Takes great pains to posit that the present-day Afghan Taliban leaders have ‘matured’ and have nothing to do with global jihadism. Interestingly, he was one of the few writers to describe, in his first book, the Afghan Taliban allowing Osama bin Laden and Pakistani Harkat-ul-Ansar to run the terrorist training camps on the Afghan soil
Just as the transition of military responsibility, including handing over of the special operations that incorporate the controversial night raids, from the United States and allied forces to the Afghan security forces is being accelerated, a new book dealing with the Pak-Afghan region and US policy therein, hit the stands last month.
Ahmed Rashid calls the work, Pakistan on the Brink: the future of America, Pakistan and Afghanistan, published by the Viking division of the Penguin Group, as third in his trilogy on ‘the wars in Afghanistan, and on political developments in Pakistan and Central Asia, framed by the US administrations that have tried to tackle these issues’. While the predominant focus of Rashid’s first, and arguably the best, book was the Taliban movement and its rule over the turn-of-the-20th century Afghanistan, the present work, as its title suggests, purports to take a more holistic view of that region. Rashid states at the outset that this volume ‘resembles a book of essays, each dealing with a different aspect of the same problem, discussing the processes that have led to the present impasse’. It is a fairly true marketing statement. The book is divided into nine chapters, with four addressing Pakistan, three focusing on Afghanistan and the first and last ones tackling the US and broader policy implications.
The ninth and final chapter of the book opens with this superb quote from Prof. Stephen M. Walt’s Foreign Policy magazine post, Lessons of two wars: we will lose in Iraq and Afghanistan:
“One of the things that gets in the way of conducting good national security policy is a reluctance to call things by their right names and state plainly what is really happening. If you keep describing difficult situations in misleading or inaccurate ways, plenty of people will draw the wrong conclusions about them and will continue to support policies that don't make a lot of sense.”
One expects that in a book that claims to be a policy recommendation of sorts, this fine advice would have been adhered to but that does not appear to be the case.
Ahmed Rashid had made his mark by describing the Afghan Taliban to the world. He tends to continue seeing — and defining — things from that perspective. On multiple occasions he mentions the Punjabi Taliban and India-oriented jihadist groups based in Punjab but appears to convey that somehow these groups have either been an auxiliary to the Pashtun Taliban, a late convert to the cause or not the real deal. He does emphasize that the Lashkar-e-Taiba and its ties with al-Qaeda are an imminent threat but states that the Punjabi jihadists are merely joining the “Pashtun tribesmen who had formed the original core of the Pakistani Taliban”. He also goes on to suggest that somehow the interaction between the Punjabi jihadists and the Pashtun/Afghan Taliban might be a new phenomenon, especially the former’s use of training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Rashid takes great pains to posit that the present-day Afghan Taliban leaders have ‘matured’ and have practically nothing to do with global jihadism, especially against India (something he has emphasized in his talks as part of his book tour).
Interestingly, Ahmed Rashid was one of the few writers to describe, in his first book, the Afghan Taliban allowing Osama bin Laden and Pakistani Harkat-ul-Ansar to run the terrorist training camps al-Badr, and Waleed and Muawiyah, respectively, on the Afghan soil. He posits that the present Afghan Taliban leaders by and large disown al-Qaeda and also wish to get out from the ISI’s embrace. While there is some truth to some disgruntlement within the Afghan Taliban against both the AQ and ISI, the author does not critically examine the possibility of the Taliban leaders adopting a neutral posture towards global jihad as part of the strategy similar to their ISI handlers who had dumped several al-Qaeda bigwigs post-9/11 but clung on firmly to the Afghan and assorted Pakistani Taliban, and quite likely OBL too.
The flaw in Ahmed Rashid’s narrative to identify the Punjab-based jihadism as the driver of global terror — antedating Taliban and al-Qaeda— perhaps has roots in his subpar analysis of the lopsided civil-military relations in Pakistan. Almost every time he mentions the civil-military imbalance in favour of the Pakistani security establishment, he blames the civilian leadership to have brought this upon themselves and Pakistan. Rashid laments, with some justification, that the civilian leadership has not provided an alternative to that of the Army-peddled India-centric national security state paradigm. He notes,
“The military consumes between 25 and 30 percent of the budget. It is able to secure those state resources because the political elite is supine and corrupt, parliament does not insist on accountability, and the army retains control of foreign policy, national security, and the nuclear arsenal. No enlightened military leaders have arisen to change this status quo”.
