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Frontline Pakistan

Frontline Pakistan

Early in his book, Zahid Hussain, a well-known Pakistani journalist, labels his native land as “the most ungovernable country in the world.” He then describes President Pervez Musharraf as a military dictator who, by siding with the United States in the so-called “war on terror”, has led Pakistan “to war with itself.”

The 11 chapters that constitute the book, however, reveal a different picture. Each chapter deals with one aspect of the problems that Pakistan faces, including the role of the military, the ascendancy of Islamist groups, the nuclear race with India, the various wars in Afghanistan since the 1970s, the impact of the Khomeinist revolution in Iran, the corruption of the political elite, and sectarian feuds.

Although Hussain offers some chilling details of these problems, the cumulative effect of his narrative is the opposite of what he apparently intended.

Pakistan emerges as a country that has managed a difficult situation rather well. It has jettisoned most of the terrorist groups it once patronised, as part of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, without suffering the “ocean of blood” promised by the Jihadists. It has defused the 50-year old dispute with India over Kashmir to the point that it may no longer serve as a cause for war, and has rebuilt its old alliance with the Western democracies led by the United States. At the same time, as Zahid shows, the Pakistani economy has returned to growth after almost a decade of stagnation.

“The most ungovernable country in the world” has held a series of national and municipal elections in which political parties from all shades of opinion managed to win a share of power. To be sure, Pakistani elections do not match standards in the mature democracies. Nevertheless, they are more credible than similar exercises in neighbouring Iran and most other Third World countries. As far as social unrest and industrial strikes are concerned, Pakistan has done better than most developing nations, including democratic India.

Having asked the reader to form a negative image of Musharraf, Hussain proceeds to portray a determined and hard-working leader who has fought corruption, risked his life by taking major strategic decisions against terrorists, and presided over a restoration of discipline to a government that had run out of control.

Hussain tells us that Musharraf “brought Pakistan from near insolvency to more than 8 per cent annual economic growth rate.” Musharraf, he adds, has “managed his balancing act quite well.” Having taken on the terrorists, the rogue elements in the military, and the corrupt elites, Musharraf, we are told, “has emerged unscathed and continues to call the shots.” In the war on terror, “few world leaders have produced results like President Musharraf”.

At one point, Hussain notes, “the war against militancy and Islamic extremism can best be fought-and won- in a liberal democracy.” Elsewhere, however, he asserts, “a leader in a military uniform can deliver far more than a democratically elected one.” He then provides a long list of Musharraf’s successes in curbing the extremist groups through legal, political and military measures.

Hussain devotes a chapter to the role played by the Islamic madrassas in allegedly fomenting Jihad. Nevertheless, once again, he ends up proving the opposite. He notes that out of the 13000 madrassas operating in Pakistan only 15 per cent had ” links with sectarian militancy or international terrorism.” ( He echoes the study conducted by William Darlymple in 2005, showing that the role of the madrassas in promoting terrorism had been exaggerated.)

Hussain criticises Musharraf for his decision to prevent “the liberal opposition” from contesting the elections held under his watch. But we are never told which parties he means. The two traditional ruling parties of Pakistan, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Muslim League, were not allowed to field candidates directly. Nevertheless, some of their members managed to be elected on other lists. In any case, neither could be described as “liberal”. The PPP uses the label “socialist” while the Muslim League, as its name indicates, is Islamist. Hussain reports that Nawaz Sharif, a former prime minister and Muslim League leader, had planned to amend the constitution to turn Pakistan into an Islamic emirate with himself as Emir al-Momeneen (Commander of the Faithful), hardly a liberal programme.

Having journeyed through a tale of war, fanaticism, tribal feuds, military coups, ethnic warfare, sectarian killings, and drug trafficking on an industrial scale, the reader is bound to feel grateful that Pakistan has not suffered systemic collapse.

Hussain’s book is full of tantalising tidbits that he drops along the way without picking them up again. We are told that Muslims in Britain have a major role in providing money and fighters for Lashkar-e- Taiba (Army of the Good). But no evidence follows. Hundreds of Pakistanis are fighting against the US and Britain in Iraq, we are told, again without further discussion of the subject. Hussain identifies Dubai as the centre for smuggling arms and nuclear materiel to Iran, whetting the reader’s appetite but leaving him hungry. He reports that while some Islamists fight so that Islam becomes ” the dominant religion in the world”, most would be content to regain control of Spain and India. Again, it would have been interesting to know more.

