Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
“The Taliban Cricket Club” (Ecco), by Timeri N. Murari: Writing a novel about Afghanistan can be a difficult, unenviable undertaking. Continue reading
Published: Tuesday, May 15, 2012
“The Taliban Cricket Club” (Ecco), by Timeri N. Murari: Writing a novel about Afghanistan can be a difficult, unenviable undertaking. Continue reading
In this grim but insightful sequel to Descent into Chaos (2008), veteran Pakistani journalist Rashid’s outlook is perfectly expressed by the title of that earlier overview.
Not yet a failed state like Somalia, Pakistan is inching perilously close. The irresponsible elite class pays little taxes to an incompetent government whose citizens, long among Asia’s most impoverished, are growing poorer. The army rules; civilian leaders defer to the military, handing over a lion’s share of the budget which it devotes to high-tech arms, including a nuclear arsenal, directed at India. Hatred of India is a national obsession. Continue reading
The Scorpion’s Tail:
The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in
Pakistan – And How It Threatens the World
By Zahid Hussain
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Price: Rs 1195
A day after Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated in Islamabad by his police guard for voicing criticism of the blasphemy laws, senior journalist Zahid Hussain made a grim announcement at the launch of his second book, ‘The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan – And How It Threatens the World’ — “Pakistan is drifting towards chaos and anarchy”.
The event, held at a branch of the bookstore Liberty Books in Karachi, featured a discussion panel comprising journalist Ghazi Salahuddin, former Pakistani ambassador to the US Maleeha Lodhi, writer Asif Noorani and Hussain. Following an introduction by Noorani and Salahuddin, Lodhi expressed her views on ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’ and raised questions that have been swirling through the minds of many since the War on Terror began: “Why do people turn to violence? How do we deal with the facts that minds have been infected?” In Lodhi’s opinion, it is time to treat the underlying causes that breed violence, and not just the symptoms.
As the evening progressed, Hussain and Lodhi discussed topics such as the use of CIA-operated drones in Pakistan, the recent Af-Pak Review published by the US government and the futility of the current military strategy in Afghanistan. The war, according to the panellists, is unwinnable in Afghanistan, unless a political solution is reached in the war-torn country. Hussain recalled an incident that underlined the significance of the Pakistan Army in the political scenario. “I was told that the Foreign Ministry went to the Inter-Services Intelligence and asked them, what should be our (foreign) policy? The Foreign Minister is asking a military general what the country’s policy should be.” Hussain decried the lack of policymaking by the current PPP-led government, “Have they come out publicly about national security? Do they have a vision of economic policy? People gave a vote for change.”
Hussain’s book, published three years after his acclaimed debut Frontline Pakistan, is a chronology of the events that have shaped Pakistan in the last five years. It details how consecutive mistakes by the Pakistan government, the US administration and the military and the ruthlessness of the militants have led to Pakistan drifting into chaos and anarchy. As Hussain writes in ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’, “Pakistan has been a state in search of its identity and the struggle between Islamists and moderates has remained at the centre of that quest.” In a Pakistan that has been left shaken by Taseer’s assassination, with moderates shocked at the public display of support for Malik Mumtaz Qadri, Hussain’s words ring true.
In his book, Hussain describes events such as the failed peace deals in Fata, and the brutal tactics employed by militants against the Pakistan Army that was taken by surprise at the ferocity of the atrocities, decapitated soldiers, a colonel begging for his life — events that led to an eventual operation in South Waziristan, where the Pakistan Army is still waging a battle against a force that shows no sign of giving up. Hussain recalls the words of Nek Mohammad, a top militant commander, who was killed in a drone strike in June 2004. Prior to his death, Mohammad asked, “Why is this bird following me?” Hussain also describes the rise of Baitullah Mehsud, a man, who had only 4000 men in 2004 and later became the most wanted man in Pakistan.
‘The Scorpion’s Tail’ offers the readers a glimpse into the rise of the militants in the Swat Valley, and the state’s failure to nip the movement in the bud. It highlights how militants garnered favour with Swat’s residents after the state failed to provide them with basic facilities and implement reforms. Hussain recalls how Fazlullah, the leader of the militants in Swat, had 32 radio stations broadcasting his sermons. The unwritten question here is, why did the state let the status quo continue for as long as it did?
