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Cry, the Beloved Country

The endlessly deepening crisis that is Pakistan.

Pakistan: A Hard Country
By Anatol Lieven
(PublicAffairs, 558 pp., $35)

Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad
By Bruce Riedel
(Brookings Institution Press, 180 pp., $24.95)

Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero
By Rohan Gunaratna and Khuram Iqbal
(University of Chicago Press, 320 pp., $29)

The Scorpion’s Tail: The Relentless Rise of Islamic Militants in Pakistan—And How It Threatens America
By Zahid Hussain
(Free Press, 244 pp., $25)

Recently I gave a lecture on Pakistan and Afghanistan to an audience of many hundreds in Chicago. There were some sixty or seventy Pakistani Americans among them. As I walked into the hall, something strange started to happen. A small delegation of young Pakistani men and women came up to me. They told me they were Ismailis, thanked me for my outspokenness about the rights of minorities in Pakistan, and expressed the hope that I would raise the issue during my lecture. Ismailis are a small Shia sect, led by the Agha Khan, who have been persecuted in northern Pakistan and Afghanistan by Sunni extremists and the Taliban. This group of Ismailis in my Chicago audience wanted me to know that they would be listening carefully, and they had expectations.

Then another delegation came up to the podium. These were Ahmadis, a sect proscribed as non-Muslim by the state constitution of Pakistan. Ahmadis have been killed, jailed, and beaten in large numbers in Pakistan, and most recently in Indonesia; many have fled to the United States and Canada. And then a third delegation arrived—Pakistani Christians—who said they had only recently been given political asylum in America. Several of them broke down when describing the recent murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, a Pakistani official who had tried to change the blasphemy law in Pakistan that targets Christians in particular. Bhatti was the only Christian in the federal cabinet.

This experience was repeated when I carried on to Toronto to lecture at a university there. Coming from Pakistan, I have lectured in America for over twenty years, but I have never before encountered in this way my fellow countrymen who are now American citizens. Persecuted minorities never want to make a spectacle of themselves, but clearly these people feel so helpless because nobody in Pakistan now dares to raise their voice on their behalf that they felt the need to introduce themselves. And this was the United States, where they enjoyed greater freedoms.

These religious minorities, along with the tiny population of Pakistani Hindus and the much larger Shia Muslim minority (between 15 to 20 percent of the population), and even mainstream Sunni sects and the shrines of their saints, have all been the targets of a wave of religious intolerance that is sweeping Pakistan. The armed wing of this growing intolerance that is wreaking havoc up and down the country is led by the Pakistani Taliban, who are based among the Pashtuns in the northwest, and their allies are extremist groups in Punjab province and the coastal city of Karachi who at one time fought in Indian Kashmir.

Many factors are helping to spread extremism and its resulting wave of intolerance: the continuing American-led war in Afghanistan and its fallout in Pakistan; a bankrupt economy; a disastrously corrupt and incompetent government; the near-collapse of the public educational system; the fifth largest nuclear arsenal in the world, which is massively expensive to run and to keep safe, and which dictates the country’s foreign policy. But the most important cause of contemporary Pakistani extremism is the simple fact that for the past three decades the state itself has sponsored many of these groups, so as to further its foreign policy aims in Afghanistan or Indian Kashmir. The Pakistani state’s patronage of these militant groups, which has continued even after September 11, 2001, has helped to sustain Islamic extremism in south and central Asia. Is it surprising, then, that none of Pakistan’s neighbors or the West really trusts it?

The military is now partially trying to reverse this trend, but the path ahead is not looking bright. In April, the White House bleakly reported to Congress that “there remains no clear path toward defeating the insurgency in Pakistan, despite the ... deployment of over 147,000 forces.” The report describes the situation as deteriorating rapidly along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, with no ability by the Pakistani army “to hold and build” in insurgency-hit areas. (A Pakistani government spokesman rejected the report, saying that it “should not be held accountable for the failings of coalition strategy in Afghanistan.”) Europe and the United States are particularly concerned about this situation because almost all the global terrorist plots uncovered recently have involved European citizens of Pakistani origin or in Taliban camps in Pakistan.

