The Duel:
Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power

Tariq Ali

Reviewed by Amitrajeet A. Batabyal

Since the dastardly events of 11 September 2001, the global “war on terror” led by the United States (U.S.) has taken many twists and turns. Specifically, in the context of the ongoing war on terror in Afghanistan, western governments now appear to agree that it will not be possible to stabilize Afghanistan without also stabilizing Pakistan. As this view has gained currency, the present condition and the likely future status of Pakistan have loomed large in the eyes of many western governments and security analysts. This book chronicles the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. not only in the context of the war on terror but, more generally, it focuses on “the long duel between a U.S.-backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country” (p. ix). 

The author begins by taking the pulse of Pakistan at age sixty. He then “rewinds Pakistan” by delineating the circumstances that led to its creation in 1947. He correctly notes that the founder of Pakistan—Mohammed Ali Jinnah—had not paid adequate attention to the implications of partitioning India along religious lines. As a result, there was confusion among the Pakistani elite as to whether this nascent nation ought to follow a secular course of action or whether it ought to be a nation for Muslims. Even if one subscribed to the latter perspective, there was confusion about how inclusive to be. As the author puts it, when confronted with a massive influx of refugees, “a panic-stricken Muslim League leadership in Karachi...told Indian Muslims that the new state was not intended for all Muslims but only those from east Punjab” (p. 30). Although this discussion is accurate, the same cannot be said about the author’s characterization of the leaders of the Indian Congress party as “visionless and arrogant” (p. 35) and his depiction of Jinnah as someone who was prepared for “an honorable compromise” (p. 35). The veracity of this characterization can certainly be challenged and it has, in fact, been challenged by the late Rafiq Zakaria in his book The Man Who Divided India.

A considerable part of this book is taken up discussing the rule of Pakistan by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and the events leading to the ascension of General Zia-ul-Haq to the top of the Pakistani leadership hierarchy. This discussion is both informative and absorbing. It is noted that although Bhutto was clearly intellectually superior to his many rivals, in the final analysis, he had one big flaw and this flaw led to his eventual downfall and to the rise of General Zia. In the author’s words “Bhutto’s fatal flaw was a refusal to share power within his party and without” (p. 101).

Most Americans have heard of Pervez Musharraf who, for a while, did double duty as the military dictator and the “elected” president of Pakistan. This book does a good job of pointing out that initially, hopes of Musharraf were high because “[c]lientalism, patronage and corruption on a gigantic scale were the hallmarks of [the] weak regimes...” of the previous two civilian leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (p. 134). We learn that although Musharraf initially gave considerable freedom to the media, when this media challenged his actions, he began to impose ever increasing strictures on them. Ultimately, Musharraf turned out to be no better than any of the previous military dictators who have, unfortunately, ruled Pakistan for extended periods of time.

The author’s discussion of the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan is incomplete. Specifically, he fails to point out that despite being the victim of unprovoked attacks by Pakistani troops and irregulars, the Indian army never crossed the actual line of control (LOC) and hence, in effect, they “boxed” with one arm tied behind their back. Had they, in fact, crossed the LOC then the duration of this war would have been shorter and Musharraf’s “stupid idea” (p. 141) would have looked even more stupid because Pakistani losses would have been far greater. In addition, on page 152 the author incorrectly claims that in December 1999, an Indian Airlines plane on its way to Kandahar was hijacked. The plane was not on its way to Kandahar. Instead, this plane was diverted and hijacked to Kandahar.

The ways in which Pakistan has been and continues to be in the “flight path” of American power are thoughtfully talked about by the author. He makes three points about the genesis of this state of affairs. First, he notes that beginning with Jinnah, the new rulers of Pakistan “developed an early communal awareness that to survive they had to rent their country” (p. 195). Second, he points out that despite this attitude, the U.S. was frequently indifferent to Pakistani requests for military and/or political assistance. This was because the U.S., Britain, and the former Soviet Union “agreed that the single most important country in the region was India” (p. 197). Finally, he believes that the early leaders of Pakistan suffered from “a permanent ‘inferiority complex’ in relation to India” (p. 204). Although the author’s treatment of the material here is perceptive, a few factual errors diminish the quality of this discussion. For instance, on page 204 he incorrectly says that the Indo-China border war took place in 1959. The correct year is 1962. 

In sum, this book is a mixed bag. The discussion of domestic matters in Pakistan is very informative, thought provoking, and, in general, a pleasure to read. In contrast, the discussion of international affairs is not uniformly praiseworthy. Although the author’s suggestions about what ought to be done to rescue Afghanistan and Pakistan from the downward spiral in which both nations now find themselves are eminently reasonable, the same cannot be said about all aspects of the author’s thinking about the relationship between Pakistan and the U.S. In addition, the occasional errors of commission and omission detract from the overall message of the book. These caveats notwithstanding, I recommend this book to all those who would like to learn more about the complex circumstances surrounding the creation of Pakistan and how these circumstances have shaped both political thought in Pakistan and the western world’s view of this nation’s apposite role on the world stage.
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