BOOK REVIEW The Unraveling The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad by John R Schmidt
Reviewed by Erico Yu
In mid-September, bomb blasts and gunfire hit the United States Embassy and the
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in the Afghan capital,
Kabul, killing seven people.
According to subsequent intelligence reports, the perpetrators were from the
Haqqani network, which has been funded and supported by the Pakistan
government's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The Pakistani government denied
the US accusations, but the tough reactions of both sides reveal the mutual
mistrust and widening cleavage between the two counter-terrorism allies.
It seems to be a policy contradiction for Pakistan to support US
military actions in Afghanistan while maintaining its connection with radical
Islamic groups in the region.
Yet, according to John R Schmidt, a senior US diplomat and analyst of Pakistani
politics, Pakistan's dual policy is understandable and the US must face up to
In his latest book, The Unraveling: Pakistan in the Age of Jihad,
Schmidt traces the history of Pakistani politicians who have advanced foreign
policy goals by using Islamic radicals, especially in Kashmir and in
Afghanistan's civil war. He tells readers of how Pakistan has become a center
of regional radical Islamism not only because of its selfish leadership and
poor judgment, but also because of the mistakes and miscalculations of India
and the United States. This is, he cautions, "a story without heroes".
Those who study Pakistan must have a comprehensive understanding of the
country's feudal class structure, military affairs and Islamism. The first
three chapters of the book reveal the country's unique social patronage network
and traditions, exposing the complicated relationships among these three
Many civilian politicians have been locked in "a perpetual struggle" for access
to national resources to serve feudal landlords. The army, on the other hand,
has a more national and public interest perspective, though it lacks democratic
legitimacy and the trust of the public.
Although once a low-profile actor in the political arena, Islamism, especially
the more fundamentalist Deobandi Sunni sect popular among the Pashtuns of
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly North Western Frontier province) and
lower-class Punjabis, has become a fertile soil for radical jihadis.
Schmidt squarely blames Pakistani politicians for preparing the ground for the
current ascendancy of radical Islamism, from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sending
irregular forces to help the Kashmiri Muslim uprising in the early 1960s and
Zia ul-Haq's support of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan to the deliberate
institutionalization of pro-Pakistan and Pashtun majority jihadist groups -
such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and later the
Lashkar-e-Taiba - to serve Pakistani interests in Kashimir and in Afghanistan
since the late 1980s.
Such a foreign policy reached its apex when the Taliban took over Afghanistan
in the mid-1990s, which created an illusion that the strategy was effective.
President George W Bush's "you're either with us or against us" stance gave
Islamabad no choice but to stand on the US side, which put then-president
Pervez Musharraf and his successors in a difficult situation. Given the bitter
memories of the territorial dispute with Afghanistan before the 1980s and the
pro-India tendencies of a politician like Hamid Karzai in office in Kabul,
Pakistan hopes that the Taliban can keep their neighbor preoccupied and,
therefore, less of a threat to Pakistan.
As such, Pakistan's cooperation with the United States has always been limited
and intermittent. The government even reached several peace agreements with
radical Islamic groups and local extremists in the tribal areas while
conducting military operations against them.
After 2007, when Islamabad realized that jihadi groups, which provided refuge
for former al-Qaeda and Taliban members fleeing from Afghanistan, became a
primary threat to its own stability, it found itself outmaneuvered in the
ensuing garrison warfare because of inadequate military capacities and
Schmidt understands these difficulties and accepts some of Pakistan's
explanations. But he insists that the Pakistani leadership is largely
responsible for this dire situation.
The situation in Pakistan also poses a policy dilemma for the United States. On
one hand, the White House has failed to press Pakistan to do more to either
eradicate its domestic radical Islamism or to rein in nuclear proliferation. On
the other, as indicated in Schmidt's conversations with Pakistani army
officers, governmental officials, and Islamic sect leaders, there is a chronic
distrust of Americans among Pakistanis.
If a leader pushes too hard on the issue or gets too close to the United
States, it fuels domestic anti-Americanism that undercuts his governance, as
happened in the case of Musharraf. It also helps expand the influence of
radical Islamism into urban areas, which encourages more US drone attacks that
kill innocent Pakistanis, thereby creating a vicious circle that impedes the
At a broader level, Schmidt believes that both American and Indian policies
exacerbate Pakistan's sense of insecurity and contribute to its reluctance to
fight jihadist groups. Although the United States played an important role in
the re-launch of peace negotiations, its commitment to Pakistan's security is
limited to its multi-billion dollar assistance.
The United States, after all, is rapidly expanding its military and strategic
relationship with India, in part to contain China. India, meanwhile, shows
little willingness to withdraw militarily from Kashmir and provide autonomy
status to the region under a Pakistan-India-Kashmir trilateral mechanism.
Schmidt's book is rather gloomy in its forecast of Pakistan's future. Despite
his pessimism and the bias provided by his years as a US diplomat, Schmidt does
a credible job of analyzing the internal dynamics within Pakistan and its
implications for US foreign policy.