The Problem Next Door
My article published in “The Indian Express’. Here is the text:
A brutally candid book about Pakistan’s experiments with extremist Islam and democracy.
Book Name– Sleepwalking to Surrender: Dealing with Terrorism in Pakistan
Author– Khaled Ahmed
Publisher– Penguin Random House
The new book of columnist, editor and Pakistan’s leading public intellectual, Khaled Ahmed is ominously titled Sleepwalking to Surrender: Dealing with Terrorism in Pakistan. Few analysts match the breadth of Ahmed’s skills. His razor-sharp analyses employ language that is both erudite and accessible. His knowledge of the past and the present, the local and the global, converges in a manner that informs as well as challenges the reader. His new book continues the pattern as it is richly packed with information and insight.
With 32 chapters spanning over 400 pages, Sleepwalking to Surrender is a comprehensive account of contemporary Pakistan and its myriad dilemmas. In recent years, due to Pakistan’s relationship with the war on terror and its involvement in Afghanistan, a good number of books have been written by outsiders. Some of these projects aim to understand the country and its complexities while others map out the prospects for stability. By all accounts, Pakistan’s case is unique as it is considered a sponsor of terrorism by many countries, including India, while Pakistan has also been a major victim of terror. Unlocking this paradox is not easy, but Ahmed elicits clues from the historical and ideological trajectory of the country.
The evolution of Pakistan as an “ideological” state as opposed to a nation-state focused on its territorial concerns partly answers the question.
The other part is the “curse of geography”, which has been a recurrent theme in Pakistan’s alignment with the Western security agenda, from the Cold War to the present. The central factor, as Ahmed’s writings narrate, has been the India-centric worldview of the country’s leaders, both civilian and military, with some exceptions. Seeking security against Indian hegemony in the region, Pakistan has pursued a set of policies that have resulted in two-fold crises. First, the use of religious nationalism and proxy militias has created an acceptability of extremist ideologies within pockets of the country’s population. Second, the state’s writ has been seriously impaired.
As Ahmed tells us, a large part of Pakistani territory falls under ungoverned zones. Such spaces exist in India too. Various insurgencies and violent groups are active in certain parts but they do not challenge the overall power of the state. Gradualist democratisation in India acts as an equaliser and the state does not share the ideology of the violent groups. In Pakistan’s case, the Taliban and Al Qaeda, at given points in recent history, have received varying degrees of endorsement from Pakistan’s deep state. Ahmed, thereby, paints a series of alarming scenarios that in aggregate terms imply that Pakistan’s future roadmap is likely to remain chaotic.
Yet, he also acknowledges the shifts that have taken place within the military, which remains the most powerful actor in the polity. Army chief General Raheel Sharif has, at least partially, attempted to tackle violent extremism. Crackdowns on the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian militias have reduced incidents of terror. However, the extremist threat remains because the state is wont to address jihadi groups that are useful for its strategic stance against Indian influence in Afghanistan, and to pursue the ideological agenda of liberating the parts of Jammu and Kashmir in Indian territory. Ahmed’s analysis is brutally candid, in contrast to the self-censorship exercised by most Pakistani journalists on security policy. Ahmed’s writings, some of which have appeared in The Indian Express and Newsweek Pakistan, are outstanding records of the present.
Beyond the larger investigation of national security, Ahmed also makes extensive references to popular media, the narratives of religious parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and other groups, which had declared terrorists as martyrs in their zeal to enhance the Islamist agenda. The Urdu press and, now, much of the vernacular television industry peddle the ideological framework that has evolved over the decades with state support. Ahmed records all this, sometimes sombrely, sometimes with tongue in cheek.
The book reminds the reader that Pakistan’s woes and its terrorism quagmire did not emerge in a decade, but is a byproduct of state policy, especially what was popularly known as the mullah-military alliance. The good thing is that this alliance is breaking up as the army has become a target of rogue jihadists and the Al Qaeda ideology that would like to see the Pakistani state — especially its military — diminished.
The ascendancy of the military in the country’s affairs can be partially located in this maze. It may have initiated some disastrous policies but it is also viewed by large numbers as the only force that can keep the country together. However, Ahmed asks how Pakistanis can be saved from terrorism if the state does not reverse its jihad policy in its entirety.
The book also elucidates the complex issues of Karachi’s governance and its ethnic fissures, the conflict in Balochistan (which has become a major, but hugely problematic, area of focus as India gets back at Pakistan’s Kashmir advocacy) and Pakistan’s troubled relationship with the United States.
The book also shows how the civilian political elites are struggling to balance their adherence to the ideological state and the quest for greater control over key institutions like the army. Perhaps Nawaz Sharif is the best example of that contest. From a protégé of the army, he has evolved into a populist leader and offers an alternative national security paradigm that does not consider India as the perennial enemy to be fought for a thousand years. This is partly why he has faced a second round of street agitation in three years of his rocky rule.
Ahmed’s book is a compilation of complex arguments, racy anecdotes and sobering reflections that would interest observers of Pakistan who want to understand its place in South Asia and the world.