While Hussain’s book reads more like a chronology with less description of the cited events, the few details are remarkable: Faqir Mohammad, a wanted militant attends a meeting at a bureaucrat’s house in Swat, how the siege of the Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi unfolded and the names and descriptions of armymen who left the forces after Musharraf allied with the US following 9/11 to join the militants in their war against US forces in Afghanistan and then against the Pakistani state.
Towards the end, Hussain hastens to wrap up the book. Describing the latest efforts by President Karzai to placate Islamabad, and the Pakistan Army’s interference in talks with the Taliban, Hussain advocates that the military solution in Afghanistan is bound to fail. While highlighting the efficiency of the CIA-operated Predator drone strikes in Fata, Hussain points towards the death of civilians in numerous incidents of drone strikes, a controversial issue that has been discussed heatedly since drone strikes began in Pakistani territory. The author also highlights cases such as Faisal Shahzad’s, the failed Times Square bomber, and how the radicalisation of youth in the West may lead to future terrorist attacks with more devastating consequences.
While Hussain offers little new to those who have been following his work for years, ‘The Scorpion’s Tail’ is a valuable addition to literature available on the modern history of Pakistan. One hopes that those in the corridors of power learn their lessons from the lessons of the past, but as things stand in Pakistan; this might remain an unfulfilled wish.
The Scorpion’s Tail is available at Liberty Books.
Huma Imtiaz works as a journalist in Pakistan and can be reached at email@example.com
Reporters go to war to document the human and humanitarian tragedies that otherwise would go largely unnoticed or misunderstood: concealed by the governments that commit them, eclipsed by the battles that perpetuate them, too complex to carry cable-news appeal. Determined to tell stories from extremity, we rely on our research, our guides and our gut assessment of what is safe and what is not. Most of the time we return from assignments in one piece, and on time.
“A Rope and a Prayer” is a firsthand account of one war-zone assignment gone devastatingly wrong.
In this book David Rohde, a correspondent for The New York Times, and his wife, Kristen Mulvihill, take turns recounting in meticulous detail his 7 months and 10 days in Taliban captivity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and her harrowing negotiations for his release. Their intertwined stories reflect two intensely personal consequences of myopic, lopsided international meddling in the brutalized and neglected region that straddles the border between Central and South Asia.
On Nov. 10, 2008, Mr. Rohde, a Pulitzer Prize winner, set off to interview a Taliban commander in Afghanistan for a book he was writing about the failing American war effort. It was a fraught move, he knew. But without a Taliban commander’s voice to illustrate the movement’s resurgence, Mr. Rohde, ever thorough, believed his book — a result of seven years spent chronicling the escalating war in Afghanistan and the radicalization of Pakistan’s tribal areas — would be incomplete.
The interview was a trap. The Taliban commander who had agreed to speak to Mr. Rohde had him kidnapped. After being marched, at night, across the mountainous frontier Mr. Rohde spent the rest of his captivity in Taliban safe houses in western Pakistan. At the time of the kidnapping he and Ms. Mulvihill had been married two months.
Three main narratives converge in “A Rope and a Prayer.” Mr. Rohde’s methodical reconstruction of his confinement and escape alternates with Ms. Mulvihill’s scrupulous and often surreal account of juggling her effort to free Mr. Rohde and her work as the photography director at Cosmopolitan magazine. In one chapter Ms. Mulvihill sets up a Malibu beach photo shoot for a vegetarian actress who will be chauffeured only in an environmentally friendly car — and on the next page she composes a letter to Sirajuddin Haqqani, the commander of her husband’s kidnappers. She addresses him, at the suggestion of one of her security advisers, “Dear Brother Mujahid.”
But by far the most valuable part of this volume, for foreign-policy watchers and the general public alike, is the book Mr. Rohde had set out to write before he was kidnapped. “A Rope and a Prayer” is, above all, an important and timely resource for anyone trying to understand the trajectory of violence during the last decade in a region that has been ravaged by war almost incessantly for millennia.
