Pakistan on the Brink
by Ahmed Rashid
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
This week, in what is being called the biggest jailbreak in Pakistani history, Taliban fighters stormed a prison in the NWFP province of Pakistan and freed almost 400 prisoners. The raid was efficiently organized – a blockade of all roads leading to the prison kept the security forces at bay even as the fugitives hightailed into neighbouring North Waziristan, a lawless tribal area rife with Al Qaeda and several militant groups that straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border.
If you’re wondering how the Taliban, who started as a militant Islamic group within Afghanistan, morphed into a rallying force for pan-Islamic militants and jihadis operating out of Pakistan, then this is the book for you.
Ahmed Rashid is a respected Pakistani journalist who has reported on the AfPak region for thirty years. Pakistan on the Brink is the third book in a trilogy that has seen him chronicle the rise of Taliban and Al Qaeda beginning in the 80s, the US war in Afghanistan following 9/11, and the lead-up to the current crises in the region. Divided into nine essays, the book examines the conflict from the different perspectives of the parties involved – key countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and USA, and other critical players such as Iran, India and the ‘Stans’ of Central Asia.
An insurgency is growing within Afghanistan even as the US timeline for withdrawal of its forces approaches. Meanwhile, President Karzai’s government is corrupt and has little authority beyond Kabul. An economy dependent on aid will go into a deep recession upon US exit in 2014, and worse, see a civil war as its neighbours replay the Great Game.
One key neighbour, Pakistan, has contributed significantly to the current Afghan crisis. To keep the US happy, it put pressure on Al Qaeda in the war on terror, received billions of dollars in aid, but continued to provide sanctuary to Afghan Taliban in its Baluchistan province. Pakistan wants to retain leverage on Taliban who, it believes, will be in control once the US departs Afghanistan.
Despite a civilian government Pakistan is run by its Army and intelligence service, the ISI. Rashid worries that the ISI has become a “state within a state” which advocates a hostile foreign policy towards neighbouring countries even as Pakistani society has become increasingly radicalized. The nuclear-armed nation needs a new narrative, “one that does not perpetually blame the evergreen troika of India, the United States, and Israel for its own ills”.
What then is the way out of this quagmire?
Ahmed Rashid has acted as a turkoman for several Western officials looking to understand the region. During the course of this book he mentions meeting personally with Presidents Obama, Merkel, Karzai, and Zardari. Descent into Chaos, his previous authoritative work on the region was a prescient look at the future, one that is aptly captured by the title, Pakistan on the Brink. An update, it attempts to put some solutions on the table, suggesting that Turkey could be a possible role model for Pakistan’s leaders as a nation that turned itself from a “military dictatorship into a thriving democracy”.
However, this might be a case of wishful thinking: the self-serving nexus of Army-Jihadi-spies-political cronies looks unlikely to yield a better ruler.