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Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan    by Mary Anne Weaver order for
by Mary Anne Weaver
Order:  USA  Can
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2003 (2002)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

If you are like me and have been getting the impression from news reports that Pakistan is a complicated place, Mary Anne Weaver's book will reinforce that view, but also go on to clarify the societal and historical pressures that make it that way. Before I opened a page, I was curious about ... Which side is Pakistan really on, in the struggle against Islamic extremists? How close has the country come to using its nuclear capability? Who is the real Benazir Bhutto? To what extent is Pakistan responsible for violence in Kashmir?

Weaver doesn't always have clear cut answers (it seems unlikely that anyone has) but she presents the facts at her disposal objectively and with an insider's viewpoint. The author is a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker and author of another book on militant Islam, A Portrait of Egypt. She has traveled extensively in Pakistan and interviewed many of the key figures. Before reading her work, I recommend that you look closely at the country's map at the front of the book. Seeing how Pakistan is sandwiched between Afghanistan and India (and also borders on China and Iran) gives a visual perspective on some its political issues.

In a prelude, the author discusses 9/11, how it was immediately clear that 'no nation was more critical in the U.S. equation than Pakistan', but how reluctantly the generals who control the country gave permission for U.S. military presence on the ground, and then only in remote corners of Pakistan, 'one of the most volatile, dangerous, yet fascinating places on earth'. She points out that, by funding the fighting in Afghanistan, 'the United States, intentionally or not, launched Pan-Islam's first holy war in eight centuries', and suggests that 'the accumulation of disorder in Pakistan is such that it could well be the next Yugoslavia'.

Here are some worrisome statistics mentioned in the book: as early as 1987, 90% of worldwide terrorist incidents took place in Pakistan, and an alarming number have continued since then; 'in every city and town there are monuments to Pakistan's nuclear bomb'; there are an estimated 7 million Kalashnikovs in Peshawar and surrounding regions; 95% of the Taliban's leadership studied in one of Pakistan's madrasahs (religious schools); 95% of Balochistan is still under tribal law, and there are mullahs everywhere (when traveling through the area in 1978, I also noticed the power and ubiquity of mullahs, and was surprised even then by the number of men carrying rifles).

The author sketches Pakistan's leaders and opinion makers against a backdrop of unfolding events and through her own interviews of them; prominent individuals such as Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, General Pervez Musharraf and ex-prime minister Benazir Bhutto; and also many others not well known in the West. There is a marvellous digression into the Saudi passion for falconry, and their excesses in hunting the endangered houbara bustard (a migrating desert bird) in Pakistan. And, of course, a section on al-Qaeda, its leader, and his relationship with the House of Saud.

Pakistan : In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan is a fascinating, frightening read that spoke to me most strongly of the risks of intervention in political ecosystems, and of unintended consequences. I now have a better understanding of a country known only through a brief visit and through Kipling's Kim, but also a greater anxiety about its potential to become 'the world's newest failed state - a failed state with nuclear weapons.'

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