28 November 2006

"Pakistan: Eye of the storm" by Owen Bennett Jones

Owen Bennet Jones was BBC’s correspondent in Pakistan for three years till 2001.

His book is a wonderful way to understand Pakistan. It is not a typical chronological list of facts. It is a set of nicely grouped perspectives on the issues in Pakistan’s politics: the power players – army, politicians, feudal lords; the public opinion issues – Kashmir, Bomb, Bangladesh, Muhajirs; and their impact on Pakistan so far.

The reader can pick any chapter and start with it.

It is difficult to write a book about Pakistan (or India) without leaving in the reader’s mind a sense of disappointment at a biased perspective. Was partition the right thing to do? Different views may emerge based on who you ask.

It is even more difficult for a British author to keep a balanced perspective on the history of the sub-continent given the influence in his own ambience. Is Winston Churchill a wise statesman or an arrogant imperialist? Different views may emerge based on where you ask.

The author seems to have struck a fine balance between multiple views.

However, in a few instances, the author disappoints:

Pakistan does feel insecure about India’s intentions. The religious divide is a thin argument since India has more Muslims than Pakistan; and they are not raring to quit India. The divide stems from a public opinion that got shaped by the shameful violence during partition; that got nurtured after the partition by the army and politicians in Pakistan as a pet hate agenda for self serving reasons. Today, no politician or general in Pakistan can take a softer friendly stand towards India and survive in Pakistan. This is true to a lesser extent for politicians in India too. Feeding a public opinon for political convenience and in turn being fed by it is the vicious cycle that Pakistan has gotten into. The author misses this point and suggests that Pakistan’s insecurity stems from India responding to Pakistan’s invasion in 1965 by crossing the border and coming to occupy Lahore; and from India’s role in liberation of Bangaldesh. This world-view befits a public relations spin master and not a political journalist.

Pakistan’s view is that Mujahideens causing mass deaths in Kashmir are “freedom fighters” and not “terrorists”. This view suffers from several fallacies:
(a) Pakistan’s claim as homeland to the sub continent’s Muslims is not valid any more. Not after 180 million in East Pakistan walked away. Not after 200 million Muslims have stayed back in India and have played a big role in India’s growth. Pakistan has lesser Muslims, 150 million, today than either India or Bangladesh.
(b) The Mujahideen are trained and equipped by the State of Pakistan. This is low intensity proxy war. Not freedom fighting. Not terrorism.
(c) The Mujaihideen are not citizens of Kashmir. They are "outsiders" coming in for a shared religion. They sincerely believe they are fighting for the noble cause of their religion. They believe religion prevails over the State. This view raises challenges to several States. In the end this may prove to be a bigger challenge to Islamic States than other States.
The author’s sympathetic description of the events in Kashmir as “tribesmen crossing the border to fight for their muslim brethren” reflects one view reasonably well; but ignores an opposite view that may have a greater dosage of wisdom.

Pakistan’s army, in the words of Benazir Bhutto, has a better track record in fighting its own citizens than fighting other armies. The army’s response to this potential for doubt is made up of: (a) a signature tactic of proxy war – in defeat there is a cover of deniability; and in success there is glory and (b) lack of transparency on events during the war and a “spin” that could obfuscate truth. The author is willing to be a facilitator. Did Pakistan’s army lose its positions in Kargil? Or, did they walk out because Nawaz Sharif ceded to pressure from the US? The author says that Indians claim Pakistan army was dislodged in 80% of the positions before Sharif met Clinton; but “neutral” observers, relying on Pakistan sources, believe that India had dislodged Pakistan in just 12 of the 132 positions implying that the army won it and politicians lost it. Neutral observers relying on Pakistan sources? There are better neutral analyses like Arthur J Tellis’ book “Limited Conflicts Under the Nuclear Umbrella”.

The author parrots a view he heard in Pakistan army: that Pakistan army uses tribesmen in its engagement with India because the Indian army is more afraid of the tribesmen than Pakistan’s regular army. Steve Coll in “Ghost wars” has a different story. Officers in Pakistan army preferred to get posted to the Western front than the Eastern front where they need to meet the tough professional army from India.

Aside from these minor biases, the author has done a very good job in portraying Pakistan’s history and the issues this young nation faces.

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