In 2000, the Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid produced a bestselling account of the insurgent group that currently threatens the stability of Afghanistan. Taliban was balanced, instructive and based on plenty of fieldwork – everything good journalism should be. Pakistan on the Brink, however, feels rushed, gleaned from existing accounts written by other journalists working in the region, interspersed with a hotchpotch of statements made by senior figures working on “Af-Pak” (the term Washington policymakers use to describe Afghanistan and Pakistan).
Rashid appears to see the region’s history as determined by Great Men. The policy shifts, character flaws, indecision, infighting, meetings and announcements of presidents, envoys, admirals and generals are viewed as key markers in the narrative. Barack Obama is attacked for his “cold” approach, lack of commitment and failure to meet personally with either the Afghan president Hamid Karzai or the late US Special Adviser Richard Holbrooke. Karzai is portrayed as “deeply insecure” and “his own worst enemy”. Pakistan’s president Asif Ali Zardari is characterized as weak and deferential to a Pakistani army “obsessed with India and the threat of Indian influence in Afghanistan”.
Beneath this network of power brokers we struggle to learn what actually drives change. There is little substantial historical context going back more than a few years, and Rashid fails to describe the deep roots of key Islamist movements undermining security in the region.
Rashid’s recent books – Jihad (2002), Descent into Chaos (2009) and now Pakistan on the Brink – echo those hawkish commentators of the Great Game and Cold War; radical Islam has replaced the perceived Russian and Soviet threats. But surely the past twelve years in Afghanistan have yielded valuable lessons about the importance of giving credence to history and culture, the historical consciousness of an invaded people; the delicacy and cost of intervention; the need for realistic strategies founded on adequate analysis? Pakistan on the Brink is symptomatic of the West’s recent failings in these endeavours.
Times Literary Supplement