Frontline Pakistan

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Zahid Hussain, IB Tauris, £9.99

Terms such as "Talibanisation" and "failed state" are often used to describe the inevitable crisis in Pakistan. As the US pursues Islamist militants across western Asia and the Middle East, its relentless war machine has plunged Pakistan into a political nightmare.

Zahid Hussain sets out to provide a comprehensive account of how and why the "war on terror" has placed Pakistan firmly in the firing line. As Pakistan correspondent for The Times, Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, Hussain has had wide access to Pakistan president Pervez Musharraf, US administrations and leading members of various Islamist networks.

His account places the predisposition to army rule, warring Islamic factions and ethnic strife in the wider political context of Pakistan's 60 year history. Hussain shows how Pakistan's strategic importance to the US has been central since its inception. Its regional location in the context of the Cold War determined political developments from its role as a buffer to the non-aligned India of the 1950s and 1960s, to its frontline importance in the 1980s war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan and now against Islamist militants.

Military intelligence has been vital in this. The Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence agency has had enormous financial backing, training and support from the CIA. Hussain provides detailed accounts of meetings and briefings between CIA bosses and their Pakistani counterparts throughout the last two decades.

However, the Pakistan regime is not a mere puppet of US interests. It has its own regional ambitions and its interest in Afghanistan has been as much to do with establishing a buffer zone against India and Shia Iran as corresponding to US interests.

For much of Pakistan's history army rule has been the norm, and it has been subjected to a policy of "Islamicisation" over many decades. Under general Zia ul Haq's rule Islamic teaching was made compulsory for soldiers and the high command to produce "soldiers for Islam".

However, the army is not a homogenous entity. Alliances and deals have been conducted as a result of political expediency as well as ideological and sectional interests. So some generals have been horrified by the abandonment of Taliban and Al Qaida units while others are more concerned with the accords signed with India over the region of Kashmir.

Similarly, Hussain shows that not all Islamist groups are the same. The networks of Al Qaida and the Taliban are committed to the introduction of a global Islamic caliphate while the chief motivations for jihadist groups are regional and local in relation to Kashmir and establishing orthodox Sunni hegemony in Pakistan.

Musharraf is on a tightrope, balancing conflicting interests between US, mainstream and extreme jihadist groups, as well as divided loyalties within the army. This explains attempts on his life. How far he will survive no one can tell. What is all too clear however is how both the Pakistani state and Washington have tried to co-opt various groups and militias as clients to advance their interests. These alliances are unstable and constantly tested under the impact of wider political convulsions and regional conflict.

Hussain's book has the merit of demonstrating that attempts to direct, unleash and rein in various forces can only work sometimes. On most occasions the most powerful state in the world and one of the most militarised and nuclear armed regional powers are unable to control the movements their policies have spawned. This is a valuable addition to the arguments of the anti-war movement.