Apart from the Taliban insurgency, Pakistan faces another bloody separatist insurgency in the province of Baluchistan and the mayhem created by recent unexplained killings in Karachi. There were 260 targeted killings of people in the first three months of this year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. What Pakistan lacks, above all, is real leadership and a vision for the future, which the politicians have failed to provide.


Pakistan is not a failed state, or as yet a failing one, even though it may be in a state of chaos or meltdown. Unlike really failed states, it has a powerful army and a corrupt, run-down, but still functioning bureaucracy, judiciary, and police force. Pakistanis perform outstandingly well in the realm of culture: in the arts, television, fashion design, pop music, and of course cricket. What is missing are adequate social services, such as health care, education, population-control programs, and jobs for a population that is nearing 200 million people. Like many Arab countries, Pakistan faces a youth bulge, with an estimated 60 percent of its people under twenty-five years old.

For these young people without adequate education and employment, who have to deal with a corrupt system that offers no panacea to the poor, joining an Islamic extremist group is not at all unusual. It is the norm. For this reason, a replay of an “Arab awakening” in Pakistan would not lead to the dawn of true democracy, but rather to a mass movement whose leadership would swiftly fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, who would then try to overthrow the state.

What Pakistanis desperately need is a new narrative by their leaders—a narrative that does not blame the evergreen troika of India, the United States, and Israel for all of the country’s ills, that breaks the old habit of blaming outsiders and instead looks at itself more honestly and more transparently. Pakistanis as a nation seem incapable of self-analysis, of apportioning blame according to logic and reason rather than emotion.

Along with the causes that I listed above, the wave of intolerance sweeping the country is also due substantially to the conspiracy theories put about by the ruling establishment and their allies in the media. These various hallucinations paint Pakistan as the victim, maligned and wronged at the hands of foreign powers—especially the United States and India. In the imagination of many Pakistanis, the country is regularly used for some geopolitical aim by the Americans and then discarded in favor of India. These sinister outsiders want to subvert, destroy, and undermine Pakistan—but no logical reason is offered as to why. And few will publicly argue that in fact it is the selective state sponsorship of extremism that is destroying the country.

The narrative that has been peddled by the state for much of the past decade is that Pakistan is being undermined by the presence of American forces in Afghanistan, and that if they were to leave the Pakistani Taliban would go home, the suicide bombings would cease, and everything would go back to normal. The ultimate aim of the United States in Afghanistan—so the narrative continues—is to capture Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, even as India is busily dismembering Pakistan by funding Baloch separatists and the Pakistani Taliban. But if that is so, why on earth did the state allow the revival of the Afghan Taliban in 2003, which has only delayed the American withdrawal from Afghanistan? And for those demanding higher military budgets, the most self-serving conspiracy theory is that Pakistan is locked in an interminable conflict with India, which cannot be resolved.


The recent wave of intolerance toward minorities is a sign of the rapid deterioration of the very idea of Pakistan. Many Pakistanis have forgotten that when Mohammed Ali Jinnah founded Pakistan in 1947, it was not partitioned from India to become an Islamic state. It was conceived as a democratic state for Muslims and all minorities, who could live together and worship freely. The white stripe down the side of Pakistan’s green flag represents those minorities, the non-Muslims, who would be forever protected and treated as equal citizens by the majority-Muslim population. The flag itself illustrates their presence, and is a commitment to their survival.

The recent mayhem in the country has been the most disturbing since 1947, because it totally repudiates those founding principles. Since January, street agitation and public anger have escalated, as the Islamic parties and their extremist allies have seized upon several issues in a bid to redefine the state. The first has been the controversial and outdated law on blasphemy, which many in the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) wanted to reform. The law, enacted in the 1980s by the military regime of General Zia ul-Haq, allowed anyone to charge anyone else with blasphemy and led to automatic arrest by the police—but the actual proof of the alleged offense could never be given, because it was blasphemous. Over a thousand people are presently in jail on charges of blasphemy, many of them Christians.