In his signature studious fashion Mr. Rohde explains how “the fundamentalist Taliban state the United States purportedly toppled in 2001 is alive and thriving” in Pakistan today. Among the reasons he gives are the shortsighted support Washington extended, during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to religious fundamentalists who later helped form the Taliban; the United States’ role in the erosion of west Pakistan’s tribal system; and its failure to recognize early on the scope of Islamic militancy along the border.
Mr. Rohde’s story exhaustively demonstrates that Pakistan, the United States’ supposed ally, turns a blind eye to Islamic extremism on its western frontier, granting sanctuary to militants (including Mr. Rohde’s captors) and thereby handicapping the stabilization of Afghanistan. The book also offers glimpses into the rarely reported life of rank-and-file Taliban fighters, who attend bomb-making classes (taught by Uzbek fighters, who have found refuge in the area), watch pickup volleyball games before sundown, use sophisticated radio equipment to converse and listen to electronic gadgets to memorize Koran verses — all precious, granular peeks at Taliban life that are largely missing from Western coverage.
Some of these insights we never would have learned had it not been for Mr. Rohde’s ordeal. But the expected human story of two people in captivity — one physically imprisoned by the Taliban, the other held emotional hostage to her husband’s kidnapping — mostly gets lost in the couple’s effort to document the minutiae of their experience.
Mr. Rohde is such an impeccable journalist that we never really find out what it is like, in trenchant psychological detail, to be a prisoner of the Taliban. His commitment to abide by the traditional newspaper rule of rigid impartiality is so rigorous that he delivers his blow-by-blow account of what probably was one of the pivotal periods of his life in an incongruously detached, impersonal manner. He relies on journalistic shorthand to describe his surroundings (“we drive through a barren mountainous area”), his physical state (“after spending nearly 24 hours straight lying in the back of the car, I am exhausted”), even his deep remorse for jeopardizing his marriage (“I have betrayed my wife and family”). It seems as though the reporter is embarrassed that he has become the subject of his own story.
(Determined that his work not inflict further trauma on his family, Mr. Rohde, who had spent 10 days in Bosnian Serb detention during the war in Bosnia in 1995, disavowed war reporting after his escape from the Taliban.)
Ms. Mulvihill’s account of navigating the strange world of the F.B.I., the State Department and security firms, and taking calls from Mr. Rohde’s kidnappers while retaining her job at a glossy lifestyle magazine injects the narrative with the kind of dark humor war reporters often use to get through emotionally taxing assignments. But these interludes are written in the same restrained, inelegant prose and read like a series of news updates, a body of text that was rushed to print on stringent newspaper deadline.
Then again, kidnappings and war are inelegant. Underwhelming delivery does not negate the urgent significance of this unprecedented examination of the Taliban, obtained at a tremendous personal cost, as Afghanistan and western Pakistan plunge deeper into bloodshed, trapping millions of civilians in mass violence.
Mr. Rohde may be stingy about sharing his emotions. But he generously uses everything he has learned to inform us with the distinctive evenhandedness and honesty we have learned to expect from his journalism.
This review is written by Anna Badkhen and is published in The New York Times.
It is no accident that C. J. Chivers opens “The Gun,” his bold history of the AK-47, not with the loud crack that is the report of the rifle but with the monstrous bang of the first detonation of a Soviet nuclear bomb. As Mr. Chivers’s detailed history then skirts as far back as the United States Civil War and brings us right up to the current conflict in Afghanistan, the message of his prologue is clear: For all that the escalating cold war shaped the last 60 years, no one was ever killed in conflict by a Russian nuke. By contrast untold millions have been wounded and killed by the AK-47 and related weapons, as they have proliferated and mutated from tools of engineering ingenuity, honestly wrought in defense of the socialist motherland, to the firearm of choice for both oppressor and oppressed.
The AK-47 was revolutionary because it was the first weapon to combine the portability of machine pistols that had proved popular in World War II with the accuracy of less portable, sharpshooting weapons and the firepower of the heavier, more traditional machine guns. It was also and remains beguilingly easy to use and maintain and unerringly reliable.
Mr. Chivers is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and a former Marine with, one suspects, more than a nodding acquaintance with his subject. He writes both with technical precision and the humanity that comes with understanding the invariably unhappy and all too often horrific consequences of the weapon’s effects.
