Uneasy alliance

History chronicles Pakistan’s descent into extremism

One of the nasty effects of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States is that it stood geopolitics on its head—resulting in new, often-complicated global alliances. To take one prominent example: Prior to the attacks, the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s main protector in the area was the government of Pakistan.

hassan abbas

Hassan Abbas © Mark Morelli

After 9/11, Pakistan quickly became America’s new best friend. As part of its war on terrorism, the Bush administration agreed to end sanctions against Pakistan and ordered an aid package of up to $3 million in return for that country’s promise to help hunt down Osama bin Laden and block Al Qaeda fighters from fleeing from Afghanistan into Pakistan.

To date, however, the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been an uneasy one. Despite President George W. Bush’s emphasis on worldwide freedom and democracy in his inaugural address in January, the fact is that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has rigged elections, anointed himself president and reneged on his promise to step down from his military dictatorship last December.

Unknown quantity
Musharraf himself remains in an awkward position at home—once allying himself with hard-line Islamic parties for support and then trying to use the secular Pakistan People’s Party to undermine the fundamentalist extremists.

Americans know little about Musharraf. For this reason alone, a new and widely praised book, Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America’s War on Terror (M.E. Sharpe, 2005), comes at an important moment in time.

The book, written by Hassan Abbas, a former Pakistani police officer who is now a Ph.D. candidate at the Fletcher School, is dedicated to “all the innocent victims of terrorism around the world.”

The 267-page history, which Abbas wrote while he was a fellow at Harvard, explores the growth of religious extremism in Pakistan, while analyzing its relationship with the Pakistani army’s policies and the ever-changing U.S.-Pakistani relationship, especially since the 9/11 attacks.

Abbas’ portrait of Musharraf chronicles how the military strongman came to power in a bloodless coup five years ago and his struggle to remain in power in the face of domestic forces pushing for democratic reform. Along the way, there are some tantalizing personal nuggets, such as Musharraf’s penchant for an occasional scotch on the rocks—a no-no for any Muslim politician.

Political target
Few readers of Abbas’ book will be surprised to learn Musharraf’s position in his own country remains somewhat tenuous. Government corruption is rampant. Musharraf has been the target of numerous assassination attempts. And with the enactment of a law enabling him to remain head of the army beyond December, Musharraf infuriated all of Pakistan’s opposition parties, including the powerful Islamic alliance.

The book continues to garner praise. A Boston Globe review reported, “Although it is a political history, parts of Hassan Abbas’ new book…read 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.”

Publishers Weekly says the book “adds an important measure of sophistication to the popular understanding of Pakistan’s dangers and dysfunctions.” The New York Times is scheduled to review the book on February 6.

With Pakistan a member of the world’s nuclear club, with its dispute with India over Kashmir unresolved and with Musharraf having emerged as an unlikely but pivotal ally of the United States in its war on terrorism, Abbas’ book stands as an invaluable guide to Pakistan’s jihadist groups and the political and social environment in which they thrive.