The religious right seized even the hint of reform as a means by which to castigate the government as a tool of the West and to attack liberals at home as anti-Islamic forces. The watershed event came in January, with the murder by his own bodyguard of Salman Taseer, the PPP governor of Punjab, the country’s most populous province, and the massive public acclaim that the killer received. The government, the army, and the country’s liberal elite eerily said nothing. For the first time it seemed that some of the silent majority of Pakistanis—the ones who have never been extremist, never supported the Taliban, and never voted for the religious right—were shifting their stance. Then the murder of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Christian cabinet minister who also supported reform of the blasphemy law, made Christians and all minorities feel extremely vulnerable. Rather than take a stand, the government bent over backwards to appease the Islamists, saying that it had no intention of reviewing the law. Sherry Rehman, a leading PPP liberal politician, was forced by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to withdraw her amendment bill in parliament, as Gilani begged the mullahs to accept his assurances that the intolerant status quo would not be challenged.

At the same time, the Pakistani Taliban, who were hit hard by the military last year in the border regions, made a comeback, seizing territory in the northwest and escalating suicide attacks and bomb blasts across the country that targeted the government, the army, and civilians. The Islamic parties exploited the widespread anti-Americanism among the public as a result of the war in Afghanistan, the deaths of Pakistanis in American drone attacks, and the widespread anti-Western propaganda in the media.

Meanwhile the CIA has been embroiled in a long-running fight with its Pakistani partner, the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). They clashed over several issues, including CIA penetration of the ISI and the CIA’s monitoring extremist groups without informing the ISI—but ultimately the ISI was acting on its fear that the United States was trying to bypass Pakistan as it engaged the Afghan Taliban directly in talks. The crisis between the two agencies came to a head in the case of Raymond Davis, the alleged CIA hit man who killed two Pakistanis and whose arrest led to an anti-American maelstrom. The Americans claimed that Davis had diplomatic immunity and should be freed immediately, but Pakistan delayed defining his status and continued to hold him in jail in Lahore for 47 days. As events unfolded, it became clear that Davis was part of a covert CIA-led team collecting intelligence on militant groups inside the country. He was eventually freed after relatives of the deceased accepted “blood money”—more than $2 million—in return for pardoning him, which is legal under Pakistani Sharia law.


But the anti-American campaign by the Islamic right is only the tip of the problem. Even as the Islamists demonstrated for Davis to be hanged, posters appeared in all major cities demanding an Islamic state. Extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, which have been banned by the government, and placed under sanctions by the United Nations and some of the Western powers, came out into the open to lead some of the demonstrations. Nobody in the government seemed to be willing to stop them.

Pakistan is extremely dependent on American goodwill for its economic survival, and not only for the $3 billion worth of annual military and economic aid provided by Washington. But since January, the Zardari government has broken with an IMF stabilization program and its $11.3 billion loan to Pakistan, because it was not prepared to carry out economic and taxation reforms that it was asked to do. The economy has tanked, with GDP growth at around 2 percent and inflation running over 16 percent. There are parts of the country that go sixteen hours a day without electricity. All of this has helped to impede productivity and increase joblessness. The recent White House report described the economy as “the greatest threat to Pakistan’s stability over the medium term.” The fundamentalists have made the economic crisis an effective rallying cry, targeting the government and the elite for their widespread corruption. They are making it into an issue of rich versus poor, and the Islamic way versus dependence on the West. To their religious war they are now adding a class war.


Imagine a British colonial officer in the nineteenth century sitting alone every night in his bungalow in an obscure district of British India, filling in what came to be called the Gazetteers. More than diaries or journals, they are still, a century and a half later, the most complete description of the districts, the most authoritative compendium of local and regional knowledge. They contained such vital information as the make-up of tribes and villages, the history and character of the local gentry, the condition of the roads, the local flora and fauna (and which crops grew best), as well as gossip, jokes, and satire—the puns and the sarcasm of which the British were such masters.

