Tales from the thinktank
A brilliant analysis of Pakistan incorporates past and present politics
Mohammed Hanif, The Guardian, October 11 2008
Book Review: The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power
by Tariq Ali, Simon & Schuster, 2008
In the introduction to his third book on Pakistan, Tariq Ali quotes a friend who asked if it wasn't reckless to start a book about the country when the dice were still in the air. Ali's reply: he would never have been able to write anything about Pakistan if he had waited for the dice to fall. Ali has had an uncanny record of foreseeing the way things are going. In his 1969 book Pakistan: Military Rule or People's Power he foretold the imminent break-up of Pakistan, a shocking prediction at the time which came true within two years. In the 80s, Can Pakistan Survive? caused outrage within the Pakistani establishment, but two decades later, on the cover of every current affairs magazine and in every TV talk show, not only is Pakistan being branded the most dangerous place on earth but it has even been suggested that the world's end is being planned there. The Duel is less concerned with the trajectory of the dice than with why they've been in the air for more than 60 years and who threw them.
When I heard the title of the book earlier this year, I thought it had a certain poetic flourish. As American drones started pounding the tribal areas of Pakistan and its ruling elite tried to convince their people that it's for their own good, it turned out to be devastatingly literal.
But The Duel is not the familiar quick round-up of recycled headlines peppered with inane quotes from anonymous intelligence sources rattling off their theories about jihadists taking over Pakistan's nuclear devices, the jihadists taking over Pakistan, and then Pakistan destroying western civilisation as we know it. Not since Ayesha Siddiqa's groundbreaking work Military Inc has there been such a well-informed and articulate account of the country's history.
Ali has a simple advantage: he knows his subject. He can turn many of the lazy assumptions about Pakistan on their heads merely by providing context. In the opening chapter he gives a detailed account of the Lal Mosque debacle, a week-long televised siege of the militant hideout in the heart of the Pakistani capital, which brought all the factions of the Pakistani Taliban together and resulted in a wave of suicide attacks that culminated in the horrific bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel.
According to Ali, jihadists are no more likely to take over Pakistan's nuclear weapons than Hindu hardliners or extremist Jews. He also reveals how Tableeghi Jamaat, the largest non-political congregation of Muslims in Pakistan, which many western intellectuals regard as the peaceful and acceptable face of Islamists, is not as innocuous as it looks. Its million-strong gatherings provide fertile recruitment grounds for future suicide squads.
Ali is unabashedly sentimental about his reasons for continuing to write about Pakistan. "Something of me stayed behind in the soil and the trees and the people ... " And although his analysis is razor sharp and his logic always ice cold, his passion seeps through when he chronicles the struggles of Pakistan's common people to take their fate into their own hands. From the student movement that forced Pakistan's military ruler Ayub Khan out of power in the late 1960s to the lawyers' movement that brought Musharraf down last year, The Duel offers a detailed and impassioned history. Ali also does what no thinktank wallah would ever do: he intersperses his narrative with quotes from writers who have never waited for the dice to fall before speaking their minds. Poets such as Sahir Ludhianvi, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Ustad Daman provide an alternative perspective on the state of the nation, a view from the street.
According to Ali, the real threat to Pakistan, and as a consequence to the world, emerges from the appalling economic inequity and the dangerous complicity among Pakistan's corrupt-to-its-core military, its civilian elite and their American counterparts, which goes way back: the founder of the nation Muhammad Ali Jinnah tried to sell his own house to the US ambassador. He was politely refused but got four ceiling fans as a consolation present.
The Duel also proves that you don't need to rely on those anonymous sources in the defence establishments in Islamabad and Washington to write a well-informed, compelling narrative about Pakistan. Most of the information comes from on-the-record interviews, declassified documents and thinktank papers. Ali uses his own encounters with historical figures - Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto - sparingly but they add an urgent, intimate layer to the narrative. One of the very few times Ali quotes an anonymous source he adds another theory to the two-decades-old speculation as to who might have killed General Zia, Pakistan's military dictator and America's partner in its last war in the region. As someone who has indulged in speculation myself in fictional form, I found it only too plausible.
• Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes (Cape) is on the longlist of the Guardian first book award