakistan policy. Political expediency will continue to guide U.S. policy, not long-term considerations. For example, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus wants to do in Afghanistan what he has showcased in Iraq — buy up tribal warlords and insurgent leaders. Disregarding the fact that the Taliban ideology poses a bigger long-term threat than even Al Qaeda, Petraeus has said he is looking for ways to negotiate with and co-opt local Taliban chieftains. India will be left to bear the brunt of an enduringly Talibanized Pakistan and Afghanistan.


            Ali, as a gutsy, forthright writer, has written an engrossing account of Pakistan’s travails since birth. The book’s main failing is its poor structure, with some sections disjointed and arguments rambling. Besides better editing, it could have benefited from fact-checking to eliminate mistakes like the “1959 India-China war”. Yet, this book will rank as one of the most-objective accounts of Pakistan’s troubled history.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s