For the last couple of years I’ve been trying to read more books about the non-Arab Muslim world. Despite what most Americans think, the bulk of the world’s Muslim population doesn’t live in the Middle East but in South and Southeast Asian countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. So when I saw Tariq Ali’s 2008 book The Duel: Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power on the shelf of my local public library I decided to grab it. After starting it weeks ago I finally finished it late yesterday afternoon. While I wish I could say that Tariq Ali has written an excellent book about his native country of Pakistan, alas I cannot. Ali’s book is insightful, well-researched, but unfortunately a bit flawed.
First the good news. Tariq Ali did a fine job telling Pakistan’s history. Thankfully, as I hoped he would, Ali spent considerable time discussing the 1971 Pakistani Civil War. Not only would the bloody conflict end with an Indian invasion and East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh, but perhaps more importantly, the humiliated leaders of Pakistan would throw the country headlong into the costly quest to obtain nuclear weapons to counter India’s military might and in the process heal their wounded pride.
Ali also spent considerable time discussing the country’s lack of democratic institutions and leadership. When not ruled by army generals, the few civilian leaders have been corrupt and authoritarian. Further complicating things is the habit of some Pakistani leaders to co-opt various Islamic and Jihadi groups in an effort to steal thunder from their political rivals. But perhaps above all, after reading Ali’s book one walks away with the sense that Pakistan, while not being a “failed” state is certainly a dysfunctional one. After splitting off from India, it declared itself the world’s first Islamic Republic, a country defined solely by religion. With linguistic and ethnic differences of secondary importance, it is a collection of disparate provinces dominated by a Punjabi core. According to Tariq Ali, Pakistan is a state in search of a nation.
As for the bad news, the book is poorly edited. There’s a good deal of repetition and the book seems to lack a coherent structure, with one of the later chapters devoted almost solely to Afghanistan. At least one Amazon reviewer did not like his use of Ali’s use of English, and while I had no problem with Ali’s dense writing style, at times his prose did feel a tad wooden. In addition, in my opinion Ali completely downplays the risk posed by Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. I believe the reviewer “Kersi” on Amazon said it best:
Mr. Ali asserts that the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal getting into the hands of extremists is overblown and often used as a red herring for greater US intervention. I find his arguments for this position quite unconvincing. Yes, the Pakistan military would not allow this but is the military free of extremist elements who could shift the balance? After all was not Mr. A. Q. Khan out and about plying his nuclear wares to states like Iran and North Korea with the tacit approval of SOME elements in the military?
If, according to Tariq Ali Pakistan is a dysfunctional creation imperfectly cobbled together and ultimately falling a bit short of its vaunted expectations, then as irony would have it, his book The Duel truly resembles the country it describes.