Ahmed Rashid offers deep and troubling insights in Pakistan on the Brink
Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan
By Ahmed Rashid. Viking, 234 pp, hardcover
This week's news that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has dismissed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has once again focused the world's attention on one of the most troubled countries in the world.
It's the type of intrigue we're used to hearing from the capital of Islamabad. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has ruled that Gilani vacated his office, which came after the prime minister refused to pursue his political ally, President Asif Ali Zardari, on corruption charges.
Zardari was widely known as Mr. Ten Percent in the 1990s for the way he cashed in during his wife Benazir Bhutto's reign—before he was shipped off to prison.
Pakistan can be a confusing country for outsiders—even if that outsider happens to be a president of the United States with experience living in a Muslim country.
This is apparent to anyone who reads veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid's illuminating new book, Pakistan on the Brink.
He makes the case that through action and inaction, the Obama administration has sharply increased instability in the region. In one such example, the U.S. launched a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009 without any political strategy to accomplish broader objectives beyond just killing the Taliban. As Rashid demonstrates, the mission was all muscle, no brains.
"Recently, President Obama has kept his distance from Afghanistan, allowing his subordinates to fight over the policy, which has led to confusion in Washington and abroad," Rashid writes. "Having overseen the deployment of more U.S. troops in 2009 and the surge, he has not lately been a hands-on president for perhaps the most important foreign policy crisis he faces, one in which the lives of 100,000 American and 40,000 NATO troops are at stake. If there is to be a peaceful withdrawal of U.S. forces and a way out of the quagmire, this distancing is clearly not acceptable."
Zardari and Afghan president Hamid Karzai—both of whom Rashid knows well—are also pummelled in the book.
Zardari is portrayed as a do-nothing buffoon who seals himself in the presidential palace to avoid being killed by either the Pakistani Taliban, al-Qaeda, or the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Better known around the world as the ISI, Pakistan's all-encompassing secret service often acts like a state within a state, giving succour to militants.
Rashid claims that Karzai's undoing has been his unwillingness to provide honest government and address corruption, including actions of his own family. Like Zardari, he has also become paranoid, according to Pakistan on the Brink. Perhaps this is an occupational hazard for those governing a Central Asian country in constant turmoil. Rashid reports that Karzai was convinced that the Obama administration wanted to replace him—and this influenced the Afghan president to rig the last election.
More recently, the spark that inflamed relations between the U.S. and Pakistan was the killing of Osama bin Laden in the military town of Abbottabad, Pakistan. This has convinced many Americans that the al-Qaeda leader was being harboured by the armed forces or the ISI or both. It's clear from the book that the heads of both organizations are extremely close allies.
Rashid reports that Zardari didn't utter a word about bin Laden's death for two months, leaving it to the army to heal any rift with America. Meanwhile, the Obama administration sharply curtailed financial aid, driving a deeper wedge between the two countries.
And Pakistan's military remained obsessed with India rather than grappling with an Islamist insurgency in its own country. This is why a terrorist group like Lashkar-e-Taiba could operate freely in Pakistan, even though it launched a horrific murder spree in Mumbai in 2008. Because the group is solely focused on attacking India, it has a free hand within Pakistan to recruit and train militants.
Rashid explains that Pakistan has also refused to curtail extremists on its soil who were killing Americans, so long as they weren't undermining the central government. This led to inevitable clashes with Washington, most notably in menacing comments made by the recently retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen: "By exporting violence they've eroded their internal security and their position in the region. They have undermined their international credibility and threatened their economic well-being."
At the same time, American hardliners like Mullen have tried to thwart any efforts by Karzai to negotiate peace with the Afghan Taliban, who are increasingly tired of being dominated by Pakistan. But others in the Obama administration have gingerly started the negotiation process, sending a mixed message to the region.
Meanwhile, the U.S. CIA continues using unmanned drone attacks to kill Taliban on Pakistani soil, inflaming public opinion. Moreover, Rashid presents compelling evidence that some of these attacks were perpetrated with the cooperation of the Pakistani military, which has only served to fuel extremist opposition.
It's an extremely complicated picture, yet Rashid presents all of it in a clearly written, comprehensive manner that's devoid of excessive rhetoric. He doesn't play favourites and he doesn't bring an especially left-wing perspective to the table. This is not a case of blaming everything on the Americans—something he is loathe to do. If I had one criticism, it's that Rashid did not pay enough attention to why these drone attacks by the Obama administration are illegal under international law.
Before I read this book, Pakistan confused me. From my outpost on the other side of the world in Vancouver, it has been a challenge to make sense of everything from the Baluchi independence movement to the hands-off approach to terrorist groups to the ongoing crisis in Kashmir. It was especially hard to reconcile this with the presence of tough judges and courageous lawyers, who've taken great personal risks to advance civil society. Throw in more than 100 Pakistani nuclear weapons, the various factions of the ISI, and what's happening in the ungovernable Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and it becomes nearly impossible to navigate.
Pakistan on the Brink does a marvellous job of helping anyone curious enough to wade through this mess. Near the end, Rashid emphasizes that the "bittter public disappointment with Asif Ali Zardari and Yousaf Raza Gilani must not become a public rejection of democracy".
"For too long," he concludes, "the military and the political parties have neglected their one single task, which is to make life better for their people."
With his clear eye, Rashid never seems to lose sight of what's truly important.
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter at twitter.com/csmithstraight.