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Book Review: United with a Rope of Sand

We live in an age of jingoistic ultranationalism, and a book on Pakistan by a former top Indian intelligence officer raises expectations of a high measure of rancour and stridency. Instead, Devasher approaches his subject with extraordinary calm, even sympathy, but is unblinking in his gaze on Pakistan's endless courting of the abyss.

Devasher touches upon India, Kashmir and Pakistan's 'war of a thousand cuts', but these elements do not overwhelm. With an absorbing abundance of anecdotage, detail and an urgent realism, the book goes beyond the transient and immediate, to look at the 'multiplier effect of successive crises' pushing Pakistan towards 'multiple-organ failure'.

An inexorable degeneration commences with the Pakistan movement itself, in the communal polarization that was its rationale, in British mischief, and in the opportunism of leaders, both of the Muslim League and the Congress, but most prominently in Jinnah's schizoid vision. This fractious legacy congealed into a "visceral hatred towards India" and a domestic politics dominated by extremism, violence and a "trend of political assassinations". Devasher notes that terrorism arises out of a history predating Partition, of using 'non-state actors', beginning with orchestrated violence in the North West Frontier Province, on Jinnah's direction; and shortly after Independence, with the 'tribal militias' that rampaged into Kashmir.

There is a catastrophic inevitability in the succession of unfortunate choices that mark each stage of Pakistan's fractious history. The deepening engagement with Islamism and terrorism are widely known, but Devasher also documents the relentless evolution of 'WEEP' factors - water, education, economy and population - that constitute Pakistan's most enduring dangers.

Compounding Pakistan's many suicidal follies is a false narrative of India's imagined vulnerabilities and an irrational quest for parity. A stereotyping of Hindus as 'presumptuous, persistent and devious' and 'unable to exist as a single unified state', and the country's purported susceptibility to secession - there is a hotchpotch of prejudice, wishful thinking and outright invention that underpins Pakistan's strategic doctrines, galvanizing it to embark on murderous and suicidal missions.

Pakistan has sought to offset its vulnerabilities through relationships of dependency with major powers. As relations with the US approaches breaking point, a quality of triumphalism has marked Islamabad's orientation towards Beijing. Devasher, however, sees the China-Pakistan connection as complex and jagged, and argues that China will not bail Pakistan out if the US abandons it. Crucially, he notes, "Pakistan would find the Chinese far harder task masters than the US."

The penultimate chapter, "Looking Inwards" culls out a treasure trove of quotes from Pakistani writings, including some rational, though marginal, trends. Thus, Roedad Khan laments that the country is "united with a rope of sand." Ayaz Amir excoriates the Army's acquisitive rapacity, declaring "that unknown wag deserves a prize who first said that F-16 was a corner plot." And Yaqub Khan Bangash notes, "more Muslims live in fear in Pakistan than in India and thousands more Muslims have been killed in Pakistan on religious and sectarian grounds than in India since Independence."

Strategic writers through history have warned that to know oneself and to know the enemy are critical to success in war, and a failure on either count yields disaster. It is equally necessary to know one's friends and allies as well as the wider operational environment. Pakistan demonstrates an abysmal understanding on all counts: of itself, of its presumptive adversaries, of its apparent friends and, crucially, of the global context.

This, I think, is the core message of Courting the Abyss, and it is delivered very well.

(Published: India Today March 2, 2017)





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