Book Review - Far Eastern Economic Review
FAR EASTERN ECONOMIC REVIEW
JAN/FEB 2005; Vol. 168 No. 2
The Idea of Pakistan
by Stephen Philip Cohen
Brookings Institution Press, 382 pages, $32.95
Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror
by Hassan Abbas
M.E. Sharpe, 275 pages, $69.95
Reviewed by Nancy deWolf Smith
Stephen Philip Cohen’s broad-stroke survey is a success on two levels. For readers seeking a comprehensive introduction to Pakistan’s strategic, political, social and economic history, there could be no more lucid guide to the forces that have shaped the country. More importantly, since Mr. Cohen’s ultimate aim is to provide information and analysis useful to policy makers, the book, even when it is reviewing historical developments from 1946 onward, is structured so that all this information feeds into chapters outlining choices for the future.
Although that future, like the choices, is presented in stark terms, this is not a deeply pessimistic book. Its most disheartening aspect is implied in the title, since examining the idea of Pakistan raises the question of whether it should ever have come into being, or will survive. There are many in India, surely, who fall upon such cues with relish, and indeed, when all is said and done, the one burden Pakistan carries that is surely not self-inflicted is that of existing next to a hegemon.
True, Pakistan was born, and has continued to wrestle, with several different visions of a guiding principal or goal: Was it to be a homeland for oppressed Muslims, can it be a democracy, or will it become an Islamic regime? In so much as these sorts of questions remain unanswered, examining them is a legitimate exercise. On the other hand, nobody ever asks, “What is the idea of Denmark?”—or the idea of many states even newer than Pakistan, for that matter.
That said, there is hardly any front today on which the future of the country looks settled, let alone rosy. Among the problems are “staggering demographic pressures,” a “decrepit” educational system and “a military establishment that wants the façade but not the substances of democracy.” The economy may continue to grow at a 6% rate, but that can’t keep up with the basic needs of an exploding population, maldistribution of aid and other resources through corruption, and, above all, 50 years of relentlessly high defense spending.
Although most Pakistanis accept defense spending as a costly but necessary response to Indian power, Mr. Cohen asserts that their country would be stronger today if it hadn’t been “hijacked” by the notion of perpetual external struggle. “Instead of building a state,” he says, “Pakistan’s Establishment sought to build a nation by acquiring allies, developing nuclear and conventional weapons and manufacturing myths, all in the service of balancing out a more powerful and seemingly implacable India.”
Today, as always, the core of that establishment is the military, and it is to the military that Mr. Cohen directs some of his most astute comments:
To reverse Pakistan’s decline, Pakistan’s military leaders must come to a better understanding of the new international environment and a more objective assessment of India, as well as Pakistan’s own deep structural and social problems. Pakistan is a case in which an excellent army depends upon a failing economy, a divided society, and unreliable politicians. The army lacks the capacity to fix Pakistan’s problems, but is unwilling to give other state institutions and the political system the opportunity to learn and grow.
In such an environment, he notes, Islamic radicals, while still rejected by the majority of Pakistanis, find a fertile recruiting ground. The leaders of radical groups often resemble Bolsheviks, with a lust for raw power that masquerades as piety. They operate with the ruthlessness and organizational structure of Leninist dimensions. And like Marxists of an earlier era, Mr. Cohen points out, they feed on
economic and social discontent.
“Ironically,” Mr. Cohen adds, “the chief obstacle to democracy—the army—is also the principal barrier to political extremism.” As long as that situation lasts, it will pose another of those chicken-and-egg dilemmas that paralyze attempts to make progress on virtually every front in Pakistan. Which problem do you tackle first, without unleashing a host of even worse ones?
Islamabad has long exploited such conundrums in its relationship with the United States. Today, for instance, it in effect argues that support for the War on Terror is domestically unsustainable without substantial American aid—and yet it cannot crack down on domestic radicals too hard lest they overthrow the government that is pledged to control them. In the final chapters of his book, Mr. Cohen cuts through this muddle:
Pakistanis are expert at deciphering American interests and appealing to short-term American fears in the hope of establishing a relationship of mutual dependency in which Pakistani obligations are minimal while American ones are substantial....In dealing with Pakistan, the United States must also recognize that Islamabad may complain about being constrained by public opinion, but the government is what shaped that opinion over the years.
Since Mr. Cohen’s purpose is not to smack Pakistan around, but to help find a formula for its success, he is equally determined to examine where and how Washington has failed. “America’s relationship with Pakistan has been one of engagement and withdrawal,” he begins, underlining what is painfully obvious to all Pakistanis. After charting the dismal results of U.S. inattention, or attention myopically focused only on strategic considerations, he also offers a long list of specific fixes. Some detail options for cooperation on broad issues, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and Pakistan’s relationship with India, with suggestions for managing the issue of Kashmir.
