Pakistan on the Brink

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.

Beneath a preacher Ahura 2011

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


Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival

Darulaman Palace, Kabul

The prospect of yet another general history of Afghanistan is unlikely to excite. But Amin Saikal’s updated Modern Afghanistan, reprinted this year after a first edition in 2004, is an exception. Saikal is that rarity among published authors on Afghanistan: an Afghan, and his work demonstrates a cultural understanding that is usually lacking among foreign historians and political scientists. He relies on first-hand interviews with informed Afghans, and uses Afghan sources written in Dari as well as others from Soviet archives. This allows Saikal to see his country’s historical development through social and political traditions that most Western historians ignore, or fail to see altogether.

Afghanistan’s state fragility, he argues, is inherent in systems of rule derived from families that were dynastic and polygamous. Such loose patrimonial systems provoked interdynastic rivalry in which challengers often sought external assistance to usurp incumbents. In this way, Afghans are players of their own Great Game: “Any government or official political movement in Afghanistan,” writes Saikal, “whatever its proclaimed goals and position on the left-right continuum, recruited, mobilised support and operated according to criteria of ethnic/tribal/clan solidarity. All prominent ‘Constitutionalists’ in the age of Habibullah and Amanullah were Durrani Pashtuns, linked by conjugal and patronage ties. Through the ‘liberal’ and ‘democratic’ periods in the post-Second World War era, the Mohammadzai clan never relinquished power”.

Consequently, Saikal sees President Hamid Karzai as little more than a “Pashtun Khan” singing to the United States’s tune of liberal democracy and centralized government, while in reality “operating along the lines of the past”. The emergence of a “Karzai cartel”, in which the President’s brothers and half-brothers “as well as secondary relatives and ethnic loyalists, came to play a dominant role in politics, business, trade and outreach activities”, is proof of the persistence of “family rule” in Afghan politics.

Saikal’s use of sources, his insight into the process of internal political change, and his somewhat sympathetic view that, in the end, Afghans have always been the main agents of their history, make Modern Afghanistan essential reading for anyone wanting original, informed perspectives on the country’s historical development since its “foundation” under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747.


Times Literary Supplement