The book is full of surprisng assertions.

Hussain devotes some 30 pages arguing that Pakistan had to support the Taliban in Afghanistan because of ideological considerations. After all, Islam, perhaps together with cricket, is the only interest that the county’s many different ethnic and racial groups have in common. But, then we are told: “Pakistan’s support for the Taliban was certainly not based on any ideological considerations. It was based purely on geo-strategic reasons.” Is it not possible that both ideology and geo-strategy played a part?

The reader is told that the Lashkar-e- Taiba is “an extremely secretive organisation” that even the Pakistani military intelligence has failed to infiltrate. But, then we are offered a detailed account of how the organisation works, who its leaders are, how members are recruited and trained, and even what food they eat. The Jihadist group turns out to be as transparent as the Salvation Army.

Hussain’s book suffers from the recent decline in British editing standards.

There seems to have been no fact checking, thus allowing scores of easily avoidable errors to mar the text. Nor was there much copy-editing. Accounts of certain events are repeated , each time with slight variations, as if different editors handled the different chapters.

In one place, we read that millions died in the partition of the Sub-continent. Elsewhere that figure is revised to “hundreds of thousands.”

On one page, Z.A. Bhutto wins his “landslide election victory” in 1970, and in 1971 on another.

General Yussuf’s name is spelled in four different ways throughout the book.

The CIA director Robert James Woolsey Jr. becomes John Woolsey. We are told that Woolsey and James Baker III together exerted pressure on Pakistan. But Woolsey worked under President Bill Clinton while Baker was Secretary of State under President George H W Bush.

The “mohadjir” are presented as “an ethnic group. ” In fact, the word means “immigrant” and defines Muslims who immigrated to Pakistan from parts of India where Hindus were a majority.

The ” maliks” are presented as ” tribal elders”. In fact, the word means ” landowners”, an Arabic equivalent of the Persian-Urdu ” zamindar.”

The man who took Pakistan into military alliances with the West was General Iskandar Mirza, not Field Marshall Muhammad Ayub Khan.

Bhutto could not have been a lifelong friend of North Korean despot Kim Il-sung for the simple reason that they never met. The current North Korean leader is Kim Jong-il, not Kim Jung.

The Deobandi and Barlevi movements are based on the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam and cannot be “akin to Saudi Wahhabism” which is based on the Hanbali school.

At one point we are told that ” the Taliban put up stiff resistance” to maintain their hold on Kabul. A few pages later we read : ” The Taliban fled Kabul in the dead of night without a shot being fired.”

Lack of precision is also a problem. We read of “a vast network of support” for the terrorists or of the deployment of “a significant part of the Taliban forces.” There are ” large caches of arm”, purchased with ” huge sums of money” while Islamists are supposed to enjoy ” a massive base of support” in “various European countries.”

The prose offers a mixture of English and American spellings with whole passages written in the English of the Sub-continent and thus not easily accessible to readers elsewhere.

Here are some examples:

” He convinced Bhutto of his absolute loyalty and more importantly of his incapacity to be otherwise.”

” Pakistan became the centre of the focus of international community.”

” This declaration was acclaimed as the ipso facto renunciation of Jihad.”

” The US imposed democratic sanctions on Pakistan in 1990.”

The Jihadi groups had “a nuclear of battle-hardened leaders.”

” Bin Laden with up to 1000 al Qaida fighters was rumoured to have retreated with up to 1000 al Qaida fighters to the deep bunkers in the mountainous range built during the Soviet occupation.”

” Benazir Bhutto faced a litany of corruption.”

” According to a senior Pakistani senior security official.”

” The US stick-heavy policy towards Pakistan.”

“The ISI catalysed the swift fall of the Taliban.”

Having provided an upbeat narrative of Pakistan’s experience over the past six years, Hussain ends his book by predicting a ” geopolitical earthquake” which could “at some point erupt.” When and if it does, the predicted earthquake ” would make the current security situation look positively calm by comparison.” Well, we shall see.

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri

Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.

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