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BOOK REVIEW: The Pakistan Cauldron — Conspiracy, Assassination, & Intrigue

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Author: James P Farwell
Foreword by: Joseph D. Duffy
Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 23, 2012 under the title: Sound-'Bites'

The shifting sands of local politics, the riotous nature of its circus acts and the principal players responsible for their upkeep make for an interesting case study. As an expert in strategic communication, James P Farwell has spent a decade advising the US Department of Defence (DoD), the US Special Operations Command and US Strategic Command on the Middle East, Africa and Pakistan. His candid new book traces the muddled contours of a Pakistani-style political arena showcasing a disgraced nuclear scientist, a deceased prime minister and a disgruntled dictator and the far-reaching impact of their sound-bytes.

An astute observer, Farwell attempts to cut through the constant haze of confusion that hangs over Pakistan. He admits that General Musharraf, an easy target for criticism “needs to be judged in the context of Pakistan’s Byzantine political environment” and then proceeds to dissect strategic misfires that eroded his credibility. Benazir, he opines, “owed her supporters a duty not to place herself at unnecessary risk.” Musharraf, in James’s view, “planned to best her politically, not see her killed.” Many of his arguments hold merit. He also offers a comparative analysis of both Musharraf’s floundering, and Benazir’s on-message strategic communication with a separate assessment of their individual blunders/successes. More often than not, Musharraf’s nemesis gets a rousing response. Benazir and her husband for all their missteps are seen through a slightly idealised lens. The shady aspect of their reign somehow ends up being buried under all the clutter left by conniving generals, an ambivalent media, devious unknown hands and smarmy politicians.

Farwell presents a balanced overview of local politics that at times ends up trespassing into fantasyland. The observation that because Ms Bhutto’s spouse got along with military and intelligence establishments (a ‘genuine achievement’ in Farwell’s eyes) and maintains a friendly posture with Washington, envelopes the ‘accidental President’ in a saintly glow. To conclude that the President’s refusal to attend slain governor Salmaan Taseer’s funeral was a strategic move to prevent the unfortunate Christian woman’s extra-judicial murder (Taseer died crusading for Asia Bibi and against the blasphemy law) sounds ludicrous.

There is a moving epitaph for Benazir’s enervating reign and an entire section devoted to playing detective in a murder most foul. Putting Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father and a model of integrity, and Benazir with her tarnished reputation in the same category of outstanding leaders might provoke strong reactions in many quarters. The inclusion of spicy tit-bits like the one where Gul and ISI planned to take out Benazir (mob style) with funding ‘allegedly’ by bin-Laden add little value to this cache of mostly well conceived arguments.

Observations that Musharraf tolerated the practice of Hamid Gul’s blatant promotion of the Taliban agenda also seem unfair given that curbing a burgeoning media was not the easiest thing to do then and now. At one point, the author states that “Pakistanis own interests come first, and their strategic communication reflects that reality.” All nations will readily plead guilty to such a charge. At another, he observes that “Pakistan felt no scruples about saying or doing whatever it took to develop its own nuclear weapon programme.” Those engaged in clandestine development of nuclear arsenals are not overtly fond of scruples. Nevertheless, A Q Khan gets branded as an “excellent spy and thief”, Musharraf, “a liar and a duplicitous dealer”, and Benazir turns out to be more than a bystander engaged in questionable activity; together all three are happily in cahoots in illegal nuclear arms deals.

But Pakistan is not the sole beneficiary of the author’s scathing pen; its ally’s strategic communication also comes under scrutiny, particularly in the post bin-Laden scenario. Though the introduction praises the carefully researched documented sources, readers must be prepared for a fair amount of inaccuracies. The author gets dates, ethnicities, ranks and in some cases, names wrong; Nawaz Sharif is not a Sindhi politician; President Ghulam Ishaq not a General. Kayani, on the other hand was a General in 2011 and not a Lt-General; India would be surprised to hear that it was defeated in the 1971 war; a three-star General (Lt-General) has headed ISI since the 1980s. And the observation that Pakistani jets’ intervention during Operation Neptune Spear (Osama’s liquidation raid) was unlikely because “Pakistani F-16s generally do not fly at night” will be met by derisive laughter.

This book scours the graveyard of history to underscore the importance of strategic communication. In the current environment of hostility and paranoia, it clues the West into the local mindset and the shadowy forces that often drive its messaging. An exercise that immerses readers in the backstage manoeuvrings of a high stakes game is bound to leave a bitter after-taste.

The grave factual and analytical errors rife in the manuscript are a cause for concern and a source of worry. But despite the tough pronouncements and a sudden onset of erroneous logic, these models of missed opportunities and colossal errors of judgement carry important lessons for future generations of leaders.

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