All this makes for a delicate and at times fascinating balancing act, as Mr. Chivers the enthusiast and expert shares the page with Mr. Chivers the historian and journalist — the expert dealing well with the detailed mechanics of his subject, the journalist at other times brilliantly illuminating the book with highly effective vignettes of human courage, ingenuity and, mostly, suffering.
There are as many inherent dangers as advantages in writing object history. The recent deserved success in Britain of “A History of the World in 100 Objects,” a collaboration between BBC radio and the British Museum, has shown how informative history can be when told from the perspective of a single object, but such histories can be selective.
Mr. Chivers succeeds in bringing his own disparate strands together into a mostly coherent narrative, but the history is necessarily a subjective one. He moves from topic to topic at a healthy pace. Certainly the reader doesn’t tire as we roam from Kremlin politics to the Tet offensive via diversions like the Hungarian uprising and the Munich Olympics.
Sometimes, however, he dwells, perhaps indulgently, on a particular theme or episode. We are for example more than a third of the way through before we encounter the sometimes pathetic, sometimes tragic figure of Mikhail Kalashnikov and his eponymous rifle.
Mr. Chivers’s account of the general development of automatic weapons and the men who pioneered them is impressive. The portraits of Mikhail Kalashnikov’s forerunners, Richard J. Gatling and Hiram Maxim (whose entertaining character comes across bizarrely at odds with the devastation his machine wrought on the fields of Flanders) stand in effective contrast to Kalashnikov, the curiously unsympathetic Russian sergeant, and lend the book depth.
From horse-drawn, hand-cranked cannons that subdued the enemies of the British Empire, Mr. Chivers traces the development of automatic weapons in the early 20th century and the often costly failings of conservative military leaders to understand their potential and effect. He deconstructs the Soviet mythology behind the AK-47’s development before charting its proliferation and rise to ubiquity. The book sometimes struggles to keep up with the various tactical and strategic changes occasioned by the development and distribution of the rifle, but this may be an accurate reflection of how the wider world has struggled to comprehend and cope with the spread of this powerful gun.
His broad reach allows Mr. Chivers to touch on diversions that he and many readers may well find interesting — a considerable discussion of the ill-fated introduction of the M-16 rifle to United States Marines in Vietnam is one example — but means that we are sometimes caught in a limbo between a necessarily limited canter through big events and a dense excursus on the gun itself. The book’s discussion of the difficulties of penetrating layers of secrecy and Soviet myth in deconstructing the historiography of the AK-47 will be fascinating to many historians, less so to casual enthusiasts.
Other elements of “The Gun” are perhaps unwittingly illuminating. Mr. Chivers skates over the murky distinction between romantic freedom fighters who wield their AK-47s against the brutal Soviet regime and the current terrorists who do so against its armies. While much of the detail on the development of the gun and the treatment of the man whose name it bears serves as a salutary reminder of the awfulness of life in Soviet Russia, Mr. Chivers can’t resist taking a few easy shots at the Soviets.
For an essentially international book about an international symbol, “The Gun” never quite escapes an essentially Western perspective. While our own shortcomings are often addressed with clarity and precision, it is hard to escape the feeling that the ill-use the rifles have been put to by our enemies gets more attention than when the butt has been on the other shoulder.
But these are minor quibbles that fall away when Mr. Chivers provides in harrowing detail a sense of the human cost of this sometimes too abstract symbol.
“Karzan Mahmoud toppled and fell, landing in a puddle of cold standing water,” he writes of the shooting of a young Kurd. “There he lay, on his back, blinking up into raindrops peppering his face. He had no idea how many times he had been hit. His body was broken; his mind, for the moment, was strangely detached. His blood stained the puddle red. He thought he heard thunder.”
Mr. Chivers adds: “Technical studies did not sketch this: what it looked and felt like when military rifle bullets smacked human life, when incapacitation meant not just preventing action but summoning death, when rifles and gunfights were stripped of engineering, politics, romance or any whiff of fable.”
He is right to address the “fable” of the AK-47. As someone who has been shot at and shot back with this weapon, I can testify to its enduring appeal. But for all that, “The Gun” is a history of 10 pounds of wood and steel. Its strength is that it can’t but be a human history: the history of the men who designed and built, did or didn’t purchase, correctly or incorrectly deployed, and triumphed or perished by an inanimate object.