Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: "Frontline Pakistan" by Zahid Hussain


Zahid Hussain is a veteran Pakistani journalist. He is the Pakistani correspondent for The Times (London), The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek. His book "Frontline Pakistan - The struggle with militant Islam" was published in 2007; and covers events up to 2006. It does not mention the end of Pervez Musharraf's rule and the restoration of democracy in Pakistan, nor does it mention the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It goes without saying that the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai had not taken place at the time this book was published.


You must be wondering why this book review is preceded by this Prologue! Well, because although Frontline Pakistan does not relate directly to 26/11, it gives the reader an astonishingly detailed insight into the history of militancy in Pakistan, the unwillingness of authority to keep it in check; and thereby goes a long way in explaining the current response of Pakistan to the 26/11 attacks.


In its 11 chapters, Frontline Pakistan takes the reader through various turning points in the history of the region, including (not in any particular order)


  • 1947 and Partition

  • The political history and turmoil that Pakistan went through in its early years

  • General Ayub Khan and his decade-long rule

  • Pakistan's 3 wars with India (1948, 1965 and 1971 - the last one resulting in formation of Bangladesh)

  • Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's rule followed by the bloodless coup by Zia-ul-Haq

  • The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan followed by a long Jihad against the Soviets

  • The withdrawal of Soviets from Afghanistan; followed by rise of religious extremism in Pakistan

  • The Kashmir deadlock

  • Pakistan's nuclear program

  • 9/11; followed by Pakistan's alliance in the US War on terror.



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After reading the book, I have come up with my conclusions on the prime reasons for the instability in the region. These are the opinions that I have formulated and are not necessarily stated per se in the book.


Prime Reason #1: The US-Russia cold war


When the Soviets arrived in Afghanistan in the fag end of 1970's, the CIA jumped in to "help" Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. Of course, the help extended probably had more to do with USA's eagerness to show its one-upmanship in the cold war rather than any genuine concern for Afghanistan. Help it did, but the means were questionable to say the least. USA lifted some of the sanctions which had been imposed on Pakistan when the latter had started its nuclear program in the 70's. CIA teamed up with Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI to help counter the Soviet occupation by Afghanistan. ISI, in turn, whipped up strong religious sentiments amid calls for Jihad. Weaponry was provided in abundance, tribals in the lawless region along Pak's border with Afghanistan were trained and given arms, and thus there were a huge number of volunteers to fight for Afghanistan against the Russians.


This generosity in supplying arms to religious fanatics backfired badly on USA. With the exit of Soviets from Afghanistan came the Taliban rule. For one, the Taliban was right-wing to the extreme. Secondly, the thousands of youth who had answered the call for Jihad had now become trained in arms and ammunition, even in explosives and such. The Taliban sheltered, even sowed the seeds of, terrorist groups in Afghanistan (al-Qaeda for example). The stage had been set for religious fanaticism which had nothing to do with the religion it was supposedly glorifying. This was the beginning of the perversion of the term "Jihad".


Prime Reason #2: Extremist ideology originated from, and financed by, the Arab world


A large number of mujahids who fought in the Afghan war were from the Arab world. Also, petro-dollars had made some elements in the Arab world extremely rich. The fact that some of these "extremely rich elements" also happened to be conservative extremists did not help the cause of stability in the region.


Even after the defeat of Soviets in the Afghan war, the right-wing religious ideology was kept alive by scores of Arab-funded madrasas all over Pakistan. This extremist ideology kept the Jihad flame burning for decades to come. The madrasas became breeding grounds for future mujahids.


Prime Reason #3: Kashmir


After the partition in 1947, the Maharaja of Kashmir requested Indian assistance to ward off attack by armed tribesmen from Pak's NFWP (North-West Frontier Province). A year-long war later, UN had intervened and both India and Pakistan had agreed to hold a referendum in the state of Kashmir. Pakistan's official contention is that this referendum was never held and thus Pakistan disputes India's claim to Kashmir. Two decades later, in 1972, the Shimla agreement was signed which created a Line of Control in Kashmir - thus was born Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK - which is referred to as "Azad Kashmir" in Pakistan).


This still did not seem to satisfy Pakistan - nor the extremists. There were allegations of ill-treatment of Muslims in Kashmir by Indians. In late 1980's and early 1990's, terrorism reared its ugly head in the "paradise on earth" Kashmir valley. Fodder was easily available in form of war-hardened fighters returning from Afghanistan.


The key factor in the Kashmir issue was that the Pakistani administrations (whether during military rule or democratic rule) were openly supportive of the "cause" of Kashmir. This only spelled doom for any effort at peace in the region.


Prime Reason #4: Authoritarian/Administrative failure to contain terrorist acitvities on Pakistani soil (often deliberate)


The rulers in Pakistan have time and again turned a blind eye to the rise of militancy within the country in all its forms - home-grown in the madrasas, armed activities in the lawless tribal belt, or imported militancy in the form of al-Qaeda and others. The reasons have varied.


  • Ideological - The Paksitani army and ISI have always had several extremist-oriented members among their ranks.

  • Political - Zahid Hussain points out that Musharraf could have contained terrorism in Pak by casting a net on the activities of various terrorist groups. However, most of Musharraf's actions in the war on terror have been half-hearted - under international pressure. The real agenda was survival. Musharraf feared backlash from within the army and from the Pakistan's citizens had he gone ahead dismantling the terror network. That is the reason that although several top al-Qaeda "leaders" had been captured and handed over to US during Musharraf's rule, he had stopped short of completely wiping out these terrorist groups. In essence, Musharraf failed the world in favor of his self-interest. This, notwithstanding the fact that he had risked his life by supporting the US war on terror (several assassination attempts on him stand testament to this).



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Frontline Pakistan is a must-read for anyone intending to understand the complex dynamics of the volatility in the SE Asia region; and the so-called "Islamic Terrorism". The author has conducted interviews with several prominent personalities - right from Pervez Musharraf, to several radical leaders (even leaders of groups which were later designated as terrorist groups). This lends the all-important element of credibility to the book.


I must warn the reader that even though the book looks "small" (at 190 pages), it can turn out to be a fairly demanding read - since it takes lot of concentration to grasp the enormity of some of the statements/events which Zahid describes.


The book does refer to religious extremism and Islamic militancy every so often - however, I am disappointed that there is absolutely no attempt to show the reader the moderate or liberal faces of Islam or those of Pakistan. Agreed that this is not at all the objective of the book (after all, the caption says "The struggle with militant Islam"). But, to an uninitiated reader, it might give the wrong impression of the religion as a whole. The book would have been more balanced, had the author described or even referred to in passing mention, the role of moderate or liberal Pakistanis in the fight against terror.


It is for this single lapse that I deduct one star; I rate Frontline Pakistan at 4 stars out of 5 - and of course, designate it as a must-read.


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The Prime Reason #4 which I have detailed above, explains Pakistan's refusal (or rather, inability) to meet India's demands of eradication of terrorism from Pakistani soil post-26/11. While Musharraf and the military Government had considerable sway over the extremist religious parties, the same cannot be said of the present Government. Any attempt by the current Gilani Government in Pakistan to dig deeper into 26/11 and bring the perpetrators to book, will only meet with vociferous, internal opposition. We can continue to hand over dossiers and Pakistan will continue to deny the involvement of any Pakistani national, in spite of Pakistan being well aware of the attacks having been orchestrated from Pakistani soil by Pakistanis.


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