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BOOK REVIEW: The Scorpion’s Tail — The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens the World

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times /January 15, 2011
Reviewed By Afrah Jamal
Author: Zahid Hussain

The realisation that something had gone terribly wrong dawned on Zahid Hussain in the summer of 2007. To him, the siege of the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad demonstrated how much Pakistan had been knocked out of alignment since pledging allegiance to the US’s new war. The ensuing showdown, which he terms as the “deadliest battle with militants since President Musharraf joined the US led fight”, raised a giant red flag impossible to miss. Extremism had come knocking on the capital’s door. He ended up making the noxious fumes sweeping across the land (and its carriers) the subject of his next book.

The Scorpion’s Tail — The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan and How it Threatens the World confines itself to the insurgency part of the equation. It sifts through mounds of data in an attempt to pinpoint the core weaknesses of counter-terrorism policies devised to root out terror that have only ended up sowing fresh seeds of discontent. As it retraces the footsteps of a nation in denial to one in turmoil, readers are made to analyse the past nine years frame by frame and identify the numerous errors of judgement that have weakened the state’s writ, leaving the region exposed to a toxic ideology.

Award winning journalist and correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and Newsweek, Zahid Hussain uses his extensive knowledge of the region to run through a checklist of things Pakistan needs to do if it wants to come out with its sovereignty intact. Since some of these tactics (peace deals, etc), used to counter the extremist threat, have failed on a spectacular scale, he readily picks them out of a line up.

The idea of a countryside dotted with training camp facilities might appear incredible from afar till one factors in the terror summits being held out in the open by 2004, the fall of Swat and the steady rise in terrorism. It started when scattered remnants of past mistakes came together to form a cohesive network that threatens to turn ordinary people into monsters overnight. He shows how Pakistan was allowed to become a haven for a motley crew of vagabonds whose old job descriptions might have bewildered some since they included a former chair-lift operator from Swat, a housepainter from the US, a graduate student from Quaid-i-Azam University, and the Faisal Shahzads (failed NYC bomber) of the world.

The writer inserts a history lesson to explain how an alien ideology that runs counter to the foundations of this state has managed to secure a foothold. He divides the blame evenly between the US leadership and Pakistani top brass for missing the signs that the militants were evolving into a “tightly woven constellation”. “The key flaw,” he argues, is that the strategy in the fight against insurgency has failed to account for the groups’ ability to regenerate. Insurgencies after all are built to withstand conventional military might.

He recaps the events of the past couple of years, focusing on the advent of terror in this region, the reach of extremist forces and the limitations of the security services, marking off shocking instances where regional bureaucrats played host to the most wanted. Also included are the underlying causes that spur a local insurgency and what happens when the imported remedies fail to cure local problems. He returns to the Red Mosque as the moment that led to the “loosely affiliated Pakistani Taliban groups into forming an official alliance” and President Musharraf’s catch-22 where neither appeasement nor action appeared to work.

Most people are familiar with the Taliban’s loathsome practices but they might be surprised to learn how militants managed to sway some women, convincing them to take girls out of schools. As common people complained of being pursued by predators in the sky, Zahid uncovers the story of the predators on the ground, recounting horrific stories of child suicide bombers snatched from madrassas. Those who continue to cast extremists as patsies or unwitting pawns can take another look at the Taliban or al Qaeda mission statement, watch a sample from their reign of terror and the fearful toll it has exacted.

Dousing flames of intolerance with firepower alone may not always be wise and the author concludes that “political settlement is the only endgame”. Since its publication, another chapter has been added where an outbreak of religious intolerance threatens to devour the minorities and moderates alike. Zahid Hussain presents an updated map, highlighting political quagmires and religious minefields, that illustrates how waging a successful ‘hearts and minds’ campaign calls for fighting on multiple fronts.

Published under the title: Resident Evil

Free Press; Pp 244; Rs 1,195


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