At some stage in the writing of his mammoth book, Anatol Lieven must have imagined himself as just such a Raj officer, because his book may be described as the most informed Gazetteer on contemporary Pakistan. Instead of the too often repeated narrative of Pakistan’s history and ills, he offers a broader sweep into the condition of the provinces, the climate, the political parties and their personalities—and, in his best chapter, an important discussion of how today’s Taliban represent a continuation of similar uprisings a century ago. Important Pakistanis as well as the man on the street are given their fifteen minutes (or maybe only five) of fame.

But Lieven’s encyclopedic approach has an inherent weakness, which is that it lacks analysis based on the historical narrative. Its analysis is instead based on opinions—Lieven’s own heated opinions. They eventually tire the reader, who may start to wonder whether the author’s judgments—and there are hundreds of them—can be trusted. The book also reflects a certain arrogance: we are reminded, in almost every chapter, not once but many times over, that only Anatol Lieven gets Pakistan right, and all those other Pakistani and Western journalists, writers, anthropologists, and historians have always gotten it wrong.

Lieven loves Pakistan, and this is wonderful to behold at a time when few people have anything good to say about the country. More controversially, he also seems to love the military, which he regards as the only institution that is capable of saving the country. This, of course, is exactly how the Pakistani military sees itself. Lieven insistently blames the Americans for many of Pakistan’s ills, and in the strangest argument of his book he contends that the collapse of Pakistan may be caused not by its internal divisions but by an invasion by the United States. “Islamist extremism in Pakistan presents little danger of overthrowing the state,” he asserts, “unless U.S. pressure has already split and crippled that state.” Such a view wrongly minimizes the internal mess that the state itself has produced over the past three decades and more, and buttresses the arguments of the fundamentalists.

Lieven is right in his view that while the Pakistani state is weak and soft, Pakistani society is strong and robust. Kinship is central to the society’s strength—but it is also one reason that the state is so weak. If everyone works for his relatives or his clan rather than for the state, a nation cannot be built. Even the army, Lieven admits, has turned into a giant clan, as officers do favors for each other in and out of service. And Lieven’s most important contribution—Pakistanis rarely mention this—is to point out the long-term calamities that Pakistan faces, especially its lack of water, its huge population growth (for which there is no state policy), and the country’s failure to deal with natural disasters or to harness the enormous waters released by floods, as in 2010. “Of all the countries in the world that are acutely threatened by climate change, Pakistan will be one of the most important,” he writes.

Lieven asks the important questions and mostly he gets the answers right. Why have political parties in Pakistan never developed beyond patronage and dynastic groups? Why has Islam in Pakistan never modernized like it has in Turkey or Egypt? Why has the army never developed a national interest beyond its own power and privilege? But when it comes to his personal opinions, they can be highly misleading. Many Pakistanis would disagree with statements such as that former president Pervez Musharraf was “honest,” or that the democratic period in the 1990s was “a miserable episode,” or that the justice system “is an extension of politics by other means.” Lieven excuses the army for its long delay in recognizing the threat of the Pakistani Taliban “because they were not generally regarded as a serious threat.” All such statements are irresponsibly passed off as undeniable truths.

Thus Lieven believes that the military did not give the Afghan Taliban much support after 2001, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The only proof that Lieven offers is circumstantial: if the Afghan Taliban had been trained by the ISI, he suggests, it would have been better armed and better at killing Americans. But the fact is that the Pakistani military is a master of the strategy that has been best described by a former ISI chief as keeping the pot boiling but not overflowing: this was the policy pursued against the Soviets in Afghanistan, against the Indians in Kashmir, and lately in Afghanistan. Lieven is correct, though, in noting that the army’s aim of enlisting Islamic radicals to carry out foreign policy aims in Afghanistan and Kashmir was based not on a desire to foment Islamist revolution, but to further the army’s perceived national interests.

