Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror
Hassan Abbas
M.E. Sharpe, Paperback Edition, 2005
Review score: *** out of *****

I read a novel set in Portugal and realized that I knew very little about that country. I've visited Spain, I've read a history of the Spanish civil war, I know something of the part that Spain played in European history. But I know very little about Portugal.

Portugal does not have large oil reserves, have paroxysms of mass killing or possess nuclear weapons. Portugal's colonial past is behind it and they no longer seem to threaten anyone. In the modern world, Portugal seems to just exist quietly in Spain's shadow. Perhaps the fact that I know so little about Portugal means that they are currently a relatively happy country.

In contrast to Portugal's modern history, Pakistan has a history full of tumult. Pakistan was founded during India's independence from Britain in 1947. By some estimates, during the partition from India a million people died. Pakistan and violent Islamic Jihadism are intimately intertwined, starting with the support of the resistance to Soviet occupation in Afghanistan to the current time when Pakistan provides a haven for violent groups like Al-Qaeda. On top of all this, Pakistan is a nuclear power with an antagonistic relationship to its neighbor, India.

Unlike Portugal, Pakistan is a country that people pay attention to. Many books and academic articles have been written about Pakistan. In Pakistan the educated elite are usually fluent in english and some of these books are written by Pakistani intellectuals. One of these books is Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army, and America's War on Terror by Hassan Abbas.

According to the brief biography in the book, Mr. Hassan served in the Pakistani government, in the police. He published this book while he was a graduate student in the United States.

Pakistan's Drift into Extremism is a history of Pakistan from its founding in 1947. Mr. Abbas covers the various regimes that have ruled the country as it moved between military and civilian rule. Pakistan is a country with a tragic history of violence, turmoil and instability. Throughout Pakistani history the military has been a constant part of the government structure.

The combination of Islamic fundamentalism, Jihadism and nuclear weapons have prompted some people to describe Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world. In Mr. Abbas' account, Islamic factions have been a core part of Pakistani politics since the rule of General Zia. So far the rulers of Pakistan have not been Islamic fundamentalists, but they have used Islam as a political tool.

The Afghan resistance to the Soviets and the huge influx of US money and arms gave birth to the Jihadists. Zia and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, used these factions for a number of purposes. Some of the warriors who were trained in the Afghan resistance were turned loose in Kashmir after the Soviets left Afghanistan. Like Frankenstein's monster, the Jihadists have taken on a life of their own and have not always been controllable by their masters in the ISI. Some of these groups have turned on their masters and have attempted to assassinate President Musharraf, the military ruler of Pakistan.

Hassan Abbas is an armature historian. Several reviewers have commented that this history of Pakistan is readable. Perhaps that begs the question: Compared to what? Compared to a historian like Adrian Goldsworth, who wrote the excellent Caesar: Life of a Collossus, Pakistan's Drift into Extremism can be a tedious read. I did not find the book terribly well written. The structure of the book follows the history of Pakistan, but its structure is somewhat idiosyncratic. There is a long section on a brief attempt under Musharraf to fight corruption in the government. There is another fairly long section that covers the death of General Zia in an airplane crash. This crash may not have been an accident and Mr. Abbas discusses who might have been responsible. Mr. Abbas covers the rise of the Islamic political factions. Only at the end of the book does he discuss the armed Islamic factions. The "War on Terror" may have been tacked onto the title to increase the sales of the book.

Ian Kaplan
March, 2008
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