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An inside look at the changes in Pakistan

Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America’s War on Terror, By Hassan Abbas, M. E. Sharpe, 267 pp., paperback, $25.95

Although it is a political history, parts of Hassan Abbas's new book, "Pakistan's Drift Into Extremism," reads like someone whispering family secrets. Instead of the crazy old aunt or the secret adoption, Abbas speaks intimately about the dizzying array of generals deposing presidents and presidents plotting against prime ministers that have whirled through the country's 57-year existence.

He tells us, for instance, that the "brilliant but temperamental Major General Akbar Khan" shared all his secrets with his wife and that it was she who "spilled the beans" about the coup he was planning.

He tells us who was a Scotch drinker (a dirty secret for any Muslim politician) and who is a murderer. He tells us who stood outside the door of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in full military dress, proclaiming that he wanted to guard the prime minister.

But this 267-page history is also part psychological profile of the larger-than-life personalities of the Pakistani army and their convenient love affair with extremist religious elements who gave birth to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan.

Perhaps the biggest secret Abbas reveals is how this array of politicians, one after the other, betrayed the secular vision of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, to seek legitimacy and popularity through religious parties.

Abbas, a former Pakistani police officer and one-time adviser to the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf, sheds light on mysteries that the vast majority of American readers have never wondered about: Why did Pakistan's army launch an attack on Kargil Heights, a rocky crag in Indian-held Kashmir, just as peace talks between the two nuclear powers were making progress?

Why did Pakistan shuffle around the army command at a crucial point in a war with India? Was the United States behind the coup against Bhutto? Why did the unruly militant group Muttahidah Quami Movement, or MQM, split apart in December 1991 ("They gave ideological reasons as the cause of the split," Abbas writes, "but the ISI," the Pakistani intelligence agency also known as the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence, "was behind the split.")

Such insider stories have elevated this book to the bestseller list in India, where newspapers have carried some of its juiciest tales, but it's harder to find in Cambridge, where Abbas is a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School and a doctoral candidate at Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

Yet the book is one in a series of recent works about Pakistan, America's most complex ally in the war on terror. Abbas's writing joins Stephen Philip Cohen's "The Idea of Pakistan" in the quest to unravel the mystery of how the mujahideen of the Cold War days -- supported by the Americans to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan -- so quickly turned their fury against Uncle Sam.

But Abbas's book is unique in that he is speaking as a Pakistani to his own people. In its most important form, the book is a truth-telling, undressing heroes, myths, and psychologies that school textbooks in Pakistan lionize.

Of Musharraf, Pakistan's current president and military leader, Abbas says the fatal car crash that killed Lieutenant General Ghulam Ahmed Khan changed Musharraf forever. Khan was one of the few subordinates who truly told it like it was, and "with his demise, Musharraf increasingly lost touch with reality and became a willing prisoner in a web of flattery," he writes.

It is also a truth-telling to the United States, which has supported the worst dictators -- and dropped support for democratic leaders -- with a superpower's caprice.

Those readers who had hoped for a policeman's view of Al Qaeda and the inside scoop on militant jihadi groups in Pakistan have to wait until the very last chapters, which spend a great deal of time on the terrorist groups that have taken the biggest toll on Pakistani people: sectarian groups of Sunnis that target Shi'as, and vice versa.

For an American audience, the most interesting parts of the book come at the end, when Abbas reconstructs -- partly from already published accounts -- the behind-the-scenes dealings after Sept. 11, when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell pushed Pakistan to do a 180-degree reversal on its support for the Taliban.

Abbas shows how, hours after its tumultuous birth as a nation separate from the largely Hindu India, Pakistan faced an identity crisis that has plagued it to this day. He shows how the two great tug-of-wars -- between being Muslim or secular, being a democracy or a dictatorship -- intertwined.

This, one senses, is the point of all the drama and history that Abbas regales his readers with, across the decades and fiascoes of Pakistan's often back-stabbing, and occasionally virtuous, political and military leaders.

Democracy is the only thing that will bring balance to the extremist equation, he tells his readers, who he clearly hopes include policy makers in the US government.

The last chapter reads like a doctor writing a prescription. If Pakistan is to be saved from intolerant mullahs, it must make peace with India on Kashmir and reduce the role of the military in politics, despite the strong US support for Musharraf, a key ally in the war on terror.

"The people of Pakistan yearn for true democracy," Abbas writes. "For this dream to become a reality, Pakistan's military establishment has to take a back seat."

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