Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: The Al Qaeda Connection / Author: Imtiaz Gul

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Thanks to Imtiaz Gul for Reposting the Review on his Webpage

Published in Daily Times /March 13, 2010

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

An updated/revised version of this book that includes data from March 2009-2010 will be available from June 2010 under the new title of "The Most Dangerous Place - Pakistan's lawless frontier."

Today, the landscape has been transformed into a hunting ground as the showdown between the military and militants gets underway and retaliatory strikes against the public intensify. While attempting to curb insurgency within its borders, Pakistan’s security forces have been accused of stage-managing militant outfits that once served as counterweights against traditional enemies. Never disarmed, and left unguided, these heat-seeking entities latched on to a new target.

Ever since the region tested positive for militancy post-9/11, there has been a lack of consensus regarding, well, just about everything. Many continue to seek alternative explanations to justify the raging insurgency. The ISI is considered guilty by association, because the writer believes the stigma of abetting terrorist groups is deep and would require more effort to remove, but foreign hands, rogue agencies, duplicitous governments and a global conspiracy to defang the nation of its nuclear assets are equally popular theories.

Imtiaz Gul has authored The Unholy Nexus: Afghan Pakistan Relations under the Taliban Militia (July 2002). As a journalist who spent years analysing these troubled regions, Imtiaz Gul is uniquely qualified to analyse militancy from a number of directions, juxtaposing an open declaration of war through violence that bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda with the faint murmurings of unrest seen in sporadic instances of sectarian violence, led by homegrown militant outfits.

These groups go as far back as the anti-Soviet jihad, only to evolve into lethal sectarian entities with a little prodding by some Muslim countries. This book attempts to put the ongoing insurgency in perspective, taking on standard W's — what, who, where, why and when. It is a chilling look back at a state silently engaged in breeding the likes of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), etc., organisations already involved in 350 counts of terrorism by the year 2001, and a look forward at a Pakistan in the throes of a full-fledged militancy.

Before laying the entire blame at the military’s doorstep, readers come across an interesting revelation where the civilian government of Bhutto (mid-1970s) decided to recruit dissident Afghans to use against a Kabul that was favouring the ‘godless’ Soviet Union (page 18). Imtiaz Gul marks this as the turning point that led Pakistan’s “semi-autonomous tribal areas to become a spring board and training ground for Afghan dissidents.

He goes on to explain why ‘al Qaeda central’ — Pakistan’s tribal areas — earned the unfortunate name and returns to the scarred landscape to determine that “the current turmoil stems from decades of neglect, political expediency and connivance and complacence of successive Pakistani governments.” He also confronts the ugly face of sectarian violence that had turned sub-districts of Jhang and Faisalabad into battlegrounds with “sniper and terrorist attacks” in the 1990s and examines the presence of banned organisations once active in Kashmir, in the tribal areas.

He follows the dissolution of Swat (local Switzerland) into a milder version of Auschwitz, as Taliban rule gained traction, examines the factors that led North and South Waziristan and Bajaur to become havens the second time around since they had served as staging posts once before, while commenting on regions that slowly became no-go areas for their own kind, e.g. Orakzai’s former governor, ANP members, etc.

In a chapter titled ‘Tribal Lands: Cauldrons of Militancy’, he explores the metamorphosis of al Qaeda from an organisation to an ideology that transcends borders. About FATA he opines that history, ideology, conservatism and socio-political alliances all combined to transform the border regions into sanctuaries. There is a tragic irony in the fact that regions deemed inhospitable for their own countrymen have been more than hospitable to visiting enemies of the state.

This remarkably well-researched account comes with a detailed who’s who of militants in FATA, profiles of militant organisations, alongside a revealing look at life in Taliban strongholds like Khyber, Orakzai, Bajaur (birthplace of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) — forerunner to the Pakistani Taliban). In the ‘ISI factor’, interviews with locals and a survey conducted for Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) demonstrate how Muslim separatists from across the border were openly trained in FATA and ‘Pakistani-administrated Kashmir’ as recently as March 15, 2004. Such findings bolster international suspicions. According to the writer, locals are equally baffled by ISI’s inability to rein in its progeny and allowing them to gain ground.

A chapter devoted to militant funding tries to trace possible sources of income and reveals the indirect support by donor money routed through the Pakistan government that ends up with militants as ransom money or to fund agreements aimed at peaceful coexistence.

The book also covers the phenomena of suicide bombings — the militants’ favourite MO, showing how they troll orphanages, mosques, seminaries, asylums and streets looking for recruits, especially in areas “devoid of basic facilities, poor education infrastructure, dismal employment opportunities” making “the tribal areas [an] ideal hunting ground of Islamic militants for young warriors.”

An unfettered access to facts and figures enables readers to not only deconstruct the last four decades but also confront the ghosts of a rarely acknowledged past. His research is highly relevant — and disturbing — given the staggering cost of this war and the misguided policies that have allowed militants to become so well entrenched. Anyone who tells Pakistan to “do more” should be presented with a copy of The Al Qaeda Connection, if only to appreciate the enormity of the challenge and the complexity of the situation.

Images Courtesy of:


Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

FILM REVIEW: West Bank Story a live-action short film (2007)

Published in The POST May 17, 2007

Directed by:Ari Sandel
Written by: Kim Ray and Ari Sandel
Duration: 21 Minutes
(An official selection of the 2005 Sundance Film Festival)

The Middle East is better known for staging violent uprisings, certainly not for inspiring comedic masterpieces.

