Unravelling ties

Last Updated 22 September 2012, 19:08 IST

In ‘Pakistan On The Brink’, Ahmed Rashid observes that Pakistan may soon pose a far more dangerous situation than Afghanistan, writes Sudha Ramachandran

The third in a trilogy on the Af-Pak region by noted Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West is an unflinching assessment of the dire situation that is unfolding there.

Rashid’s reading of the crisis in Pakistan, the US-Pakistan relationship and the looming scenario in Afghanistan are ominous. He describes Pakistan as being “on the brink of a meltdown,” “the most fragile place in the world,” and “the most vulnerable to terrorist violence, political change or economic collapse.” “It is not yet a failed state,” he writes “but as its febrile state worsens it is sliding down the path of becoming one.”

As for the US-Pakistan relationship, it is so troubled that they are “just short of going to war,” he observes.

The author’s scathing criticism of Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership will prompt many Pakistanis to instinctively dismiss the book as biased and ‘pro-West’. It is not. The author is just as sharp in his indictment of the games other powers are playing. For instance, he castigates the US for “double-dealing” and India “for acting immaturely since 9/11.”

Examining US President Barack Obama’s decision to press ahead with holding presidential elections in Afghanistan in 2009, despite escalating violence in that country, Rashid points out that this resulted in Obama’s “surge in manpower and money” on Afghanistan being wasted on “securing” the Afghan presidential election, “rather than on developing a long-term counterinsurgency and economic development strategy” for Afghanistan.

The author draws attention to deep divisions in the US administration. Special envoy Richard Holbrooke had many enemies in the Pentagon, the White House and even the State Department, he writes. In fact, relations among many leading members of Obama’s team dealing with Afghanistan were “dysfunctional.”

Rashid makes interesting observations on the personal styles of Bush and Obama in dealing with Afghanistan. “For all his misplaced ideological moorings” Bush cultivated a “common touch” by constantly meeting Afghan students, women and journalists, often hosting them at the White House. In contrast, Obama “always described the war [in Afghanistan] in the coldest geopolitical terms or in troop numbers, never personalizing his comments, refusing to become emotional or show any passion whatsoever.”

To Indian readers, much of what Rashid has to say about Pakistan or even US-Pakistan relations will not be new. It is the insights he provides about the Taliban that are invaluable.

Contrary to the widely held perception of the Taliban as a group that remains committed to violence and one that is medieval in its mindset and opposed to socio-economic development, Rashid draws attention to the enormous changes that the Taliban has undergone over the past decade.

Its leaders had “matured considerably since the 1990s,” he points out. While they are firm on the exit of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and the restoration of an Islamic system in the country, they are “more flexible” on both these issues, he writes.
Compared to their policies in the 1990s, they have “mellowed on the issue of girls’ education, the media, and health services for women.” The Taliban are no longer opposed to girls getting an education but object to co-educational schools.

The author says that the Taliban have distanced themselves from the al-Qaeda and look upon themselves as “Afghan nationalists not global jihadists.” They were “circumspect” in their response to bin Laden’s death, he points out, “refusing to eulogize him or call for revenge attacks.”

Indian and American decision makers have been wary of ongoing attempts at reconciliation with Taliban leaders. They are of the view that the Taliban is not serious about talks. India in particular is concerned over the close ties between the Taliban and the Pakistan government.

Rashid’s account should assuage at least some of these concerns. “The Taliban are exhausted by the long war. They have suffered terrible casualties, and they want to return home from the refugee camps in Pakistan. Moreover, they want to break free from Pakistan and the control exercised by the ISI, which they now intensely dislike,” he writes.

Rashid points out that talking to the Taliban is not a “new idea.” The first peace offer from the Taliban came in 2002 soon after its defeat. Senior leaders wrote to Karzai expressing willingness to surrender if they were given immunity from arrest. That offer and several others that followed were “squashed, either by infighting within the Taliban or by the ISI,” he writes.

Indian decision makers would benefit immensely in drawing on Rashid’s nuanced perception of the Taliban. Of course, much of the above observations of the evolving Taliban relates to the Afghan Taliban, not the Pakistan Taliban.

In the concluding chapter, Rashid points to an alarming scenario. In the past Pakistan’s policies resulted in it losing the endgame in 1989, when the Soviets left, and in 1992, when the Communist regime in Kabul collapsed. “This time,” he warns, “the end result will be even more dangerous.” Pakistan is staring at a civil war, even a split within the military, endangering control over nuclear weapons. “Pakistan poses a much more dangerous situation than even Afghanistan,” Rashid concludes.

(Published 22 September 2012, 13:06 IST)

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