By Suhasini Haidar
September 15, 2009
9/11 still excites our imagination of jihadis and their joyless world. Journalists living and working out of Pakistan and Afghanistan paint a bleak, gloomy picture
September 11 is typically a day when the world looks to New York and Washington, where elaborate and moving ceremonies remember nearly 3,000 people who died there. It’s also a good time to remember what has followed since for the rest of the world, and, the signs in the jihadi build-up to 9/11 that the world missed then, but can’t afford to miss again.
With Pakistan and Afghanistan (and AfPak, the overlapping trouble spot in between), that becomes a daily game of second-guess, and anyone trying to follow events there will be grateful for a slew of books that have come out in the past few months, all by journalists — The Al Qaeda Connection by Imtiaz Gul is the perfect primer on just what is going on in FATA, Pakistan’s Tribal areas — essential if you want to follow the post-Mehsud possibilities for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. Interestingly, his case is that Al Qaeda is doing to Pakistan in Waziristan what Pakistan did to India in Kashmir — not to be missed, his description of the Kandahar hostage exchange, as well as a detailed chapter called the ‘ISI factor’.
The next great read is Nicholas Schmidle’s to Live or Perish Forever, the title taken from one of partition’s great proponents (and the man who coined ‘Pakstan’) Chaudhury Rahmat Ali’s description of the choices before Muslims pre-1947. You can be sure most Pakistanis are horrified to see Schmidle use it in a more current context. If Gul gives you information on militant groups and leaders, Schmidle’s is a real inside look at the fundamentalist idealogues who inspire jihadi militancy in Pakistan. His friendship with Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the cleric of the Lal Masjid, who was killed inside, and his description of the man and that movement is riveting. Equally so, descriptions of the militant Sunni Sipah-e-Sahiba group, and meetings with more mainstream leaders of the MMA and the Jamaat-e-Islami. His two year stint in Pakistan was cut short when Schmidle’s work got too ‘interesting’ for the Government, and he was deported.
Next for a book I confess I got to too late — journalist Murtaza Razvi’s description of Musharraf: The Years in Power, completed shortly after he resigned in August 2008. Straight journalism, fact over opinion, this is a great event-by-event record of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s coup and presidency. Pakistan has shown, that through the turmoil and exile, bans, and imprisonment its leaders face, its choice of leadership doesn’t change.
It was Benazir versus Nawaz for two decades before Gen Musharraf added himself to the mix. Razvi’s description of the dictator-President is sympathetic, showing Gen Musharraf as a man who tried hard to change the system, change himself, even change the military-civilian equation, and utterly failed at all three. He may now face a trial for treason, certainly, the last hasn’t been heard from Pakistan’s former President just yet. With indications that Gen Musharraf may (re)turn to Pakistani politics once the moratorium on his entry expires (two years since he gave up the uniform) in November, this book has a renewed relevance.
ABC correspondent Gretchen Peters was based in Pakistan and Afghanistan for two years before 2001, and watched the jihadi build-up. Yet he was caught unawares by the 9/11 attacks. But unlike many of us Peters chose to go back, and over the past six years has done the research that has gone into Seeds of Terror: The Taliban, The ISI and the Opium Wars.
Peters case is that a much bigger problem today is that the criminalisation of the Taliban and Al Qaeda — from ‘Mujahideen to the Mob’, is how the author puts it. Not only has the Taliban come back with a renewed strength, it is a renewed criminal strength, one that allows it to conduct a massive narcotics operation — a chain that begins with Osama bin Laden but ends with Dawood Ibrahim with high officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan either turning a blind eye or profiting along the way — an estimated $ 500 million a year industry in opium and heroin.
Gretchen has put under a close scanner also just what the US is doing — when it takes its focus off Iraq and peace-keeping, that is — and found ISAF tactics exactly what they shouldn’t be: For example, destroying the poppy crops of poor Afghan farmers, rather than squeezing the refiners and drug barons instead. At her most incisive, Peters describes the US approach to the sub-continent flawed because it “itemises and prioritises” challenges, rather than look at them as a whole, and that leads them to pick the wrong partners (ISI, Taliban and the mujahideen at different times)
There’s an ease of language that all these journalists employ that make all these books easy reads, but also they are great points of reference eight years after 9/11. Seldom has the ‘rough cut’ of Pakistan’s history been so interestingly researched.
Suhasini Haidar, Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN Network 18, New Delhi, India,