Since 1967, the West bank has spawned a surge in Arab hostility, frequent visits to the Middle East by Condoleezza Rice and lately, a small little inspirational musical comedy about competing falafel stands, directed, co-written and produced by Ari Sandel (part Israeli, part American Californian native). Since there is no easy way to represent both sides fairly, the very notion of West Bank Story is greeted with a justifiable mix of scepticism, wariness and resentment at first. No doubt, it is a precarious balancing act that mandates such a film to be witty without being offensive, show compassion without discrimination and entertain without losing substance. So does West Bank Story deliver?

West Bank Story

BOOK REVIEW: The Last Sunset — The Rise & Fall of the Lahore Durbar Author: Amarinder Singh

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times under the heading: Lahore Durbar in free fall

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

After the Mughals exited, but before the British arrived, the Lahore Durbar was presided over by Maharaja Ranjit Singh Bahadur, affectionately known as the ‘Lion of Lahore’, who makes a brief appearance in Amarinder Singh’s narrative, but leaves a lasting impression on his history.

Ranjit Singh, who has been described in the book as a great man and an outstanding military commander, was a mass of contradictions. For instance, he was against the death penalty but not averse to robbing widows, believed treaties were meant to be broken but treated the vanquished with kindness, and thought nothing of inviting guests only to divest them of their most prized possession — like the Kohinoor diamond. He may have spent the better part of the day leading military campaigns, yet he did not always harbour territorial designs and is said to have waged a war on hi…

BOOK REVIEW: How It Happened

Published in Daily Times / Sat 9 Feb 2013

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Shazaf Fatima Haider

Thanks to Liberty Books for the (temp) review copy

Gwendolen: I am engaged to Mr. Worthing, mamma.

Lady Bracknell: Pardon me, you are not engaged to anyone. When you do become engaged to someone, I, or your father, should his health permit him, will inform you of the fact. An engagement should come on a young girl as a surprise, pleasant or unpleasant, as the case may be. It is hardly a matter that she could be allowed to arrange for herself . . .”
The Importance of being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

Characters chasing ‘happily ever after’s’ are often pulled aside by enterprising elders who try to flag all but the most traditional road to the altar. A fiendishly funny narrative pounces on the retreating figure of Cupid and explores his cultural relevance in the sport they call match-making.

The saga of the Bandian clan comes with a perpetually scandalized, formidable old lady fiercely protective…

OP-ED: Fashion Week – More Than A Pretty Footnote

First Published in Economic Affairs June 2013 Issue

‘Artists are the gatekeeper of truth. We are civilizations radical voice’. Paul Robeson

There was a conference on counter-terrorism underway in Hyderabad as fashion week was winding down in Lahore. One of the presenters, a Dutch with a Phd and a thesis on the effects of fear on social behavior had indicated resilience as part of the counter-terrorism strategy. ‘We had a fashion show, does that count?’ I later asked Dr. Mark Dechesne who was in town recently. If he was startled, he did not show it.

Two things have been trending on twitter since April 2013. Fashion week finds itself in the same time slot as politics and as politicians perfect their strut on the political ramp, the fashionistas have taken to the red carpet and designer-wear floods the catwalk. Though fear overshadows both events, people refuse to let the claustrophobic environment dictate their social calendar.

The famed fashion week which started from Karachi and co…

OP-ED: Stargazing at the Awards

Published in Daily Times / 11 Apr 2014

So which one of them is Pakistani?
Some of us were having a hard time putting a name to the music.
All of them,’ said the person sitting next to us, a little reproachfully.
The musical performances? oh that, none of them, he said cheerfully.
He did not seem shocked.

We had gathered that day to witness the 2nd Servis HUM Awards, celebrate the showbiz industry with its requisite fashion parades and indulge in some star gazing at the EXPO Centre, Karachi.

The show had been designed to honour the best of Pakistani music, fashion, film, and of course television. Guests glided across the hall in awe of the décor (flawless) and set pieces (stunning) while keeping an eagle eye on the red carpet for a Fawad Khan or Hamza Ali Abbasi sighting (rare).

Timely adverts running on OSN ensured that a regional audience awaited the telecast with bated breath along-side the rest of HUM fans. The ceremony was not LIVE but Twitter would be abuzz with activity e…

STYLE: A ‘Haute’ Ticket Item

Published in Daily Times Pakistan (Entertainment Section) / 26 Oct 2013

Your talent will get you far, but your passion will get you further” – Tabassaum

Bath island - turns out, not really an island; it is a place where one can find, among other things Tabassum Mughal’s outlet and her shiny new salon. Her signature piece was featured in Bridal Couture 2013 (BCW) earlier this year. Her collection was later seen on London’s runway. And a bewitched crowd now circles her new line for Eid, drawn by a certainty that behind the closed doors lay the proverbial ‘one’.

They are not wrong. As she unveils a new vision of silk & satin to the world, there will be a constant embedded in that impeccable fashion statement. She has achieved a wonderful hybrid harvested from the rich heritage and decadent flavors that define our poorly misunderstood region.

The person in-charge of these creative coups can be seen flitting in and out of the situation room – otherwise known as the exhibit…