Saturday, March 24, 2007

Asian Affairs Book Review by Owen Bennett Jones

Book Reviews: South Asia
Asian Affairs, Vol. xxxvii, No. 3, November 2006

Hassan Abbas focuses on the consequences of radical Islam in one, fragile society. His book deals with Pakistan’s history from 1947 until the present day. The chapters dealing with the period up to the death of General Zia are a fairly standard account, although Abbas does provide a few new documents and inside accounts to add to the current stock of knowledge. The book comes to life, though, when dealing with the period of which Abbas has had direct experience. He served under Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf and has also drawn on interviews with jihadi militants, ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) officials and senior army officers. They have provided him with interesting material. His accounts of the administrations of Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and General Musharraf are at the same time reliable and quite gossipy. He does not hesitate to include some highly enjoyable asides on the personal animosities and foibles that lay behind various decisions and incidents.

Abbas is at his best when analysing General Musharraf. He argues that whilst Musharraf may have started out with good intentions to rid Pakistan of corruption and to confront the Islamic extremists, he has been discouraged by the scale of the task and has, by now, all but given up. Abbas maintains, not very convincingly, that Musharraf might still find the resolve to achieve his goals and implement his polices. In reality, though, his defeatism, combined with an increasing capacity to soak up flattery and to resent dissent, means that little can now be expected from his regime.

However, as Abbas points out, all Pakistani leaders, Musharraf included, have been constrained by one issue above all others: Kashmir. Pakistan’s support for the insurgency has already resulted in blowback in the form of sectarian violence at home as well as the assassination attempts on General Musharraf. Doubtless there will be worse to come.

Abbas argues that it has almost reached the point where the Pakistani state needs to keep the jihadi groups busy fighting in Kashmir for fear of what they would do if they had time on their hands in Pakistan itself. To his credit, General Musharraf has shown genuine flexibility trying to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute despite the inevitable domestic political cost. So far, however, India has shown no interest whatsoever in meeting him half way.

Pakistan, of course, is responsible for most of its own problems. Nevertheless, the world has a great interest in nuclear Pakistan being maintained as a stable state. Many in the West, like Abbas, call on the country to introduce more democracy. That may help (although the experience of the 1990s suggests otherwise) but Western diplomatic pressure would perhaps be more usefully be expended calling on India to join Pakistan in search of a settlement of the Kashmir dispute.