But what really takes the cake is the comment that follows: “An institution (Army) that had once been a byword for accountability now seemed to lack it altogether". Now that is something that can easily make Anatol Lieven blush!
It is tragic that despite his quest for the civilian counter-narrative, the single most important Pakistani civilian voice against jihadist terrorism i.e. Benazir Bhutto and her assassination, find less than a two-page mention and a couple of footnotes in Rashid’s account. Rashid is remiss to the extent of almost obfuscating the mortal dangers faced by Pakistan’s secular politicians while those like Imran Khan (whom he describes as ‘right-wing’) and assorted jihadists crisscross the country holding rallies. He has dedicated a chapter ‘Sliver of hope: Counterinsurgency in Swat’ to how and what the Army got right but does not mention how and why things in Swat became as messy and bloody in the first place. Ahmed Rashid is spot-on in highlighting that Swat’s geo-strategic importance with proximity to both Afghanistan and Kashmir, and out of the US drones’ ambit, made it an ideal choice for the jihadists to seek sanctuary there. But he overlooks the systematic empowerment of the Taliban elements in Swat by the Pakistani state apparatchiks. He makes no mention of the tremendous sacrifices of the Pashtun political leadership, especially from the Awami National Party, who were massacred while the Army practically allowed the Taliban and foreign jihadists like Tahir Yuldeshev and perhaps OBL, ease into Swat.
On the Afghan side of the conflict, Ahmed Rashid is similarly critical of the Karzai government to the extent that he sees the regular and timely elections there as an unnecessary distraction. His criticism of the bad governance is quite justified but he neither proposes a concrete alternative to the electoral model nor treats the root cause of insurgency i.e. the persistent Pakistani support for the Afghan Taliban in an exhaustive manner. Despite a constant subtext that practically names Pakistan as the engine for insurgency in Afghanistan, Rashid’s account is rather skimpy on any solutions to this interference. He correctly blames the US military to have virtually overlooked gaining intelligence on the Taliban, and their support system on the Pakistani side, until about 2006 but fails to propose anything substantial to stem such foreign interference.
Perhaps Ahmed Rashid’s harshest criticism was saved for Barack Obama. He candidly acknowledges that Obama, whom he had met and advised, turned out to be a ‘disappointment’. Observing that declaring a withdrawal date simultaneously with the troops surge was fraught with ‘risks and potential failure, he notes:
“The Obama formula for Afghanistan failed to do several things: encourage Pakistan to change its policy of harboring the Taliban, build up indigenous Afghan economy, start talks with the Taliban parallel to the military surge and persuade Karzai to improve governance and end corruption”.
The book, however, is terribly deficient on any serious policy prescription on how exactly to encourage Pakistan to change not only its policy of harbouring Afghan Taliban but what Ahmed Rashid calls the new al-Qaeda i.e. Lashkar-e-Taiba. Surely, the importance of draining the swamp cannot be lost on Ahmed Rashid — a former guerrilla himself. While he describes himself as an optimist, Rashid’s talk-to-Taliban mantra has an aura of rather melancholic resignation. He writes:
“The crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan are evidently going to be sacrificed at the alter of the US debt. In that case, the faster the US talks to the Taliban and works out a peaceful settlement that will allow the troops to depart in good order, the better it will be, both for the US and for the region”.
Similar thoughts are repeated in the book, including as quotes from Hamid Karzai. One wonders if war fatigue affects writers too or did Rashid fall victim to what Prof. Walt had warned about.
Ahmed Rashid had set the bar so high with his first book that he himself has had difficulty replicating that. Unfortunately, Pakistan on the Brink, like the Descent into Chaos and Jihad: the Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia before it, may end up disappointing the serious and casual reader both. For the seasoned Pak-Afghan watchers there is remarkably little, if any, new information presented in this book while for a lay person the material might come across as amorphous and disjointed — an inherent flaw perhaps difficult to avoid with the essay collection-type books. The reader is left with a distinct impression that Ahmed Rashid has repackaged some of his own assorted works of the past few years, including his support of talking to the Taliban. However, for someone keen to pursue the leads provided in the book it may serve as a good starting point.
(This review was first run by India Today. It has been posted here with author’s permission.)