Saturday, December 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Inside the Pakistan Army: A Woman’s Experience on the Frontline of the War on Terror

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, December 10, 2011

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Author: Carey Schofield

First Abbottabad, then Admiral Mullen, and now the BBC — whispered allegations against the Pakistan Army have picked up pace. Thus far it has been unable to build an effective counter against the barrage of accusations headed its way. Thus far it has watched its credibility plummet and the problems mount. That the military’s weakened standing can be attributed to a series of unfortunate events — some of their own creation, others beyond their control, have left their image tarnished. Even the fact that a Pakistani checkpost recently came under NATO fire and suffered heavy casualties did little to alter the negative perception.

Carey Schofield, the author of Inside the Soviet Army, who admits to having spent seven years studying the Pakistan Army, is off to vindicate her hosts. Since she does not practice the military’s customary caution, her findings add a bit of colour to their staid monochromatic narrative.

These days the Pakistan Army is not just subjected to embarrassing questions regarding foreign aid or their affinity for shiny hardware. While the fate of their precious tax dollars and Pakistan’s ability to safeguard its nuclear assets keeps the world up at night, in between these musings allies find time to question the Pakistan Army’s commitment to the war on terror. This gives the media pundits and policy makers plenty of reasons to endlessly stalk the military and poke holes in its testimony.

The writer has a backstage pass to the corridors of (military) power, which allows her to paint a compelling picture of the brave men (the women somehow did not make the cut) who have led the charge over the years. This pass takes her through the inner sanctums all the way to the frontline, but even such a high vantage point may not always permit a 360-degree view — a fact she readily acknowledges.

The story, from inception to the army’s constant evolving structure through the regional wars and occasional stand offs with its eastern neighbour and exploits in GWOT (Global War on Terror), however, is laid out in vivid detail. Groomed for combat, forced into leadership and now caught in the international crosshairs, the book clarifies the military’s core message that seldom makes it to the front. The source of its power for instance, which turns out to be “its institutional culture”, where individuals are “grouped together not by social background or religious fervour — but bound through service and regimental loyalty and friendships”. Such an arrangement is common to the armed forces. In theory, this should form a natural bulwark against any hate mongers out to exploit divisions.

When someone labels it as the “most effective organ of the state”, she eagerly embraces the sentiment and proceeds to demonstrate exactly how this fighting force of 550,000 strong came to be and why it occupies the top of the totem pole. As for the accusations that fly back and forth across the Durand Line, the book turns around to focus on the challenges of fighting an insurgency and the perils on the field, and leaves the simmering resentment between Pakistan and its allies well alone.

That this fractured relationship overshadows all progress has become increasingly evident. The book does not exonerate the army by seeking evidence to the contrary, offers no theories, but lets the charges of duplicity (spoken and unspoken) hang in the air and mildly argues that when CENTCOM blamed the CIA for the mess, the CIA turned on its ally and arranged deliberate leaks to the media ensuring that “Pakistan was at best ineffective and at worst actively assisting the enemy”.

Consequently, when operational information is leaked to the Taliban, the Pakistan Army points to the ISI but this line of inquiry is left un-pursued. Interestingly enough, she blames the ISI for allowing the impression of omnipotence to arise and the civilians under contract with this service for bringing the directorate into dispute. She goes on to argue that “whenever anyone had to deal with the Taliban, even on the fundamental foreign policy issues,” in the past, the “ISI was consulted so its ownership of the relationship was strengthened”. As for Osama’s hidey hole — the incompetence angle resonates more than the complicity story partly because of the sheer number of variables involved in sustaining such an elaborate cover-up. The book also offers portraits of key players like Musharraf, Faisal Alavi and ‘Colonel Imam’ (kidnapped and murdered earlier this year).

There are some important points in the army’s favour and Carey graciously brings them out: how 15 Frontier Corps (FC) rescued trapped American troops from Mogadishu, Somalia (1993), an event featured in the movie ‘Black Hawk Down’(2001) that neglected to mention the role of the Pakistan Army, how the ISI’s ‘intel’ helped apprehend the London bomb plotters, etc. Many of these revelations are timely; knowing that the million dollar bounty the Pakistan Army collected was spent setting up “a welfare fund for injured army personnel and their dependents” helps draw some fire away. She does see General Kayani, “who has no close friends and fewer enemies”, as a man who overstayed his welcome.

But just when the readers might actually begin to warm up to the army-walas, they are blindsided by the ugly twist. Major-General Faisal Alavi’s mysterious murder at the hands of ‘persons unknown’ prompts her to devote an entire chapter to his memory as a silent indictment of the shadowy presence found standing at the periphery.

Not dwelling on military misadventures of yore can be liberating. Of all the commentaries out there — and there are many — Inside the Pakistan Army is the most generous one yet. Given Pakistan’s embattled status, these sketches offer some basis for comparison when the next sensational story breaks.

Pentagon; Pp 352; Rs 1,395

Image: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51n09sk9tsL._SS500_.jpg

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