Review in International Affairs (London) - March 2005
INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, Vol. 81, Issue 2, April 2005, page 481-482
Pakistan’s drift into extremism: Allah, the army, and America’s war on terror. By Hassan Abbas. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe. 2004. 294pp. Index. $69.95. Pb.: $25.95.
The idea of Pakistan. By Stephen Philip Cohen. Washington DC: Brookings. 2004. 382pp. Index. £21.50.
When and why did Pakistan become an object of fear? Once a beacon of moderation in the Muslim world, it now appears as a terrifying centre of Islamic radicalism, nuclear proliferation and terrorism. How much of this dramatic transformation is based on current western unease about the Islamic ‘other’ and how much on first-hand information is, of course, still hotly debated. Nevertheless, two new books, one by an acknowledged American expert on Pakistan, the other by a former Pakistani government official, suggest that the gulf separating western and Pakistani perspectives may be narrower than we imagine. Each adopts a different approach, yet both conclude that Pakistan is headed for social and political chaos, with its most durable institution—the army—threatened with fracture and vulnerable to a take-over by radical Islamists. Both also concur that (and this is surely open to debate) the only real guarantor of Pakistan’s future survival is the United States.
Indeed, the unmistakable focus of Stephen Cohen’s The idea of Pakistan is the country’s future as an active concern of US foreign policy. Those seeking in this book an analogue to the kind of thoughtful meditation that Sunil Khilnani brought to his classic The idea of India (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998) are likely, therefore, to be disappointed. Cohen here is engaged in an altogether different enterprise, alive with ‘challenges’, ‘scenarios’, ‘strategies’ and ‘policy options’—all hammered out with a keen eye to securing US interests in South Asia. None of this of course detracts from the value of a study—richly observed and well grounded in both current scholarship and journalism—which is very largely persuasive. The nub of his argument is that Pakistan’s successive national crises, which have earned it the unenviable sobriquet of a ‘failed state’ (a label Cohen himself is reluctant to endorse), must be understood as symptomatic of the still unresolved struggle between opposing ideas of Pakistan.
Cohen recognizes that this lack of consensus is, in great measure, an unfortunate legacy of the politics of brinkmanship pursued by Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, whose idea of Pakistan was kept as vague as possible so as to secure what he thought would be the maximum advantage for the Muslims of India on the eve of independence in 1947. Its consequences for Pakistan, however, were disastrous. Unplanned and inchoate, the country soon became a battleground for rival forces, each determined to impose its particular ‘idea’ of Pakistan. Cohen charts this deadly engagement showing how it has torn the state apart, quite literally (as in 1971) and subjected it to wildly different trajectories. The chief beneficiary of this struggle has been the army (which Cohen has already analysed with remarkable acuity in his The Pakistan army [Oxford University Press Pakistan, 1999]). It has been in power almost continuously since independence barring brief democratic interregnums in the 1970s and 1990s. But the army’s success has also rested on its grudging willingness to share its spoils with an informal ‘establishment’ or ‘oligarchy’ of some 500 ‘socially and culturally intertwined people’, who subscribe to ‘a particular understanding of Pakistan’ (p. 69). That understanding is predicated, Cohen argues, on an ‘operational code’ that borrows heavily from the ideology of the British Raj, which assumed that power was to be relinquished only under duress. This cosy arrangement is now threatened by Islamic militants.
Since the 1980s they have forged a close and apparently sordid relationship with sections of the army and the state intelligence services on the back of the covert execution (with tacit US approval) of Pakistan’s regional policy in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Profound social changes, extreme demographic pressures and rapidly declining civilian institutions, especially state education, have fuelled this dangerous symbiosis. So, what are the chances of success today for US policy in Pakistan, where Islamists are ideologically opposed to the US, the Left accuses it of supporting the establishment, and the establishment itself is deeply suspicious of US motives? Cohen is guarded but what he makes eminently clear is that, in the short term at least, the United States has no option but to protect its interests by helping Pakistan restore its image as a ‘moderate Muslim state’. Significantly, though, he is much less inclined to place bets on Pakistan’s capacity to evolve as a ‘liberal modern state, functioning in the global system at peace with its neighbours’ (p. 327).
Nor, judging by the conclusions of Pakistan’s drift into extremism, does the country’s future inspire much confidence in Hassan Abbas. An erstwhile senior police officer, he provides an insider’s view of the relentless machinations of the country’s civilian and military leadership and casts new light on the shadowy groups that populate its jihadi underworld. It makes for fascinating reading—less, it must be said, for its analysis than for its fevered speculation, its readiness to name names, and its steadfast resolve to expose the murky arrangements at the heart of government. All this, not surprisingly, adds up quickly to a picture of Pakistan as depressing and dangerously poised on the brink of a fundamentalist precipice.
Abbas singles out a host of culprits responsible for diverting Pakistan away from the goals he believes Jinnah set for the country. In a style bristling at times with emotion he rounds on Pakistan’s motley ‘elite’ of degenerate feudal lords, unscrupulous politicians, arrogant bureaucrats and selfserving military generals. But his greatest contempt is reserved for the mullas (clerics), whose accession to power was boosted by their common cause with General Zia ul Haq’s programme of Islamization in the 1980s. What transformed them from objects of ridicule to a major political force was their involvement in Afghanistan, where many learnt to master the art of covert warfare, which the state later exploited in the execution of its Kashmir policy. This, Abbas argues, decisively helped ‘shift the power equation away from the army towards the jihadi groups’ (p. 13). Once again, it is to the United States that Abbas turns to make his passionate plea for Pakistan to be delivered from its perilous condition. What his country needs, he declares, is ‘US assistance and support to provide economic development and strengthen democracy’ (p. 241). With the ruinous effects of US intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq still unfolding before us, many might regard this prescription for Pakistan as nothing short of a poisoned chalice.
Farzana Shaikh, University of Cambridge, UK
CSIS BOOK EVENT
Daily Times, October 31, 2005
Pentagon-Pak Army links spelt ‘death knell’ of democracy
by Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: The long-standing institutional relationship between the Pakistan Army and the Pentagon has proved to be the “death knell” of democracy, a meeting was told here on Friday. Hassan Abbas, a former officer of the Police Service of Pakistan, who has recently published a book on Pakistan’s descent into extremism, was speaking at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in its continuing series on South Asia. In the last year, a large number of events have been organised by the Centre’s South Asia programme to study the country from all aspects. Mr Abbas said that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had run out of control. He said the United States should be concerned about nuclear proliferation by Pakistan. He was of the view that the controversy was far from over. Mr Abbas predicted that eventually there would be a showdown between the army and the rogue jihadi groups. He said within the ranks of the army, there were many who sympathised with the groups and their cause. He charged that Gen Musharraf had failed to move ahead with the accountability process that he had begun. In the beginning, young officers saw Gen Musharraf as a “revolutionary” but they were now disillusioned since he had made too many compromises. He also spoke about the “sectarian divide” in Pakistan and regretted that the Pakistani press, especially its Urdu segment, had failed to stand up for the rights of religious minorities. He said the majority of Pakistanis was democratic and against militancy. He accused Washington of taking a short-term view of things in Pakistan. He said by placing all its eggs in the Musharraf basket, it had made a mistake. He regretted that there was no US support for a civil society in Pakistan.