Wake-up call or false alarm?

Reviewed by Madiha Sattar |  |
 AT a discussion about Ahmed Rashid’s new book at London’s Frontline Club, BBC correspondent Lyse Doucet, who was moderating the event, asked for a show of hands from the audience. How many think Pakistan is on the brink, she asked, referring to the title of the most recent of Rashid’s books on war, terrorism and politics in Afghanistan and Pakistan. How many think it’s going to muddle through, she asked next, referring to an alternative theory of how Pakistan works. The numbers were about the same, if slightly more, for the former.

More interesting though, was how many members of the audience didn’t raise their hands at all. Whether Pakistan is a failing state or one that simply lurches from one crisis to the next but, for various known and unknown reasons, survives, has become a tired debate, one that has turned out to be of little value. This is partly because there is no single or simple definition of what it means for a state to have failed, and partly because it is ultimately futile to try to predict, whatever your definition of failure, whether Pakistan is about to experience it. Is it enough to have a functioning and at least somewhat capable bureaucracy, army, judiciary and parliament, a basic (if declining) level of infrastructure, a bold and vibrant media (though one that faces threats and intimidation), mechanisms and institutions in place to run the economy, however poorly, and a visible cultural life and civil society? Has Pakistan not failed as long as it isn’t Somalia, the favourite (and telling) comparison? Or does the standard of living and lack of security of the average Pakistani, combined with a bleak economic outlook, misguided security, defence and foreign policies, an energy crisis, and serious geopolitical risks, mean that the country is already no longer liveable? And is a country that is no longer liveable the product of a state that has failed?

Invariably books that ask the question are more interesting for the approaches they take and the sets of issues they choose to raise than for where they land on the muddling through-failed state spectrum (if there is a more optimistic evaluation than muddling through, no credible journalist or writer seems to have been willing to assign their name to it). One recent example was The Future of Pakistan, a collection of essays by a set of analysts edited by Stephen Cohen of Brookings Institution. Most took a more cautious stand than Rashid, their inability to reach concrete conclusions on the question pointing clearly to the impossible, and perhaps pointless, task of predicting Pakistan’s future. And more interesting than their conclusions was their focus on Pakistan’s demographic emergency, for example, or the biases that scholars from different parts of the world betrayed.

Rashid takes an altogether different view. Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West takes a stand, and one that is more than sobering. It is frightening. According to this narrative, economic mismanagement, the security establishment’s pick-and-choose strategy with militant groups and Pakistan’s relentless focus on external relationships at the expense of internal reform has brought the country to a point from which it appears nearly impossible to return (at least without leadership of a calibre that the country does not currently have, and perhaps never did).

Unlike the more narrative-driven and investigative Taliban and Descent into Chaos, Pakistan on the Brink is organised as a series of chapters offering closely interconnected but distinct analyses of the state and future of Pakistan, the failures of the government and Isaf in Afghanistan, and America’s approach to both countries. But the Pakistan section of the book will not in fact be the most compelling section for a Pakistani audience, which will be familiar with many of the events it describes and even much of the analysis that explains why the country is where it is today. Far more interesting for domestic readers will be Rashid’s analyses of the personalities of presidents Karzai and Obama, for example, or the rare information about how and when talks with the Afghan Taliban really began and how they evolved.

The insider portrait of a mistrustful yet easily misled Hamid Karzai is particularly revealing, and is based on the author’s interactions with him, including in an advisory capacity, over an acquaintance that has spanned three decades. And the contradictions of Obama’s personality also help round out the hard facts about the mess that both the war and the government in Afghanistan have become; though Rashid found him to be warm and informal in person, neither he nor his wife, the book argues, have been able to translate that into the kind of personal effort that George W. and Laura Bush did despite the previous American administration’s lack of focus on the war it had unleashed in Afghanistan. There is other personality-driven politics too; how people such as special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, and Kai Eide, the UN representative in Afghanistan, were side-lined despite what Rashid thinks were their relatively nuanced and thoughtful approaches to the war. This picture of the combination of a paranoid Afghan president, a distant American president and the rifts among their respective advisors only adds to the concerns currently being raised by increasing violence in Afghanistan, the collapse of talks with the Afghan Taliban, and the increasing
war-weariness of Afghan and American civilians and soldiers, much of which burst into prominence after and just before the publication of this book.

Meanwhile, since the book’s publication over 125 Pakistani soldiers died while manning a futile standoff with India, over 125 other citizens lost their lives in a plane crash because of lack of oversight and possible nepotism in the aviation industry, police watched helplessly as a massive jailbreak was carried out to rescue a Taliban operative, the prime minister was convicted for
contempt of court and his son was accused of large-scale corruption, Shias continued to be killed and Karachi continued to burn.

Whether individual readers will take these developments as further proof of the thesis of Pakistan on the Brink will depend to a large degree on how much stock they put in historical patterns, how indicative they believe it is that Pakistan has stumbled along so far without sliding into total disarray and that Afghanistan has seen multiple wars but between them revert to a mean of weak central governments and rival fiefdoms. If the book is to be believed, though, the region’s future has perhaps never looked quite as bleak.

To order, call 111-11-7323 or visit http://www.libertybooks.com

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