The focus of Rashid's earlier books, "Taliban" (2000; revised edition 2010) and "Descent into Chaos" (2008) - see my reviews on Amazon - was Afghanistan. It was made clear in both books that the ISI, Pakistan's all-powerful intelligence service, had allowed the Afghan Taliban safe havens in Pakistan to which it could retreat after it was ousted in 2001, where it could regroup, and from where it could stage its increasingly successful comeback from 2003 onwards.
Despite its title, Pakistan is a very uncertain focus of this third part of the trilogy - uncertain only in part because, just as it is impossible to discuss Afghanistan without extensive excursions into the history of Pakistan, the reverse is equally true. At least a third of the book is more of a continuation of Rashid's earlier books on Afghanistan than it is an analysis of what is wrong with Pakistan.
It continues and extends the catalogue of US ineptitude that we saw in "Descent into Chaos". The Obama administration has handled Afghanistan as incompetently as the Bush administrations had done. The Washington turf battles over policy were worse than ever, and although sound policy papers were produced, they were not acted upon. Obama seems as much captive to US military thinking as Zardari is to that of the Pakistani military. In 2009 Obama announced surges at the same time as he signalled a specific date by which a draw-down of American troops would begin - encouraging the Taliban to hold out against the surge with the confidence that soon the field would be clear for them. There was a build-up of the Afghan Army and police, who were supposed to take over when the Americans left, but the desertion rate was staggering. American relations with Karzai are as tense as those with Pakistan. Karzai "frequently" said that he had three main enemies: the United States, the international community and the Taliban, and that of those three he would side first with the Taliban! The quagmire could hardly be deeper!
It was in fact Karzai who had initiated contacts with the Taliban as early as 2004. After Obama had signalled that the Americans would start pulling out in 2011, even the Americans, hitherto resisting the idea, came round to it, and secret talks began in late 2010. The narrative of these is fascinating, though it should have been told in a more chronological manner. The Afghan Taliban was anxious to escape from the control of the ISI. The Americans are not including the Pakistanis in these talks, which infuriates Pakistan which wants to be the chief broker in any settlement, but has done nothing to facilitate contacts between Karzai and the Afghan leadership in Pakistan. In 2010 the ISI even arrested the Taliban's No.2 for talking to Karzai's brothers, and he is still in their custody. This chapter ends with the suspension of the talks after the murder of Karzai's chief negotiator, the former Afghan president Rabbani, in September 2011 (but they have renewed since the book was written).
When Rashid does focus on Pakistan, the picture is just as bleak. The overall message is of competing power structures with policies so absurdly devious and illogical that they get into tangles entirely of their own making. The covert support given by the ISI (and always denied by the Pakistan government) to the Afghan Taliban and its allies, the Haqqani network in tribal North Waziristan, has not only skewed Pakistan's relationship with the United States (brought to breaking point by the killing of Osama bin Laden, with which this book opens), but it has also reared a cuckoo in the nest, in that the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas, even more extreme and more jihadist than its Afghan counterpart, escaped from its control, tries to overthrow the Pakistani government and is at war with the Pakistani army and the ISI - one way in which Pakistan is "on the brink" of disaster.
But Pakistan is "on the brink" even without the Afghan dimension. Rashid shows all the other internal strains: a crumbling economy, totally dependent on IMF bail-outs, which cannot sustain its rapidly growing population; a political system corrupt from the very top to the bottom; a civilian government which cannot curb the Army which absorbs between 25% and 30% of the budget (at the expense of the pathetic educational and social services) and 80% of the aid, and which is so obsessed with a perceived threat from India that it frustrates any rapprochement with that country (which does indeed cultivate ties with the Afghan government and absolutely refuses to put the Kashmir issue on any negotiating table); an army which cannot (or will not) curb the ISI, nor can it control the tribal areas where it is at war with the Pakistani Taliban while supporting the Afghan Taliban; separatism in Baluchistan; increased sectarianism; minority religions - even Muslim ones - terrorized, with the government not daring to crack down on this; suicide bombings (87 in 2010); the murder of journalists (eight in 2010); in 2009 the civilians killed by insurgents in Pakistan exceeding by 25% those killed in Afghanistan (!); a frightened and reclusive President out of touch with his people; Pakistan's poor relationship with all the other states in the region; and massive natural disasters.
In the last few pages, Rashid lists the attitudes and policies of the many players that must change if the region is to be rescued from further disasters. The previous narrative shows that chance of such changes happening are absolutely miniscule.
This is as devastating an account of the region's self-inflicted suppurating wounds as were its predecessors, though the mass of material is here not quite as well organized. And given that the forthright author is a Pakistani citizen, these books are quite extraordinary acts of courage.
Five stars, though, as one of the dedicatees, I have to declare an interest.