This book is a selection of essays describing events during the first term of Obama's presidency. I recommend this book and other two that complete the trilogy (Taliban & Descent into Chaos) to anybody who is interested in the political developments of Pakistan and Central Asia.
The focus of Rashid's earlier books, "Taliban" (2000; revised edition 2010) and "Descent into Chaos" (2008) - see my reviews on Amazon - was Afghanistan. It was made clear in both books that the ISI, Pakistan's all-powerful intelligence service, had allowed the Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan to which it could retreat after it was ousted in 2001, where it could regroup, and from where it could stage its increasingly successful comeback from 2003 onwards.
Despite its title, Pakistan is a very uncertain focus of this third part of the trilogy - uncertain only in part because, just as it is impossible to discuss Afghanistan without extensive excursions into the history of Pakistan, the reverse is equally true. At least a third of the book is more of a continuation of Rashid's earlier books on Afghanistan than it is an analysis of what is wrong with Pakistan.
It continues and extends the catalogue of US ineptitude that we saw in "Descent into Chaos". The Obama administration has handled Afghanistan as incompetently as the Bush administrations had done. The Washington turf battles over policy were worse than ever, and although sound policy papers were produced, they were not acted upon. Obama seems as much captive to US military thinking as Zardari is to that of the Pakistani military. In 2009 Obama announced surges at the same time as he signalled a specific date by which a draw-down of American troops would begin - encouraging the Taliban to hold out against the surge with the confidence that soon the field would be clear for them. There was a build-up of the Afghan Army and police, who were supposed to take over when the Americans left, but the desertion rate was staggering. American relations with Karzai are as tense as those with Pakistan. Karzai "frequently" said that he had three main enemies: the United States, the international community and the Taliban, and that of those three he would side first with the Taliban! The quagmire could hardly be deeper!
It was in fact Karzai who had initiated contacts with the Taliban as early as 2004. After Obama had signalled that the Americans would start pulling out in 2011, even the Americans, hitherto resisting the idea, came round to it, and secret talks began in late 2010. The narrative of these is fascinating, though it should have been told in a more chronological manner. The Afghan Taliban was anxious to escape from the control of the ISI. The Americans are not including the Pakistanis in these talks, which infuriates Pakistan which wants to be the chief broker in any settlement, but has done nothing to facilitate contacts between Karzai and the Afghan leadership in Pakistan. In 2010 the ISI even arrested the Taliban's No.2 for talking to Karzai's brothers, and he is still in their custody. This chapter ends with the suspension of the talks after the murder of Karzai's chief negotiator, the former Afghan president Rabbani, in September 2011 (but they have renewed since the book was written).
When Rashid does focus on Pakistan, the picture is just as bleak. The overall message is of competing power structures with policies so absurdly devious and illogical that they get into tangles entirely of their own making. The covert support given by the ISI (and always denied by the Pakistan government) to the Afghan Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani network in tribal North Waziristan, has not only skewed Pakistan's relationship with the United States (brought to breaking point by the killing of Osama bin Laden, with which this book opens), but it has also reared a cuckoo in the nest, in that the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, even more extreme and more jihadist than its Afghan counterpart, escaped from its control, tries to overthrow the Pakistani government and is at war with the Pakistani army and the ISI - one way in which Pakistan is "on the brink" of disaster.
But Pakistan is "on the brink" even without the Afghan dimension. Rashid shows all the other internal strains: a crumbling economy, totally dependent on IMF bail-outs, which cannot sustain its rapidly growing population; a political system corrupt from the very top to the bottom; a civilian government which cannot curb the Army which absorbs between 25% and 30% of the budget (at the expense of the pathetic educational and social services) and 80% of the aid, and which is so obsessed with a perceived threat from India that it frustrates any rapprochement with that country (which does indeed cultivate ties with the Afghan government and absolutely refuses to put the Kashmir issue on any negotiating table); an army which cannot (or will not) curb the ISI, nor can it control the tribal areas where it is at war with the Pakistani Taliban while supporting the Afghan Taliban; separatism in Baluchistan; increased sectarianism; minority religions - even Muslim ones - terrorized, with the government not daring to crack down on this; suicide bombings (87 in 2010); the murder of journalists (eight in 2010); in 2009 the civilians killed by insurgents in Pakistan exceeding by 25% those killed in Afghanistan (!); a frightened and reclusive President out of touch with his people; Pakistan's poor relationship with all the other states in the region; and massive natural disasters.
In the last few pages, Rashid lists the attitudes and policies of the many players that must change if the region is to be rescued from further disasters. The previous narrative shows that chance of such changes happening are absolutely miniscule.
This is as devastating an account of the region's self-inflicted suppurating wounds as were its predecessors, though the mass of material is here not quite as well organized. And given that the forthright author is a Pakistani citizen, these books are quite extraordinary acts of courage.
Five stars, though, as one of the dedicatees, I have to declare an interest.
