- Afghanistan and Pakistan: Conflict, Extremism, and Resistance to Modernity
Riaz Mohammad Khan is the epitome of a voice of reason in the Pakistan foreign policy establishment. A sympathetic US diplomat recently quipped that maybe we need psychology more than political science to understand public affairs in the country. Now the former Foreign Secretary obligingly puts his country on the couch and authoritatively explains the origins of Islamic extremism in Pakistan, the relationship with Afghanistan and how Pakistan fits into attempts to stabilize the war-torn country next door.
Riaz Sahib [Sahib is a polite form of “Mister”] is the other kind of hardliner — a committed, unrelenting rationalist appalled at the decline of secular education, suppression of science, and emergence of an atmosphere of public religiosity. His tools are logic and evidence, not Kant. It is a tribute to the traditions of Pakistani bureaucracy that such a man can rise to the top, intellect and wit intact.
Fortunately, although few can rival Riaz Sahib in his eloquence and erudition, in his political conclusions he is not alone within the Pakistani establishment. The 2011 US Institute of Peace (USIP) and Jinnah Institute study of “perceptions of Pakistan’s foreign policy making elite” found a consensus that Pakistan had a stake in a stable Afghanistan and seeing the Afghan Taliban tamed rather than empowered. That finding was important because it implied that there was mileage in US policy of engagement with Pakistan rather than containment if not confrontation.
Riaz Sahib’s rationalist critique of public discourse in Pakistan describes it as deeply confused. Religiosity stifles debate and obscures blatant injustices such as the sequence of spurious blasphemy cases. There is an internationalist element to Pakistan’s [End Page 374] confusion rooted in a romantic idea of the Muslim ummah and flirtation with the pan-Islamic caliphate. Pakistanis delude themselves that the Taliban are pure and just, by blinding themselves to the abuses of human rights and crude power struggle garbed in language of jihad. For the history of muddled internationalism, Riaz Sahib offers a quick tour of the development of sub-continental Muslim political thought, through Shah Waliullah, Syed Ahmad Shaheed, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jalaluddin, and Maudoodi. In contemporary discourse, Urdu print journalism has helped perpetuate the confusion, alarming its readers with emotive accounts of Muslim predicaments abroad. The TV anchors of the new broadcast media seemed to continue in this tradition by spreading “Blackwater” scare stories. But Riaz Sahib suggests that there is space for the voice of reason in these new media to start slaying sacred cows. I was reminded of the formidable Veena Malik’s televised grilling of a patronizing Mawlvi [religious scholar].
Much US frustration with Pakistan has revolved around the perplexing issue of insurgent safe-havens. Explaining this is always a challenge for writers on Pakistan. Riaz Sahib is unequivocal in his critique of pre-2001 Pakistani support to “non-state actors.” The Kashmir cause was damaged by this support, the doctrine of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan never made sense, and the patronizing of militant Islamist groups sowed dragons teeth which threatened Pakistan’s own stability. Riaz Sahib says that in 2000 he challenged then-President Pervez Musharraf on the strategy of supporting jihadi groups, but Musharraf replied that his hold on power depended on letting such things continue. I suspect that Riaz Sahib’s admiration for Musharraf derives from the general’s willingness to re-evaluate and change course when faced with the US response to 9/11. On the issue of safe havens after 2001, the author is more equivocal. He warns against the tendency for outsiders to entertain exaggerated notions of the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence’s (ISI) grasp, role, and capabilities and is skeptical of Hamid Karzai or Amrullah Saleh’s periodic claims to know exactly where the ISI is hiding Mullah ‘Umar. Perhaps he was wise not to delve too deeply into this issue as speculating about covert affairs is a thankless...