Pakistan: Eye of the Storm
by Owen Bennett Jones.
Yale University Press (New Haven, Connecticut),
xxx + 328 pp., second edition, $17.00/£10.99 paper, 2003.
(This is the second essay of a two-part review, the first half of which appeared in the Winter 2007 issue.)
Jones is deeply critical of the American relationship with Pakistan dating back to the Cold War and sees the U.S. as a key contributor to that nation’s current situation. Generous US military aid to Pakistan in the 1950s and 60s strengthened American influence in South Asia in the face of India’s nonaligned foreign policy and socialist leanings. But it also elevated the army to an unrivaled level of power within Pakistani society. Able to seize the reins of power anytime they chose (when they did not already hold them), Pakistan’s military elite ensured that for decades they could divert the lion’s share of the country’s economic resources as well as foreign aid to feed their own appetites. Jones offers figures that are staggering: for example, between 1947 and 1959 up to 73% of total government spending was on defense. The average for the period was 60%. If India is said to be a bureaucracy in possession of a country, then Pakistan must certainly be an army in possession of one. The virtually unchecked power of the army and its ability to bleed the treasury of vital funds has remained one of the few consistent features of the nation’s turbulent political history. The acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1998 further served to bolster this power while the doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD), despite its crippling expense, has actually given Pakistan cost-effective military parity with India against whose conventional military power and resources it could never hope to keep pace. This power has contributed to a culture of arrogance and hubris and has destroyed any sense of accountability among senior officers to the law or the citizenry they are sworn to defend. Moreover, it has encouraged the army to engage repeatedly in acts of reckless adventurism in Kashmir against India, an equally determined and more powerful enemy.
The military is also to blame for Pakistan’s tilt toward religious extremism, which grew significantly during the dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq. From 1977 to 1988, Zia actively sought support from conservative Islamic clerics to legitimize his corrupt and autocratic rule. Control of Pakistan’s judicial and educational systems was surrendered to these extremists and, with US and Saudi funds, hundreds of madrassas were founded. An entire generation of Pakistan’s youth has had their minds poisoned in these schools. Some went to Afghanistan to join the Mujahideen in its holy war against the occupying Soviet military. Others were sent to Kashmir to engage in terrorism on the Indian side of the line of control. This campaign escalated into a full-scale insurgency in 1989 shortly after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan as victorious fighters there looked for a new theatre to continue their jihad. Subsequent graduates of the madrassas went to Afghanistan to form the Taliban, a regime Pakistan hoped would remain sympathetic if not completely submissive to the political will of Islamabad. Still others remained in Pakistan where radical Islamist elements advanced to the highest levels of the army and the ISI, the country’s dreaded Inter-Services Intelligence. Actively supporting the insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir became a chief function of the Pakistani Army and the ISI. The tragic result for Pakistan was that the sensibility of its moderate majority was disregarded while the influence of the most extreme and intolerant Islamic radicals—whose polling had never risen above single digits in any election—was disproportionately elevated beyond whatever popular support they may have enjoyed. Islamic radicalism is not indigenous to Pakistani soil; it was planted there and then nurtured deliberately from outside. The bitter fruit of this alien growth is being reaped in the present day.
Throughout his book, Jones is unsparing in his critique of what is, by all but the most charitable description, a failed state and he is persuasive in tracing the deep and intertwined historical roots of this failure into our own time. Yet by the same token he offers a strangely sympathetic though deeply critical portrayal of President Pervez Musharraf when describing the daunting and perhaps insurmountable obstacles that lie on the road ahead for Pakistan’s president. Musharraf built his career in the army stoking the very same fires he now is desperate to extinguish. The pressures he is encountering come from all directions, both from within and outside his country, and often contradict each other. For example, Musharraf is faced by critics in India and the West who demand that he smoke out the terrorist hives in his country with an immediacy and effectiveness that even the most coercive executive power could not realistically achieve. Meanwhile he is chastised, often by the same critics, for the blatantly undemocratic nature of his government and his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power. These critics are often unaware of, or perhaps uninterested in, the fact that, historically, civil government in Pakistan has never been successful. Usually it has resulted in widespread corruption, nepotism, and a political culture of impunity for the wealthy and wellconnected that undermines the very ideals of representative government and public accountability upon which the country’s elected officials have drawn their legitimacy. In that sense, it has been indistinguishable from the worst elements of the military juntas that have replaced it time and again. Yet the reform of Pakistan’s government, accompanied by a seismic change in its political culture, must occur if there is ever to be an end to the storm.
Thomas Jefferson famously said that timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the tempestuous sea of liberty. Musharraf’s dilemma is that sinking under the swells of anarchy is also a distinct possibility in Pakistan’s case. Yet at some point the president must loosen his grip on the helm. Only the demilitarization of the nation’s political culture and a turn to democracy will save it in the long run. This may prove to be a gradual process, but it must be initiated at some point. The fury of Islamist radicals in cities like Peshawar and Karachi will only be silenced when the root causes of their discontent—which are almost always local rather than international and are rarely religious—are finally redressed. Ultimately, the United States and Pakistan must together find a way to bring political reform to that country and must do so without creating—as we have done in the past—allies now to fight our current enemies that will themselves become enemies in future wars. The paradox is that Pakistan cannot survive without American support while America and the West cannot win their war against international terrorism without the help of the Pakistani military and intelligence—the very same organizations whose power and distorted political influence must be curtailed if true democratic reform and lasting peace and stability are to be enjoyed by that stormtossed nation.
Pakistan: Eye of the Storm offers a fresh, nuanced, and sobering look at this troubled and complex country. Jones served as a BBC correspondent in Pakistan from 1998 to 2001 and clearly he has drawn upon his many contacts as well as an intimate knowledge of the country and its problems to offer an authoritative and reasoned account. His sympathy and affection for the people of Pakistan runs deep and he is right to point out that many of the problems of Pakistan are known to foreigners because of the ease with which journalists are allowed to conduct their work in that country and the access they are given in what has always been a fairly open society. The willingness of Pakistanis at all levels of society to converse about politics at length and to engage in self-criticism in the presence of guests is merely one facet of the great warmth and hospitality of Pakistani culture. Jones rightly points out that the scrutiny to which Pakistanis allow themselves to be subjected contributes to their image problem, though it is hardly to be regretted since it is a necessary precondition for true reform. This is an important point to keep in mind, since many other countries (Saudi Arabia and China, for example) deal with their problems by simply denying access to foreign media. As a result of this, Jones’ writing evinces journalist’s eye for detail and an ability to present quantitative evidence and historical support for his arguments without being overbearing. Perhaps most important, Jones appreciates that clarity and brevity in writing are not incompatible with depth and sophistication—a trait regrettably not shared by many of his academic counterparts. Yale University Press’s decision to re-release this title as a paperback in its Nota Bene series attests not only to the earlier commercial success of the hardcover edition but to the critical relevance of the subject in today’s world. Jones’ book is indispensable reading for anyone desiring a sobering yet hopeful account of this vitally important and vastly misunderstood country.
David Campion is assistant professor of history at Lewis & Clark College.