Friday, July 31, 2009

Hare and hounds

Nicholas Schmidle arrived in Pakistan in 2006 as a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs. He was first spotted on the Pakistani intelligence's radar when he wrote a piece on the Pakistani Taliban for the New York Times Magazine. To Live or to Perish Forever is an account of his two years in a country where another foreign journalist, Daniel Pearl, met with a bitter end.

Hillary Clinton told reporters during her recent India visit that while she agreed that America faced challenges on Af-Pak, there was no doubt that the Pakistani authorities were working to root out terror. Schmidle's book reminds us how hollow that claim is and how self-destructive America's optimism on this score.

As he roams the streets of Karachi, Gwadar and Quetta, Schmidle meets locals and elites who personify the stark contradictions of Pakistani society. So, while "ninety-nine point ninety-nine" per cent of Pakistanis rub their hands in glee at America's troubles in Afghanistan, as quoted by one local, a full one hundred per cent don't want to have anything to do with the Taliban on Pakistani soil.

To India, the chapter on Pakistan's repression of Balochistan is the most revealing, as also the most relevant. As the Manmohan Singh government frantically douses all-round fire at the wording of the joint statement signed at Sharm el-Sheikh, Schmidle exonerates India of any involvement, laying the blame squarely on Pakistan and China for co-operating to smother the genuine Baloch demand for autonomy.

Timely and provocative, Schmidle's book perfectly captures the schizophrenic nature of a society where policymakers are always buying time to diffuse crises and run a little more with the hare even as they hunt with the hounds.

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