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A confederacy of dangerous dunces

Ahmed Rashid's new book on Pakistan reveals how people are held hostage to the absurd and deadly games their nations play

Rajiv Rao  |  New Delhi 

Since I have two sons who live in Delhi but whose mother is from the other side of the Line of Control, I sometimes wonder what kind of narrative I will eventually need to communicate to them to explain

One temptation is to turn to writer Aatish Taseer, someone who has the same mixed parentage as my boys, and who has deftly used and his relationship with his estranged Pakistani father, Salman Taseer, to propel his literary career.

That’s probably a bad idea. Here’s an extract from an interview with Taseer: “In India, you can very frequently come across a situation where people might say something against Pakistan, like an anti-joke. But very rarely, especially among the educated, would anyone casually speak against Muslims… In Pakistan, it’s very easy to say “Oh, those f***ing ” Taseer has probably been spending too much time hobnobbing with the Jaipur lit fest jet set, or comfortably numb in Nehruvian nostalgia, both of which prevent him from gauging the actual sentiment amongst many in India. You only have to take a quick trip to a middle class ghetto in South Delhi — Lajpat Nagar, or Safdarjang Enclave, amongst many — to test this hypothesis. Clearly, he hasn’t done so.

One possible solution to disabuse my kids of stereotyped notions of Hindu-hating Pakistanis and Muslim-loving Indians is to eventually thrust Ahmed Rashid’s on the Brink into their hands and insist on a term paper of a thousand words or less, much like this book review. Like many liquid antibiotics force-fed to them as babies to combat one infection or the other, it will probably taste terrible but taking it will make them better.

It will be easy to relate to Rashid’s book since, by then, they too will be hooked on to HBO’s Game of Thrones medieval fantasy drama, filled with violence, betrayal, strategy, incompetence, murder and doublespeak, that bears a startling resemblance to the situation in today.

Rashid’s pages are filled with an unending catalogue of the deadly farce that is the latest update to the Great Game. While flipping through these pages, you will encounter a lot of stuff that goes like this: an India-obsessed Pakistani army playing a deadly double game by fighting the homegrown while covertly helping their brethren in Afghanistan; the ISI cooperating with the CIA so that missiles can be fired by Predator drones at targets on Pakistani soil; the Taliban wanting to make peace with Afghan president but being convinced by the ISI to not do so; $1 billion of “development” funds given to the US Army in one year with no accountability or strategy of disbursement; an India-obsessed Pakistani army chief, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani; Obama officials sidelining US diplomat Richard Holbrooke’s attempts to fashion a logical peace deal; Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus, both US commanders in Afghanistan, barely on speaking terms with US ambassador Karl Eikenberry who, along with Anne Patterson, ambassador to Pakistan, are not on speaking terms with Holbrooke. And so on.

Rashid is a legend for writing about the Taliban before they became verbs and adjectives in households worldwide — and a year or so before 9/11. His second book, Descent into Chaos, unravelled the madness behind these intricate and ultimately futile games of brinkmanship in the region. Those two are basically the bedrock for this one. Brink, Rashid admits, can be read as a series of articles, in no particular order. Indeed, this aspect of it makes it sometimes monotonous, with no meta-narratives, pacing or respite from the litany of who did what to whom. Yet, what does come across very lucidly is a paranoid Pakistani army and ISI, both of which need to stoke the flames in Afghanistan for their own survival, an inept, war-obsessed Obama ad-ministration that has completely failed in rebuilding Afghanistan or defeating the Taliban — who, in fact, approached the US several times with offers of peace.

Still, despite Rashid’s best efforts, my sons need more. Where should one turn? Perhaps to texts that chronicle how the British began undermining Urdu and promoting the formulation of Hindi to strengthen their grip on India, or how the opportunistic Muslim educated and feudal classes saw as an El Dorado where they could rule over jobs and politics, or perhaps the role that the printing press played in Uttar Pradesh in widely proliferating images of hacking down cows and kidnapping Hindu women? Perhaps, in a fit of unexpected curiosity, they will peel themselves away from Game of Thrones to read about how Jinnah and the then-president of the Congress party, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, rejected the idea of during the 1946 Cabinet Mission Plan and opted instead for a federal union of states with a tri-cameral legislature, only to be undone a few weeks later by Nehru, who assumed command of the Congress when Azad resigned, and vetoed the idea.

In the fashion of a country ruled by martial law, all viewing devices in my house — television screens or mobile phones — will be programmed to go dead when ex-ambassadors to and policy hawks appear on television channels, roaring with the exact same spittle-producing rage and spiel that they did the previous year, an auditory experience that was probably similar to what inspired William Faulkner to write The Sound and the Fury. There will be strict instructions to steer clear of Shashi Tharoor, who in a rousing defence of Aatish Taseer’s article on why his father hated India, indicts Pakistani liberals who reacted badly to it as people who are “particularly prone to the desire to prove themselves true nationalists”. This from someone who, on the cusp of his political career, repeatedly referred to China as an “enemy country” while addressing hundreds of naval personnel at the annual Admiral R D Katari memorial lecture a few years ago. (Incidentally, his website describes him as a “peace keeper.”)

Regrettably, all of this may never happen, thanks to the evolution of Internet gaming on the Cloud. Which is why my back-up plan is to continue to take the kids on camel rides at Clifton beach in Karachi, visit Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s mazaar, force them to play football with budding Ronaldinhos in Lyari, take them fishing with the captains of Ibrahim Hydari, make sorties for cold Murree Export Draughts available (to anyone) at a kiosk around the corner and then spend hours gorging on Bihari kebabs with them at Bundu Khan. Doing this may reveal to them the essence of a powerless people held for ransom by a militarised state. We may invite Taseer and Tharoor along so they can get a feel for the country from the ground up.

For now, however, I will play my kids a music video by the Beygairat Brigade on YouTube, called Anday Aloo, to show them that a country called “intellectually corrosive” by someone who could have been their role model is actually home to more signs of vibrant dialogue and dissent than is the country on this side of the border.

Author: Ahmed Rashid

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 234
Price: Rs 399

First Published: Sat, June 23 2012. 00:34 IST