Monday, 26 February 2007

Book review: Frontline Pakistan: the struggle with militant Islam

By Zahid Hussain
Penguin/Viking, 2007
220 pages
Price: Rs 395/-

[Review by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th Feb 07]

On Pakistan, a subject that tends to polarise opinion, there is finally a book that analyses events with a simple clarity that is likely to be accepted by all but the most extreme observers. In this slim, attractive volume, Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain explains his country’s situation in simple terms: Pakistan is at war with itself.

Studiously accurate, but without being tendentious, Hussain describes the range of actors that have brought his country to its present state. Most of those responsible are from Pakistan itself: an incompetent polity, praetorian military, power-hungry clerics, an intelligence community with its own agenda, and an evil scientific genius greedy for profit. Cynical outsiders nimbly step in and out of this strategically located political snake pit.

Where Frontline Pakistan rises above predecessors that have listed out these same factors is in the objectivity with which the author has analysed how Pakistan’s internal and external embitterment has flowed from a growing cascade of political and social blunders. Hussain’s obvious affection for his country has not prevented him from training on its failures a pitiless gaze. He draws upon a variety of documents, sources and personal interviews to illustrate how short-term and motivated decision-making by Pakistan’s power elite has combined with geo-strategic circumstance to take that country to the edge of disaster.

An example of Hussain’s wide-ranging vision is his riveting analysis of Pakistan’s deadly cocktail of terrorism: external jehad against the Judeo-Christian world symbiotically intertwined with internal jehad against Muslims who deviate from Wahabi principle and practice. Wanting to religiously mobilise the majority Sunni community, General Zia-ul-Haq created the Shia “other” by fanning the resentment of the middle-class Sunni trading community against the Shia feudal aristocracy around the town of Jhang in Punjab. Thus emerged the violent anti-Shia group, Sipah-e-Sahiba Pakistan (SSP), it’s birth celebrated, and paid for, by Zia and also by Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia as a proxy against Shia Iran. This short sighted consummation of local, military and regional power plays created, besides enormous sectarian stresses within Pakistan, synergies and infrastructure that are today plugged into by externally-oriented terrorist outfits.

Divided into 11 chapters such as, “The Conflict Within”, “Kashmir: A General on a Tightrope”, and “The Tribal Warriors”, the book allows the reader to cherry-pick subjects of individual interest. And while informed readers may be irritated by the comprehensive footnoting telling them, for example, who Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto were, this would be welcomed by lay readers or foreigners unfamiliar with South Asian politics.

Frontline Pakistan provides an interesting and unusual perspective on Pakistan’s complex relationship with Afghanistan. The author was present at Kandahar airport during the hijack drama of Indian Airlines flight IC-814, when the future Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Azhar Mehmood was freed by India. A week later, on 7th Jan 2000, Hussain watched from amidst the thousands who cheered Azhar Mehmood when he resurfaced at the Al Rasheedia mosque in Karachi. “I will not rest in peace until I wrest Kashmir from India”, declared Azhar. The Pakistani administration watched silently; four years later the Jaish-e-Mohammed tried to assassinate President Musharraf. But while the Taliban did what the ISI demanded on that occasion, the author recounts many more occasions when Taliban leaders turned down Islamabad’s pleas: in destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas, and when the ISI chief personally travelled to Kandahar after the 9/11 attacks to ask Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden. Hussain points out that far from providing Pakistan with “strategic depth” against India, Afghanistan’s influence radiating into the North West Frontier Province provided Kabul with strategic depth in Pakistan’s Pashtun heartland.

The internal power dynamics of Pakistan’s generals are well illustrated through Musharraf’s dilemma after 9/11 in making his Afghanistan U-turn. On 14th Sept 2001, he merely informed his civilian cabinet of the new strategic realities and Pakistan’s new role as an American ally. Few dared to protest, but when his Corps Commanders’ meeting produced four dissenters, Musharraf was worried. In a nationally televised announcement to Pakistan, Musharraf appeared in uniform, wrapping his humiliating turnaround in warnings to India to “lay off” Pakistan in its moment of crisis. Within weeks, the dissenting generals were sidelined.

In the final balance, the book is about power and how it is played out in Pakistan by a peculiar selection of players. Zahid Hussain’s analysis provides a sane and balanced backdrop for a fascinating tale that could be set in any period in history. And for Indians, sometimes inclined to see events in Pakistan through the prism of Indian power realities, this book is a must read.

No comments: