Pakistan on the Brink Ahmed Rashid

Penguin, pp.256, 20

Fifteen years ago Ahmed Rashid wrote an original, groundbreaking and wonderful book about the Taleban, a subject about which few people at the time knew or cared. Then along came 9/11 and Rashid turned overnight from obscure scribbler into global sage. He was courted (as he reminds us from time to time in this book) by presidents and celebrated by Washington think-tanks. But all this recognition, while well deserved, has had a terrible effect on his prose.

Instead of writing very good books, he now writes very bad ones. His Descent into Chaos, published in 2008, an account of the years after 9/11, was ponderous and loaded with received wisdom. This volume is no better. Rashid has ceased to be a subversive reporter and instead has swallowed almost entire the conventional categorisation of the war on terror. Writing in the breezy tones of an astute western diplomat, he does not see Afghanistan and Pakistan on their own terms but rather as inert subjects for western intervention. Thus, he chides the United States and Nato for failing to ‘create’ an indigenous Afghan economy. He has embraced the jargon of the visiting expert, calling for a ‘multi-dimensional political, diplomatic, economic and military strategy’. Rashid, a native of Pakistan, has been converted to the lofty world-view of Washington and London. Pakistan, he asserts, as become ‘an abnormal state that uses Islamic militants — jihadi groups, non-state actors — in addition to diplomacy and trade to pursue its defence and foreign policies’.

Had he given this claim more than a moment’s thought he would have realised it made no sense. For decades the United States, Britain, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India and Israel have pursued foreign policy aims by proxy. There is nothing abnormal in Pakistan doing the same, and deeply unfair to single it out. He buys wholesale into George W. Bush’s vision of the war on terror. ‘After al-Qa’eda’s attack on the US mainland,’ writes Rashid in a section criticising the obdurate Pakistan military establishment, ‘the world was clearly going to consider Islamic extremism the new enemy, and the United States would clearly use that threat to justify military intervention in other states.’ Well, yes, that is what happened. And look where we are today.

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Rashid buys too readily into the key Neo-Con proposition that al-Qa’eda could ‘return on the backs’ of Islamist political parties. Actually, the evidence from across the Middle East suggests that Islamist mass movements such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood tend to prevent the rise of al-Qa’eda rather than the reverse.

Rashid says that it is a ‘lie and a myth’ that India and the CIA are funding separatists in the province of Balochistan. He denounces as a ‘false narrative’ the belief that the ‘United States, India and Israel are conspiring to undermine Pakistan and ultimately to dismember the country.’ Yet these suspicions are far from groundless. The US Senate has already held a hearing about potential independence for Balochistan; there is troubling evidence about Mossad and (probably) CIA backing for the Balochi armed group Jundallah, while Pakistani suspicions of India’s intentions are all too reasonable, given the historical record. Rashid’s argument would have carried more weight if he had not ignored this kind of evidence.

Nor has he been well served by his editors. He repeatedly tells us that the Pakistan military consumes 30 per cent of the national budget and that the national literacy rate is 57 per cent. These facts are doubtless important, but to be told once would have been enough.

Yet there is much of value in this book, which chronicles the collapse of relations between Pakistan and the United States over recent years. India, in a reverse of the Cold War system, has become the main regional ally of the United States.

Pakistan is likely to fall soon within the Chinese sphere of influence: it is a tragedy that Britain’s uncritical adoption of US policy and methods prevents us from playing a more sympathetic role.

Ahmed Rashid is a good writer with fine credentials, and he has much to offer. It is time he gave up the windy, grand-strategic analysis on display in this book and returned to what he does best: reporting the facts on the ground.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Al-Qaeda, Book review, Non-fiction, Pakistan