Book Review: Pakistan On The Brink, by Ahmed Rashid

I have grave concerns over the future health of Ahmed Rashid. Pakistan is not friendly towards journalists, aid workers, politicians, business people, or anyone critical of Pakistani leadership.

Since 1992, 42 journalists have been killed in Pakistan ( April 20th, 2012, Mutaza Rizvi was found murdered in Karachi, the southern port city of Pakistan. Rizvi was a senior editor for “the Dawn” newspaper, a leading newsource in Pakistan. He had been bound and strangled ( According to the web site, “Violence Against Journalists in Afghanistan,” eight journalists were bullied, threatened, beaten, or killed in 2011.

Mr. Rashid is a highly esteemed Pakistani author, journalist, former revolutionary, and Central Asian expert. Pakistan On The Brink is the third book in a series which began with Taliban and continued with Descent into Chaos.


In Pakistan on the Brink, Ahmed Rashid presents in a series of essays the importance of Pakistan in the regional affairs of South Asia. The key to a successful Afghanistan is a stable Pakistan. In fact, the cornerstone of a stable South Asia, from Afghanistan to Bangladesh, is a stable democracy and the Rule of Law in Pakistan. The last 12 years in Pakistan, and South Asia, has been anything but stable.

Weaving together a continuous narrative of events transpiring since September 11th, 2001, Mr. Rashid pulls all regional players, the United States, and NATO supporters to describe the political calculus of the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, referred to as AFPAK. One cannot adequately analyze, interpret, or seek to explain the nature of geopolitical affairs in Afghanistan nor Pakistan without considering them as AFPAK. Any analysis must also include the influence of respective neighbors, including Iran, India, China, and Russia.

The sub-title of his book, “The Future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan,” is not accurate, in my opinion. Mr. Rashid’s essays describe recent conditions and the state of affairs as of 2011 between people, political parties, and countries named, not so much future-looking commentary. If Taliban was a treatise on the modern history of the Taliban, and Descent Into Chaos an examination of the U.S. role in Pakistan during the Bush Presidency (2001-2008), then Pakistan On The Brink provides an interesting framing of the delicate economic, social, and political climate currently existing in Pakistan.

His essays are captivating for those with little a priori knowledge of the geopolitical mires of South Asia. Even with some knowledge, Mr. Rashid clearly demystifies the web of intrigue in AFPAK relations. Mr. Rashid names specific people and organization he views as responsible for tactical and strategic failures across the region. Politicians across the board are implicated, President George Bush, President Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, and the current Pakistani President Asif Zardari and the Pakistani Prime Minister Raza Gilani. Bush was described as “congenial,” establishing a rapport with Afghan President Karzai but Afghanistan never was a priority for him. Obama is characterized as aloof, cool and distant, especially in regards to Afghan leadership, yet has done more for Afghanistan in his tenure as U.S. President than in all eight years of Bush’s presidency. Economic and military aid for Afghanistan increased substantially under Obama but his reticence to develop a relationship with Karzai has undermined peace negotiations.

The Pakistani leaderships comes across as nothing more than stooges for the Pakistani military and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI). Zardari and Gilani are completely ineffectual for a number of reasons. First and foremost, each is fearful of being removed from office (in the best case), or killed (in the worst case.) The military is the most powerful leadership authority in Pakistan currently, with the ISI close behind. Zardari and Gilani have done nothing to restrain the military and have gone as far as to support myths, lies, and anti-American propaganda aimed at the United States. The 2011 assassination of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan under the noses of the military, ISI, and Pakistan’s government gave evidence to Pakistani anti-American sentiments. Silent for two months after the killing, the first Pakistani government comments protested the violation of their airspace. Later, neither Zardari nor Gilani would quell rumors among the general Pakistani population the assassination was an utter fabrication.

Military officials on all sides are named and their ineffectual leadership decisions detailed. The Pakistani military is no doubt complicit in aiding and abetting the Haqqani Network, and by proxy, al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Haqqani Network is a family-run terrorist organization, operated by Jalaluddin Haqqani. With considerable wealth earned in business and construction, Haqqani is able to purchase equipment and run terrorist cells against anyone or any organization in the region. The Haqqani Network is known to support and train al-Qaeda, plus Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organization managed in Pakistan against organizations in India.

The Taliban cannot be described as a unitary organization. While affiliations may overlap, the Taliban consists of at least two groups, one based on Afghanistan, and one based in Pakistan. Membership may overlap, some philosophies may parallel, both favor the withdrawal of U.S./NATO forces from Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban are “nationalists,” they support an independent Afghan state, free of U.S., Pakistani, or Iranian influence. The Taliban in Afghanistan today are not the same Taliban faced by the U.S. military in the early 2000s. The U.S. military dealt with those Taliban already; the previous leaders are dead. Today’s Taliban are the sons and cousins of those earlier Taliban leaders. Under the current Taliban authority, some restrictions have eased. About 100 schools have been built throughout Afghanistan, thought most in the north and northwest. Girls are allowed schooling, and more girls are in school in Afghanistan than ever before, over 8 million. The Taliban have banned attacks against schools and have allowed UN organizations to inoculate children.

The Pakistani Taliban, on the other hand, aid and support al-Qaeda, the Haqqanis, and train suicide bombers. The Pakistani Taliban actively fight against the Pakistani government. Members are far more extreme in their ideals. Pakistani Taliban favor overthrowing the Pakistani government, the creation of a regional state based completely on Sharia. Al-Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba are their allies.

Mr. Rashid’s writing is compelling. As a Pakistani, his frustration with his country is evident. He often says so, citing Pakistan’s important geography, wedged between Iran and Iran, a potential conduit for a world’s worth of goods and services, with a population of once highly educated people and noted not long ago as a viable destination of foreign direct investment. How could Pakistan not be successful? he argues.

Pakistan will not be successful for the foreseeable future. The government is weak and unwilling to restrain the military or the ISI. The Pakistani military and the ISI leverage all sides against the other, incite fear and violence, work with adversaries of the U.S. and NATO. The government is fearful of an Afghanistan influenced by Shia Iran. The Pakistani government is fearful of an Afghanistan influenced by rising economic powerhouse of India. External players like the United States, vacillating between support and withdrawal, cutting economic aid and repairing damaging relations simply add to the chaos.

Mr. Rashid’s writing feels fast and loose. Months and days are frequently mentioned but no year. Getting lost in all of the details is easy, I discovered. I found myself searching the web for events so I could better establish timelines as his telling might move back and forth over days, months, and years upon a single page.

The level of detail and his familiarity with many of the important people made for fascinating reading. Mr Rashid had lunch, dinner, and breakfast with most of the top-level personalities, Asif Zardari, President Bush, President Obama, and Hamid Karzai. His love of Pakistan and his concern for his country, people, and culture is beyond reproach.

To truly understand the geopolitical complexity of peace and stability in South Asia, in Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and become quickly educated on the regional nuances, Mr. Rashid’s “Pakistan On The Brink,” should not be passed over.

Pakistan On The Brink. Ahmed Rashid. Penguin/Viking Hardback. 212pgs. 2012. $26.95

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