Book review – Husain Haqqani’s Reimagining Pakistan: Transforming a Dysfunctional Nuclear State

By: | Updated: May 21, 2018 2:40 PM

Husain Haqqani has been described as “Pakistan’s leading dissident public intellectual” on the jacket of the book under review, and for good reason.

pakistan, china, indiaA file photo of Pakistan’s PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi (centre) with members of his cabinet and chief of army staff Qamar Javed Bajwa. The author is critical of the ‘deep-state’—where certain organs of the state, for example the military and the bureaucracy, work covertly to undermine the elected government—that has shaped the trajectory of Pakistan.

Husain Haqqani has been described as “Pakistan’s leading dissident public intellectual” on the jacket-cover of the book under review and for good reason. A noted journalist, academic, diplomat and now analyst at a leading US think-tank, Haqqani has been a staunch critic of his country of origin – Pakistan – and the ‘deep-state’ that has shaped the trajectory of that nation in the tumultuous and bloody manner that it has unfolded since August 1947.

A deep-state is one where certain organs of the state , for example the military and the bureaucracy work covertly to undermine the elected government, or perpetuate their power to advance their own interests. Pakistan’s army and the many tentacles it has spawned by way of intelligence agencies and right wing extremist/terrorist groups are often referred to as the deep-state in that country.

Haqqani notes candidly : “Objective analysis cannot ignore the disconcerting highlights of Pakistan’s seventy-year history: four full fledged wars, one alleged genocide, loss of half the country’s land area in conflict, secession of the majority population, several proxy or civil wars, four military coups, multiple constitutions, long periods without constitutional rule, frequent religious and sectarian discord, repeated economic failures, numerous political assassinations, unremitting terrorism, continued external dependence and chronic social underdevelopment.”

Few Pakistani authors would use the word ‘genocide’ in relation to their army, even it is is preceded by the world ‘alleged.’ This is the kind of thumb-nail sketch of a country that only a dissident intellectual can outline but there is a core earnestness in what Haqqani is seeking to do as a concerned citizen who is now in exile.

Exhorting his fellow citizens to apply their mind ” to figuring out how to set their country right instead of insisting that there can be nothing wrong with it”, the aim of the book is: “at compiling historical facts , political realities and economic veracities that are often denied as part of Pakistan’s ‘positive’ narrative. It is an invitation to change the way Pakistanis imagine their nation…”

This an ambitious and worthy task, for if there is a central structural element about how Pakistan envisions itself in the dominant narrative nurtured by the deep-state, it is through denial – denial of history and facts ; and then creating a burnished make-believe, in which the entity of Pakistan is a mix of heroism and grit while being a victim of external conspiracies, even as it remains committed to being the land of the pure Muslim and the guardian of the faith.

An alternative narrative with no connection to reality or the empirical record has been assiduously nurtured by the deep-state and the indoctrination of the young Pakistani begins in school. As Haqqani points out : “textbooks were standardized, presenting a version of history that linked Pakistan’s emergence to Islam’s arrival on the sub-continent instead of it being the outcome (emphasis added) of a dispute over the constitution of post-colonial India.” The burnishing in the school curriculum acquires a meta-narrative that subsumes religion and as the author points out: ” The history of Islam was presented, not as the history of a religion or civilization, but as a prelude to Pakistan’s creation.”

In seven lucid chapters the book provides considerable detail about the manner in which Pakistan has been ‘imagined’ , though the global community perceives it as an ‘international migraine’ (Madeline Albright). The journalist in Haqqani comes to the fore with gusto and he quotes a range of sources – far and wide – to buttress the many observations and assertions that are made through the book. For instance, in the first eight lines of the book there are five citations and in sum, the 700 end notes span 44 pages.

This proves to be a distraction and in many sections, the book darts from one source to the other and the sheer weight of so many voices tends to drown out the author. This is a pity for Haqqani has a deep water-table when it comes to his country and has a distinctive personal and professional profile. In one of his interviews, (1999) he asserts : “Over the last three decades, I have alternated between being attracted to and repulsed by political Islam ” and this is reference to his having been a member of the student wing of the Jamat-e-Islami.

Over the decades, Haqqani worked with many Pakistani leaders including arch rivals Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto and has the rare distinction of being spokesperson for both of them when they were Prime Ministers! The book would have acquired greater credibility if Haqqani had explored the central contradictions in how Pakistan is imagined by the deep-state in a more rigorous manner through his own journey – of a dedicated party loyalist to dissident intellectual.

The re-imagining that the book advocates is persuasively conveyed in the last chapter entitled ‘Avoiding the March of Folly.’ Arguing that Pakistan could adopt a new course as Germany and Japan did after 1945, Haqqani makes a very pertinent observation and suggestion when he outlines the contour of this new national initiative: “It could begin by allowing discussion of alternative imaginings of Pakistan that are not bound by its narrowly defined ideological parameters. Pakistan’s military officers might need to do the greatest rethinking.”

This kind of re-imagining of Pakistan by its military is visionary but history reminds us that both Germany and Japan altered course when their militaries were totally defeated in 1945. The Pakistan military went through its most humiliating defeat in 1971 and yet managed to create a false narrative. As Haqqani points out: “On 16 December 1971 – the day Pakistan’s armed forces in erstwhile East Pakistan surrendered to the joint forces of India and Bangladesh – Pakistani newspapers led with headlines proclaiming impending victory.”

Encouraging Pakistan to come out of its carefully constructed cocoon of denial is imperative for any meaningful redress of the many problems that plague that nation. Haqqani is to be commended for illuminating this monumental contradiction and he is not alone – for currently former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is also asking some very inconvenient questions about the deep-state.

C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi

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