Most significantly, Mr. Cohen directs Washington’s attention to the crucial area of domestic aid that can help Islamabad begin to address its crushing deficits in realms such as education, technology and manufacturing. Acknowledging the issue of accountability, or a lack of it, that has seen so much aid—and, indeed, Pakistan’s own resources—wasted or stolen in the past, he suggests the structure for a new bargain that would involve a massive, steady new flow of carefully directed aid in return for specific accountability measures.
The one subject Mr. Cohen does not address directly is the rule of law. As many Pakistanis have noted, their society remains one in which the winner takes all, in which you are either in power or hanging on by your fingernails.
This mentality affects virtually every sphere of life. It results in politicians who see office not as an opportunity to serve but as a way to grab—and to avoid being grabbed from, as happens so easily to those out of power. It has infected generations of civil service graduates who struggled to get into the customs service, where the opportunities of salary-padding were greater. It results in poorly paid policemen who behave, as Mr. Cohen says, “like predators” rather than protectors.
Until the rule of law is a priority, no real strides forward are possible in Pakistan and no other reforms will be secure.
Hassan Abbas is not as prescriptive as Mr. Cohen. A former Pakistani government official and police superintendent who has been a fellow at Harvard Law School and studied at Tufts University, he is more focused on the past than the future. However, the picture he paints and the red flags he waves are strikingly similar to Mr. Cohen’s, driving home a frightening message of government incompetence in the face of ominous challenges.
Mr. Abbas’s documentation of how radical Islamist groups have steadily penetrated Pakistani society is particularly chilling. He, too, notes that the decrepit state of public education in Pakistan has led many families to enroll their children in madrasas, “decadent religious seminaries” where the sole academic endeavor involves memorizing verses of the Koran. The schools’ offer of “free food, housing, and clothing proved to be an effective incentive for the poor,” many of whom “did not know that instead of learning to read and write [their sons] would be taught how to kill people.” There are an estimated 30,000 such schools in Pakistan today.
More alarming still, in its way, is the inability or reluctance of Pakistani authorities to rein in either the schools for killers, or the groups of terrorists they produce. Pakistan is not the first country to have tolerated and actively used radicals toward some other end—as foils in a battle against other political enemies, for instance. They are always difficult, if not impossible, to put back in the bag. Throughout Mr. Abbas’s account, however, there is evidence of ambivalence about even trying.
Describing a member of President Pervez Musharraf’s inner circle in 2001—as Pakistan prepared to respond to America’s post-9/11 request for cooperation—Mr. Abbas gives a droll but ultimately baffling account of “the number two man in the army,” Gen. Lt. Gen. Muzzafir Usmani:
A self-confessed “soldier of God” ... Usmani had started out as a moderate and an open-minded officer, but later in his career he found the intolerant fringe of Islam, where he saw his own piety in discovering the imperfections of others. By the time he became deputy chief of army staff, he had become reclusive, shutting himself in his house and walking about in a Saudi jubba (gown) topped by a green turban. All this was widely known when Musharraf promoted him.
Although Mr. Abbas’s subtitle is Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror, his book gives ample space to peripheral topics such as the Khrushchev years, political machinations and personalities in Islamabad, and the still unanswered mystery of who or what power conspired to shoot down the plane carrying President Zia-ul-Haq, U.S. Ambassador Arnold Raphael, and a group including senior military officers of both countries in 1988.
On this last subject, the possibility that the U.S. itself shot down the plane is given serious attention, although to his credit Mr. Abbas pronounces that unlikely. Like many of his compatriots, however, he or his sources detect an American hand in so many developments in Pakistan that at times one is left with the impression that no official ever acted and no event transpired without taking guidance or orders from somebody in the U.S. Embassy.
This sort of thing, often murkily sourced or just reported as rumor, can get distracting. And now and then there is a statement that cannot be sourced because it is demonstrably untrue, such as the sweeping assertion that in Afghanistan in late 2001, “what was left of the country was bombed to smithereens” by the U.S. A figure of speech perhaps, but one that hardly builds credibility with those of us who traveled through Afghanistan in early 2002.
These are quibbles, however, about a book that is full of fascinating detail about the who-said-and-did-what-to-whom aspects of Pakistani politics over the past few decades. Given the degree of detail, readers already familiar with the milieu and key players will be best suited to appreciate both the reporting and speculation. But anyone who dips into it will find something to savor.
Ms. Smith is a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and covered Pakistan and Afghanistan from 1987-91.
Copyright: Far Eastern Economic Review