At the end of his book, Lieven deals usefully and comprehensively with the false narrative that is being fed to the Pakistani people about who is perpetrating acts of violence against Pakistan’s civilian population. He bitterly criticizes the lack of realism and responsibility even among the best-educated Pakistanis, who believe that India and the United States are responsible for everything. “The entire public discourse,” he says, “is so sodden with ludicrous conspiracy theories as often to be barely minimally rational. In part these conspiracy theories are the work of the army itself, which ... has been spreading the line about India’s role in an effort to discredit the Pakistani Taliban.”


For American readers, Bruce Riedel’s fine book is likely to remain the last word on U.S.-Pakistan relations for some time to come. Riedel, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, is a former CIA official and an Obama insider who drew up the first policy paper on Afghanistan for the White House in 2008-2009. He brings formidable knowledge, working experience, and inside information to his short but significant essay.

Many Americans will be surprised to learn that despite the tense relationship between the CIA and the ISI today, those ties go all the way back to 1958, when the CIA established a top-secret American air base outside of Peshawar and a listening post to monitor Soviet communications. Pakistan’s ISI and army have been frontline players for the United States in South Asia for over half a century—in an era when India was treated with extreme suspicion by the Americans because it was glued to the Soviet Union.

In return, the CIA has often turned a blind eye to the military—when it trained guerrillas to fight in Indian Kashmir in the 1960s and the 1990s, when it determined which Afghan groups CIA money should flow to in the 1980s, when the CIA often stayed silent as Pakistan slowly acquired nuclear technology. Riedel remarks that “Pakistanis and Americans have entirely different narratives about their bilateral relationship.” Pakistan speaks of betrayal by the United States; the United States finds the ISI duplicitous.

What he fails to acknowledge thoroughly enough is that the Pakistani military’s sharp sense of betrayal—it has felt this way for decades—is what most deeply guides its thinking toward the United States, and for this the United States must share the blame. The CIA has often been part of decision-making with the ISI, but it has never taken any of the responsibility. When it comes to the arrival in Pakistan of the Arab jihadis, including Osama bin Laden, to fight the Soviets, Riedel never adequately explains that this was a joint ISI-CIA operation, and not exclusively the work of the Pakistani military. And neither side cleaned up the mess once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan: Pakistan made use of the jihadis in Indian Kashmir, while the United States just walked away from it all. This “walking away”—this betrayal—by a superpower has now become part of the Pakistani army’s lexicon of explanations for its own wrong policies and disastrous choices.

Even though the interests of the United States and Pakistan have rarely converged—they did so only for a short time, for the purpose of defeating the Soviet forces in Afghanistan—Pakistan presumes that the sacrifices it has made for the Americans entitles it to be treated as a strategic partner at all times. Riedel never spells out Pakistani grievances and misperceptions in detail: the CIA has always been inconsistent as to what it turns a blind eye to in Pakistan. Instead he focuses on Pakistan’s strategic untrustworthiness and unreliability, which is precisely what the ISI feels about the CIA.

Riedel offers some policy prescriptions in conclusion. He urges the United States to draw two red lines with Pakistan. The first is that Pakistan must close down all Afghan Taliban safe havens on Pakistani territory. The second is that Pakistan must shut down Lashkar-e-Taiba. Both are more easily said than done. The Afghan Taliban have now become part of the ethnic, social, and political landscape in western Pakistan, and there are still some two million Afghan refugees living along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Lashkar is now perhaps 100,000 strong—a trained and armed force that cannot be dispersed easily. Still, all the difficulties notwithstanding, Riedel’s proposals are correct. The longer Pakistan delays, the more impossible the necessary tasks become.


The fact that we now need an encyclopedia-type book to list all the extremist groups operating out of Pakistan explains why it has become the epicenter of global terrorism. But Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero is a strange book. It is a useful compendium of all the Pakistan-based terrorist groups, but it is poorly written and shoddily edited. Some chapters appear to have been composed by four or five writers all showing their differences in style and syntax. This leads to contradictory statements appearing in the same chapter.

