The Duel, By Tariq Ali

Too many reasons to be cheerless about Pakistan's near future
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Once again, Pakistan is in crisis, with Waziristan the newest "most dangerous place" in the world. Islamabad can't control the escalating conflict, and the government is again run by an unpopular, incompetent and nepotistic civilian administration.

And again, Pakistan is going hat in hand to the IMF, Saudi Arabia and China to face off oil prices, food inflation, dwindling foreign exchange and declining terms of trade.

Tariq Ali has been warning of Pakistan's collapse for four decades. For those sins, his books have often been banned there, and "generals, corrupt politicians and bearded lunatics" dislike him in equal measure. In The Duel, Ali provides a gossip-filled, witty and polemical history, revealing, with perspicacity and verve, the flight into the abyss.

He begins with independence in 1947, showing how Pakistan's early leaders had not coherently imagined what Pakistan meant, and how quickly they lost trust. Unlike in India, Pakistan's founding fathers hadn't earned credibility or mass appeal, making it easy for the military to grab power. Feudal landlords wanted to avoid chaos, politicians were lining their pockets, and bureaucrats, including judges, acquiesced. The generals exploited US obsessions with the Soviet Union, and agreed to fight the anti-Communist jihad.

Ali recounts, with anguish and anger, how the generals who ruled Pakistan for 34 of its 60 years boosted defence budgets, starving development of resources. The US, preferring "pin-up generals" over civilians, hardly helped. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan criminalised Pakistan's cities, flooding them with drugs and guns.

Ali despairs over civilian failures, too. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto surrendered his progressive agenda to reactionaries, obsessing over a nuclear bomb and appeasing fundamentalists. Yet Islamic parties have rarely done well in fair elections. Benazir Bhutto squandered her opportunity by not levelling with the public when generals tied her hands, and failing to restrain her greedy husband, now president. The Sharif brothers could not forgive the Bhuttos for nationalising their business. Blood feuds dominate the narrative.

Ali blames them all, but also the US, which failed to encourage democracy. His solutions are sensible: land reforms, social-infrastructure investment, the rule of law, empowering women, freeing minds. Doing it is a different matter.