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More of chaos
The recent NATO conference in Chicago formally announced the beginning of the end-game in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama reaffirmed the deadline of 2014 for the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. He also confirmed that American troops would begin to transition from security duties in the middle of next year - thereafter the Afghans would have to take the lead in the fight against the Taliban. Meantime, talks with Taliban have been underway in Qatar and Turkey;though there has been little progress so far. In short, 2014 is likely to be a turbulent turning point for Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in the region.
Few journalists are as well placed as Ahmed Rashid in helping us parse the complex dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan. He wrote the book on the Taliban in 2000 and had been following the trajectory of the Taliban well before others began to pay attention to them after 9/11. Unsurprisingly Rashid became a much sought after figure in policy circles in Western capitals. As he glided in and out of the State Department and the Presidential Palace in Kabul, among other power centres, Rashid's work acquired a different focus and tone. The grounded perspective of the first-rate journalist was gradually edged out by the outlook of the policy advisor. This was evident in his second book on Af-Pak, Descent into Chaos. In this book Rashid tended to claim that things could have turned out better if only the powers that be had followed his advice. Even so, the journalist in him periodically surfaced to give useful insights into the impact of the war on both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Pakistan on the Brink is presented as the latest instalment of a trilogy on Af-Pak. Rashid almost concedes that the publisher had wrung the book out of him. And it shows. The book is at best a loosely knit collection of essays. It provides no new information and little fresh analysis of events in the region over the last few years. Much of it is based on media reports and books by Bob Woodward and others. Anyone who has kept up with the news over this period will be underwhelmed by Rashid's latestoffering.
Rashid's assessments rarely rise above the commonplace - be it on the role of Pakistan's military, the bureaucratic infighting and incoherence in Washington, or the mercurial swings of attitude on the part of President Hamid Karzai. He assumes that the Obama administration simply does not grasp the complexities of the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan and that it risks repeating the mistakes of the past. But it is not clear that the US can substantially influence Pakistan's behaviour. As the rift over the past few months shows, Washington and Islamabad are like a couple stuck in a bad marriage without the option of divorce. Similarly, the Obama administration may not be na�ve in their hopes of negotiations with the Taliban. Washington may well be seeking a "decent interval" (as Nixon and Kissinger did with Vietnam) between an American withdrawal and the collapse of any agreement with the Taliban.
Rashid's observations about Pakistan are at once unexceptionable and wishful: 'Pakistan must act as a normal state, rather than a paranoid, insecure, ISI-driven entity'. Instead of plying such platitudes, it would have interested to know more about why the ordinary Pakistanis buy into this paranoia. Likewise his presentation of the army's operations in Swat as a success story glosses over the humanitarian catastrophe now playing out in that area.
That the finest journalist of Afghanistan and Pakistan should have turned into an armchair analyst is surely one of the minor tragedies of this seemingly unending war.
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