The book marshals enormous amounts of data, but much of it is lifeless, as though it were just cut and pasted from other sources. There is little local color and few interviews from the field. Most significantly, there is hardly any analysis. Thus no explanation is offered as to how the Pakistani Taliban developed, or what initial support they received from the military or Islamic political parties. Nor is there any explanation for the revival of the Afghan Taliban on Pakistani soil after 2001, and of the role of the Pakistani military in that ominous development.

Still, Rohan Gunaratna and Khuram Iqbal convincingly show that Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are indeed “the ground zero for terrorism.” Not only did Al Qaeda relocate there after September 11, but it brought a dozen or more groups—Chinese, Libyan, Central Asian, Chechen—that have now grown substantially with the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. The authors also usefully point out that “al-Qaeda exerts more influence on the Pakistani Taliban than on the Afghan Taliban”—a highly significant fact. The authors seem to believe that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies have been funding tribal and terrorist groups in FATA, but they omit any analysis of President Musharraf’s own deals with the Pakistani Taliban.

Zahid Hussain’s The Scorpion’s Tail may give less detail on extremist groups, but it is eminently readable, and it offers a narrative that makes a very complicated picture much easier to understand. The book is lively but serious, with considerable field work, local color, and interviews as evidence. Hussain argues that the Pakistani army has been misguided in its overall strategy because it does not take into account the ability of extremist groups to regenerate themselves—the so-called scorpion’s tail which, once cut, grows right back. Thus again and again we see groups that have been banned by the government or defeated in battle regenerating themselves under new names and personnel. Hussain traces the history of such Afghan Taliban commanders as Jalaluddin Haqqani, who first emerged in the early 1980s and has lived many different lives since, and the Pakistani Taliban commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, who started his political life protesting against U.N. monitors on the border in the 1990s and is now a top-line Taliban commander.

Hussain suggests that there have been two milestones in the growth of the Pakistani Taliban. The first were the two assassination attempts on Musharraf in December 2003, when al-Qaeda perpetrators were joined by Pakistani groups and low-level air force personnel. The second was the Pakistani army’s attack on the Red Mosque in Islamabad in July 2007, which led to several hundred diehard Punjabi extremists joining the Taliban in the mountains, and to a huge growth in young suicide bombers offering their services for the cause. Hundreds of militants had holed up in the mosque and defied the authorities for several months, and the government delayed acting until it was forced by public and international pressure to storm the mosque. The battle led to Osama bin Laden declaring for the first time that he would “fight against Musharraf, his army, his government, and his supporters.”

But what drove the Pakistani state to support militancy in the first place, and what drove it to continue doing so after September 11? Hussain does not say. He repeatedly says that state patronage allowed militant groups “to fight Pakistan’s proxy war in Afghanistan and Kashmir,” but he goes no further in the why and wherefore of those proxy wars. He demonstrates the collusion between the state and the militants, as in the events leading up to the storming of the Red Mosque or the militants’ takeover of the Swat Valley in April 2009; but we are not given an understanding of why this collusion was taking place.

The close study of Pakistan is now an international growth industry. The international community presumes that simple and ready-made formulas—close down extremist groups, make taxes more equitable—can quickly turn the tide. But the problem is much deeper. Pakistan is a kaleidoscope of conflicting social mores and political interests that have not yet been molded into a national identity or a national cause. One of the main reasons for this arrested development has been the continuous episodes of military intervention and rule, which have subverted the political process and prevented the emergence of new leaders who could offer a new narrative. Pakistan desperately needs a long bout of continuous democracy, even if in its early stages it continues to be as corrupt as the present government. The hope with democracy, after all, is that governments change, and new faces appear, and real issues can be raised. And only a strengthened democratic government can eventually take the reins of foreign policy away from the army, and change the idea of a national security state into the idea of a modern nation state.

Ahmed Rashid is the author, mostly recently, of Descent Into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (Penguin). This article originally ran in the May 26, 2011, issue of the magazine.

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