Riaz Mohammad Khan, one of Pakistans most astute foreign secretaries in recent years, has delved into the tryst a medieval intonation of Islam has had with the political environment of the country and its neighbourhood. His book, Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism and Resistance to Modernity, provides an interesting perspective to his countrys intellectual crisis. The book offers an analysis wrought by an interesting account of history. It comes at a critical juncture when Pakistans and Al-Qaedas shared anti-Americanism is confounded with, ironically, Al-Qaeda punishing Pakistan for its pro-American antecedents.
How Pakistan is run and what influences its decision-makers are some questions we are often perplexed with. For this reason, Indian readers may find it interesting to read the complex quagmire those who steer the machinery of the Pakistani state have to negotiate. The book is laced with an insiders perspective on Pakistans involvement in Afghanistan and the complexities with the intervention of competing interests. As foreign secretary, Khan dealt with the tumultuous events following the pull-out of the Soviets from Afghanistan and the entry of the US and its consequences for Pakistan.
In its first part, the book looks at the missed opportunities since the Soviet pull-out. In its second part, it looks at the graph of unchecked extremism in Pakistan. To bring the two together, the author has made an artistic endeavour to weave the two parts and their several themes with his thesis of conflict. One must say he has done so with a degree of success.
The combination of these two developments resulted in radical Islam (by now, the state narrative) becoming the buzzword of Pakistans security paradigm. Pakistan wanted to be seen as the protector of Islam, globally. The book is an articulation of the intelligentsias frustration with the embedding of radical Islam in the public space. Can the narrative of radical Islam now be replaced by a narrative of modernity Khans book attempts to answer this question. As a former foreign secretary, it is timely that he does so in the backdrop of the countrys dalliance with America, Afghanistan, the Taliban and the monster it grew in its own backyard, terrorism. And, least we miss it out, the Army. He does this as a good pupil of the countrys history and it politics. Khan feels it is not too late as yet for the narrative to become one of modernity and that Pakistan can become an Islamic state with an outlook as modern as that of Turkey. The arguments are convincing in large parts and very interesting. (Wonder why he misses out on the aid received by Pakistan all these years)
Khan makes an out-of-the-ordinary interpretation of history from the lens of a career diplomat. It is interesting to read the authors account of the Pakistani establishments slipshod handling of one of his countrys first expression of religious fundamentalism when Islamic political parties wrecked violence on the streets of Lahore in 1953 so that the Ahmadias were declared non-Muslims. That this event shaped the countrys priorities became clear when Gen Zia introduced the Nizam-i-Mustafa as a political tool to win over fundamentalist Islamic parties in the face of the Movement for Democracy. The original approach to Pakistans nationhood was replaced by the Hudood ordinances and blasphemy laws, together with state patronage of the clerics. These, he forcefully argues, fostered a tolerance for extreme and fanatical tendencies and weakened the capacity of society to rectify obvious wrongs simply because they had the dubious sanction of hastily conceived and politically motivated policies of Islamisation.
Reading the book also helps comprehend the growth of extremism through an understanding of Pakistans intellectual leadership and quest for an identity. This has enabled the author to voice his perspective of the issue of extremism and resistance to modernity. It is a difficult job done well through an articulation of the complex questions that arise here.
An insightful account of the lack of any political and intellectual leadership in developing a foreign policy is addressed as follows: A siege mentality is also manifest in aggressive patriotism and narrow nationalism. The sentiment is especially evident among retired mid-level officials, both military and civilian, and religiously inclined middle-class citizens, who have imbibed suspicion towards the West, hostility towards India and pride in a culture of patriotic self-righteousness typical of middle classes in many societies. This mentality induces further stress in an environment of anger, suspicion, dissension, and delusions in which extremist tendencies breed and thrive. (Page 290)
Khan has done a commendable job of addressing Pakistani confusion on identity, given the religious influences on state policies and jihad, the combination of which has abetted resistance to modernisation in education, outlook and behaviour.
Therefore, the big challenge is for Pakistan to come up with a counter-extremism policy that will steer it off the highway of fanatical intolerance, towards a modernist narrative and vision. Is it possible for the state to craft a vision with space for global values Is this possible without addressing the influences of state indoctrination and the madrassa system and reforming the countrys educational system The book offers a strong view of how the state indoctrination and the proliferation of the madrassas gave birth to armed religious extremism in Pakistan and how it spilled over to Afghanistan.
Khans strong rebuttal of the doctrine of strategic depth is well argued as well as his ridicule of Pakistans conditionality of a friendly Kabul. He favours a transit route for Afghanistan to trade with India and, in the same breath, rejects the policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan and opposes challenging India at the cost of the welfare of the common man in Pakistan.
Lastly, the most interesting (and, from an Indian point of view, relevant) observations are on Afghanistan. Khan gives a blow-by-blow account of Islamabads frustration over attempts to get Mujahideen parties or the Tanzeemat to come to dialogue because each leader acted on his own, his narrow interest counting above all. So much for all talks of Islamabads control of the Tanzeemat. This should be compulsory reading for those who advocate a role for Pakistan in any negotiations with the Taliban.
There are also some parts where Khan could have done more justice. For instance, his arguments do not bring out the role of the army in the fermentation of extremism. While he has not spared General Zia ul Haq, he has been a bit soft on General Musharraf.
Somewhere, Khan has not thrown light on his reaction to Western concerns of the possibility of a failed state that would have surely come up a number of times during his term as foreign secretary. Or, is he denying that Pakistan faces an existential threat
Bijoy Basant Patro is a journalist and development writer with specialisation in South Asian affairs
Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity
Riaz Mohammed Khan
Oxford University Press;