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BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan at Knife’s Edge

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in DAILY TIMES (15 MAY 2010) under the heading: Anatomy of a crisis

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Post-2001, Pakistan is braced for impact, trying to keep its strategic interests from getting tangled up with other agendas. Yet, the country is not a first-time entrant in the game of power. It came out of the Soviet-Afghan adventure with its wits intact, and went on a (mis)adventure in Afghanistan aiming to gain strategic depth immediately afterwards, with carefully cultivated ‘assets’ and quietly managed sideshows with the leftover jihadists in Kashmir, to the dismay of many.

Accepting the lead role of an impartial observer in the second round of regional power games has brought it some unwanted attention from extremist quarters and left it shaken to the core. Allies may be footing the bill for this performance but ordinary Pakistanis are paying the price. It has been an unseasonably busy few years, what with keeping terror at bay, restoring democracy, safeguarding the judiciary and preventing the trend of radicalisation from spreading.

The late Naqvi (1928-2009), a prominent journalist, is an astute observer, who provides a bird’s-eye view of a region feeling the deadly blowback of its policies — past and present — geared up for the ultimate fight for survival. Add to this an economy, which, he opines, has been made bankrupt by trying to keep up with the Indian Joneses.

Little surprise, then, that the nation is facing its most challenging set of problems in its 62-year history. The new regime has its hands full, but its present set of policies, towards India and Afghanistan at least, according to the writer, are unsustainable and a prescription for trouble. His view that the country is being run for the benefit of the top capitalists and the US reflect his feelings for the allies.

Naqvi championed human rights and founded the ‘Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy’ and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). He, like so many others, must have read the writing on the wall when he decided to fashion some new parameters for success from the outdated policies lying around.

This is a posthumous publication that follows the transformation of Pakistani civil society, the vegetative state of affairs, and picks up on the outside influences that seem to be shaping Pakistan’s foreign policy. Naqvi screens the past for signs of change, settling on the judicial crisis and Red Mosque debacle as turning points for one regime, and focusing on the subsequent spin-offs that have affected the course of another. While going back and forth between the two regimes, he casually notes that it is as if Musharraf is still running the show from his retirement retreat, for all the difference it has made.

Most of his concerns have been echoed in the mainstream media with growing urgency. He thinks that blindly following the American piper will end badly and takes stock of Western contingency plans should the unthinkable occur and extremism prevail. In his assessment, this worst-case scenario is preventable by allowing a working democracy to continue (no sudden overthrows) and “letting the rule of law prevail to facilitate economic, social reforms and using political reforms to resolve conflict situations”.

He explores options still open to a nation in freefall. His solution is to introduce some drag by asking for withdrawal from the American Asian adventure, but without working against allies or supporting the extremists. When Naqvi suggests a resolution of problems through democratic methods, not American dictates, he will no doubt find many takers in today’s charged environment.

Yet, where he ascertains the bitter cost of this strategic partnership, he is also not afraid to take a swipe at cowardly parties that decry drone attacks to gain political mileage, pointing out that those who favour this war should have the moral courage to accept the drone presence in Pakistan.

He scrutinises the new age phenomenon of the local Taliban with a practised eye, referring to the collateral damage as the Taliban’s collateral advantage. But even as he suggests a change in tactics, he is under no illusions about the Taliban’s agenda. He sweeps aside the religious undertones to reveal their true colours, pointing out that “the course of Pakistan is being subverted in the name of Islam, a favourite alias of different militant outfits fighting for their own narrow ambitions of power”.

That they must be destroyed is a given, but he has little confidence in any foolhardy approach that relies purely on military might where chances of making headway “by acting thoughtlessly like the US administration” lessen. Instead, he sees a war where civilian casualties trump militant deaths and militant recruitment increases due to resentment against Pak-US-led bombings. Shortsighted and suicidal are the words he uses for this strategy.

Pakistan at Knife’s Edge is an exploratory work that proposes alternate routes that are perhaps less likely to end in disaster. While it covers a lot of ground and makes good calls along the way, it also keeps circling back to the points already made earlier in the narrative, which can be very distracting. M B Naqvi’s parting shot aimed at the façade of democracy, however, will make up for any shortcomings.

Roli Books;
Pp 260;
Rs 650
Author: M B Naqvi

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