Book Review: PAKISTAN ON THE BRINK?

Dr William Crawley reviews a book that examines the critical challenges, past and present, facing Pakistan

The author of this study of Pakistan has been a senior civil servant specialising in security issues in the Indian cabinet secretariat. While this gives him the authority as a writer and commentator who has studied Pakistani policy and Indian responses to it in close detail, he comes to the issues from an undeniably Indian perspective. There has been a phenomenally large output of books about Pakistan in recent years. Some of those by Pakistani authors have been among the most perceptive and critical, and the insights of Pakistani journalists are among the most informed, a key resource for any student of Pakistan’s affairs. As Tilak Devasher recognises, the perspective of a former Indian official is likely to be dismissed by many Pakistani readers as motivated, but one that is intelligently analysed and grounded in accurate information cannot be lightly ignored.

Pakistan: Courting the Abyss – which comes with a very positive endorsement by the prominent journalist and former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, Hussain Haqqani – generally passes this test, though there are biases and omissions which detract from the objectivity of the narrative.

Pakistan: Courting the Abyss by Tilak Devasher. Published by Harper Collins New Delhi, 2016. ISBN 978-93-5264-177-2
Pakistan: Courting the Abyss by Tilak Devasher. Published by Harper Collins New Delhi, 2016. ISBN 978-93-5264-177-2

Devasher examines, uncontroversially, the fluidity of Jinnah’s concept of Pakistan and Pakistani identity, and his only partially realised vision of Pakistan as a modern national state. It was after Jinnah’s death that his successors focussed on the building of a specifically Pakistani ideology, or Nazaria e Pakistan. The Objectives Resolution of 12 March 1949, sponsored in the Constituent Assembly by the then prime minister Liaqat Ali Khan, filled out and consciously re-wrote Jinnah’s somewhat sketchy but largely secular ideas. There was an early clash over provincial identity and autonomy, which has remained aconstant divisive factor in Pakistani politics. The central Islamic focus was intended to be unifying, but has tended to highlight sectarian differences. The landmark Munir Commission report of 1954 exposed wide differences between Islamic scholars on the essentials of Islamic ideology; at the time this had a special relevance to the controversy over the status of the Ahmadiya or Qadiani sect. But, although the Munir Commission report provided some relief for the Ahmadis by exposing the deep divisions among their clerical opponents on Islamic questions, 20 years later the supposedly secular Muslim Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto succumbed to the demand for the sect to the declared non-Muslim. Subsequently, when Bhutto was deposed and hanged, the influence of the army in the construction of a Pakistani ideology was demonstrated by a massive boost to its Islamic core under President Zia ul Haq.

The book’s title, Courting the Abyss, is used as an almost rhetorical refrain in each of the chapters, which analyse the challenges facing Pakistani policy makers. What is meant by ‘the abyss’ is never spelled out but it appears to mean a future in which all the worst-case scenarios for Pakistan are realised at the same time. Some of those scenarios arguably have already happened, and the Pakistani state has recovered from them. The Bangladesh crisis – the loss of the eastern wing of the country in 1971 and more than half of its population – was a blow that redefined the state. Financial crises have sometimes left Pakistan teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, from which it has been able to negotiate a way out on the strength of its strategic value or economic potential.

Pakistan is not a failed state, although many aspects of its situation generate fears that it may become one. Insurgency in Balochistan has been a recurring problem; the current insurgency is the fifth since 1947. Pakistan’s strategic status as a nuclear weapons state is, to a great extent, accepted by the international order as irreversible. Its toleration and in some instances apparently active support of violent subversive acts against its neighbours India and Afghanistan are a source of deep instability and justified apprehension on India’s part. A nuclear conflict would be a world disaster: the ultimate abyss. With the current regimes in both countries and their common experience of managing and neutralising border conflicts or cross-border terrorist acts by non-state actors, Devasher does not judge that a nuclear exchange is likely. International concern focusses not on any overt external threat but the possibility that the capacity of non-state actors to carry out acts of violence against the Pakistani state and army itself might give a group that is wholly outside the international systems of control access to nuclear weapons materials. The ability to construct a ‘dirty bomb’ deliverable by similar suicide attack techniques that have been demonstrated both in Pakistan and India, and in the UK, would have incalculable consequences far beyond Pakistan’s borders.

Devasher’s analysis of the crisis that he sees as facing Pakistan is not predicated on a military disaster so much as an ideological crisis brought on by state encouragement of extreme forms of ‘Islamic’ teaching. This has consequences for Pakistan’s educational system, and its ability to develop the skills the country needs to address a worsening economic situation.

Devasher argues rightly that a concept of security that is predicated overwhelmingly on military strength, as he believes Pakistan’s to be, is distorted. Chapters on water, agriculture, and education set out a disturbing picture of shrinking resources, inefficiency and low practical competitiveness through neglect and lack of investment. On population growth he acknowledges that potentially Pakistan, like India, could be benefitting from an increasing population of working age, unlike the greying populations of many European countries, Japan and China. But he argues that with Pakistan’s failure to prioritise the sectors which could give it an advantage, this population dividend is being squandered.

As the book examines Pakistan’s key international relationships – with India, Afghanistan, China and the United States – it courts simplification in attributing a core motivation to each of these complex relationships: in the case of India, a quest for parity; Afghanistan, a quest for domination; China, a quest for succour; and the United States, a quest for dependence. Devasher unpicks flaws in each of these objectives. Significantly Islamic ideology is not the driving force of any of them, even in the case of India and Afghanistan, where military and security capability is Pakistan’s overriding priority. Devasher’s argument – that a more efficient use of Pakistan’s economic resources, and more investment in its economically productive capacity rather than its defence capability, would make it a much stronger state and society – is hard to refute. But the problems that he sets out are not unique to Pakistan. As he criticises Pakistan’s growing trend towards a combative and divisive Islamic ideology, the ideological direction of India’s BJP government, driven by the increasingly assertive Hindu nationalism of the RSS, cannot be ignored. Other writers see a resilience in Pakistan’s instability, and though he might not be thanked for them in Pakistan, the remedies that Devasher recommends could help to reinforce this resilience.

For a book of such a wide range the index is sadly inadequate, failing to mention important names and events. Though the complex web of extremist Islamic organisations to have emerged since the Afghan war is described in some detail, there is no index entry for one of the oldest and most long lasting of these organisations, the so-called Haqqani network. It is frequently mentioned in the text but the reader would have to look elsewhere for a description of what it is.


William Crawley is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the University of London

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