Ahmed Rashid is a leading Pakistani journalist and commentator. This book forms a coda or update to his 2009 book Descent into Chaos - and deals with events in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years. The prognosis is dire - the situation shocking - and people in Islamabad, Kabul and Washington D.C. are living in denial. Rashid offers counsel, restoratives and future hope - but the track record is bleak. Power brokers invite Rashid's advice which they then ignore. The spiral continues ever downward. On the Brink is a short book - perhaps because there is little new or hopeful to say, the style of writing more colloquial - more journalese perhaps than Descent, more urgent. Rashid has been ill recently - perhaps he may himself be on borrowed time? He appears to feel the same about Pakistan unless urgent measures are taken. Three books:- Bennett Jones' Eye of the Storm, and Rashid's Chaos (highly recommended as a study in depth) and his latest Brink tell us of Pakistan in recent years. Recommended. Count your blessings as you read them.
If you are interested in Pakistan's recent history and its future, read this book. You will probably feel depressed after your read - although perhaps you feel like this about Pakistan already. You might develop your own ideas about the best way the country could move forward, as I did.
In this useful book, the author says about Pakistan, "For too long the military and political parties have neglected their one single task, which is to make life better for their people".
The author is a journalist based in Lahore (Pakistan) with a deep knowledge of the complex relationships between local power sources such as the ISI (Inter Services Agency - Pakistan military), Taliban (both Afghan and Pakistani), the Americans (political and military), the Afghan government and tribes and India.
The picture that emerges, is of tremendously abused populations in Pakistan and Afghanistan that would be delighted to see an end to their corrupt and self serving governments together with the Islamic fundamentalist terror groups that inhabit the region.
Rashid shows that in common with other residents of the middle east they look with longing at Turkey, as he says, "Turkey's prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan age fifty-seven, is a new hero for the Arab and Muslim world, taking on Muslim dictatorships like Syria, defending the Palestinians, tilting against Israel, yet firmly wedded to the West and the United States through NATO and other alliances; it is even up for membership in the twenty seven nation European Union."
After reading this book one can see that the only chance of getting from "here to there" would be a an unlikely Pakistan/Afghan "Arab Spring" , so for the forseeable future one would sadly expect Pakistanis to continue to emigrate from their disfunctional society.
By the authors admission, the chapters of this book are essentially standalone essays. With that said, they complement each other very well, and when read as a whole the book provides a detailed briefing on the current state of play between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West. I have no doubt that Ahmed Rashid's knowledge of his topic extends to the highest level, and as you'll see when reading the book, it has allowed him a unique level of access to key politicians and policymakers. Yet the book makes for a very accessible read with little need for any specialist knowledge prior to reading. For the potential reader: the historical context of the issues discussed is only briefly touched upon (if at all), but this is perhaps a strength, and no doubt a deliberate decision by the author, in pursuit of a concise portrait of the contemporary situation and likely prospects for the future.
Of particular merit:
The opening chapters are notable for their coverage not only of Pakistan (as their titles would suggest), but of the deep and complex relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and go a long way to helping us understand why the road to peace in Kabul runs largely through Islamabad, as they say.
Chapter four concentrates on the failure to hold free and fair elections and establish legitimate governance in Afghanistan, and the necessity of doing so if any real progress is to be made. Pakistan's sectarian geography and the preponderance of the Taliban in certain areas had meant that electoral turnout among certain groups was virtually non-existent: one of the key factors behind the military surge into Taliban-controlled areas of southern Afghanistan prior to the 2010 parliamentary election.
The fifth chapter illustrates the intense infighting in Washington over policy in and for Afghanistan, and levels a strong critique of ISAF strategy, arguing that the strong focus on Helmand may have been detrimental. Rashid posits that a more sound strategy would have been to fully secure Kabul and then gradually expand outwards.
In the concluding chapter, Rashid offers his analysis of what the future might hold. Commenting on states of Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), India and China, and also Iran, the author illustrates the wider regional picture, detailing what is at stake for these countries and what their roles might be in moving forward. The Arab Spring, although geographically distant from Pakistan, is argued as a potential threat should a similar sentiment take root among Pakistan's jobless and frustrated youth, while the threat of sectarian revolt and the detrimental impact of 'capture or kill' raids are also covered.
Ahmed Rashid's book excels by not focusing on the particular details of one country or the other, but in analysing them together, on the basis that their futures are intractably linked. Rashid's key contention is that in many ways Pakistan's current position is more perilous than that held by Afghanistan, and that, following Richard Holbrooke's footsteps, Washington and the West must rethink their current strategy toward Pakistan, for the status of Pakistan's fragile democracy is perhaps the key arbiter of Afghanistan's prospects for a stable and democratic future.
Loved this book Ahmed Rashid has writen a briliant book that I would recomend any one who has an interest in world affairs or history to read. He gives a chilling account of a country tottering on the edge of falling apart, that is run by very foolish people who have interfered in their neighbours affairs and has harboured and trained terrorists. The fact that they have a Nuclear arsenal and have supplied the tecnicals to North Korea and Nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia is very chilling but the USA funding them knowing what they get up to is boggling. A great read a must if you want to know what is happening.