PAKISTAN: Eye of the Storm

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PAKISTAN: Eye of the Storm. By Owen Bennett Jones. Yale Univ. Press. 328 pp. $29.95

Pakistan matters, perhaps more than ever. Events have given a new urgency to a book such as this, which seeks to explain Pakistan to the general reader. Owen Bennett Jones, a BBC correspondent posted in Pakistan between 1998 and 2001, examines the nation’s tormented past and equally troubled present not in chronological fashion but through thematic chapters on Pakistani nationalism, the 1971 schism that broke the country in two and resulted in the creation of Bangladesh, the Kashmir quandary, the army, the Bomb, and the ever-present struggle between Pakistan’s civilians and military.

By carrying his account into early 2002, Bennett Jones makes the narrative relevant to today’s headlines, yet in some respects his story is already dated. Witness his opening sentence: "Pakistan is an easy place for a journalist to work." Poor Daniel Pearl found otherwise. Or his statement that there is no evidence that Pakistan has shared nuclear secrets with North Korea. Alas, credible press reports in fall 2002 suggested that Pakistan, in exchange for Nodong missile transfers, substantially helped Pyongyang with its enriched uranium weapons program.

The storm in the book’s subtitle is not simply the one that has occurred since 9/11; Pakistan has always been turbulent. The 1947 partition of British India led to the massacre of at least a million people and triggered one of history’s largest mass migrations. The agony that accompanied Pakistan’s birth has been followed by three or, depending on who’s counting, four wars with India. No elected Pakistani government has ever completed its term of office, and no military dictator has left on his own terms. Sectarian violence, armed insurrection, ethnic and tribal animosities, secessionist movements, private armies, and a tough neighborhood have combined to fuel a profound sense of insecurity among Pakistanis.

Yet Pakistan is not a nuclear-armed rogue state, or a nation of Islamic extremists determined to destroy Western civilization. Most Pakistanis, Bennett Jones writes, have little sympathy for radical mullahs and want their country to be a moderate, tolerant, progressive state.

And what of Pervez Musharraf, the country’s current military strongman? Is he a stout U.S. ally in the war against terrorism, a usurper of democracy, a liberal reformer and anticorruption crusader? Bennett Jones is not unsympathetic to the general. Musharraf, he writes, seeks to minimize the role of religion in state affairs. He is remarkably tolerant of a free and frequently adversarial press. He has a vision of a modern, liberal Pakistan.

But can he build that Pakistan? Here Bennett Jones is less sanguine. As he ruefully notes, Pakistani leaders have always been better at declaring policies than implementing them. Two electoral events in 2002—in April, a phony referendum granting Musharraf another five years in office; in October, a rigged parliamentary vote— undercut the general’s legitimacy. He has not shown a willingness to promote genuine reform if it incurs substantial political costs. The extent of his control over the country’s powerful military intelligence agency is unclear. And most fundamentally, Musharraf fails to understand that the army isn’t the solution to Pakistan’s problem, it’s part of the problem.

The West, Bennett Jones contends, has an interest in seeing Musharraf succeed. The notion of Islamic radicals with their hands on Pakistan’s nuclear button is unsettling to say the least. Twice in the past 18 months, India and Pakistan have edged perilously close to war, and many experts predict new tensions as the snows melt this spring, opening the mountain passes for Pakistani infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir. A full-fledged war on the subcontinent could have catastrophic consequences.

The world has a stake in what happens in Pakistan. How great a stake, this book makes compellingly clear.

—Robert M. Hathaway


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