Book Review: The Duel

The Duel – Pakistan on the Flight Path of American Power.  Tariq Ali.  Scribner (Simon & Schuster Inc.) New York, 2008.

By Jim Miles

Pakistan is becoming more and more important in the news media (excepting the current scares with the financial markets) and its interactions with the Taliban are becoming more prominently known.  Predator drones have been used more frequently in the Northwest Frontier Provinces and the almost semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas, both consisting mainly of the Pashtun, a people divided by the artificial and not fully recognized Durrand Line that forms the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  These same people compose a significant per centage of the military forces in Pakistan. 

What is not true is that these areas are fully in the Taliban camp, and recent and historical electoral votes indicate a strong secular sentiment with the voters (recognizing within that secularity that Pakistan is officially a Muslim state).  An unauthorized U.S. led military assault on September third into South Waziristan killed twenty civilians. When reports come in later about both the Taliban and the Pakistan military forces firing warning shots at American helicopters heading towards Pakistani territory, the reality of future possibilities should the U.S. continue its incursions into Pakistani territory become quite frightening.

Pakistan is nominally an independent and democratic state, although it has had a ‘civilian’ government for only fifteen of its sixty years, the other years served under military dictatorship. When ‘democracy’ reins, it is rife with clan disputes, cronyism, bribery, fraud, and U.S. influence. When the military reins, the same holds true, and in spite of U.S. rhetoric about global freedom and democracy, they have never hesitated to support any client Pakistani regime.  As reported by Tariq Ali in his clearly written new work, “The Duel”, “U.S. priorities determined Pakistan’s domestic and foreign policies from 1951 onward.”

The current situation is no different other than that the military situation is increasingly tense as the Bush government has publicly identified Pakistan as being in the centre of the fight against terror and promises to support their independence and sovereignty. Given the history of U.S. interventions globally and in its manipulations in relationship to Pakistan in particular, this rhetoric is both disingenuous and frightening. Emphasizing that the world’s sixth most populous state and a nuclear state is “not on the verge of a jihadi takeover,” Ali acknowledges the possibility of a self-fulfilling prophecy if the U.S. tries to “occupy parts of Pakistan, destroy its nuclear facilities, and impose a puppet regime. The hell that is Iraq would rapidly shift eastward. Definitely not recommended.”

Ali argues, “the only way a jihadi group could penetrate the nuclear facilities would be if the army wanted them to.” That would only happen if the army would “rupture” as a result of occupation and bombing by U.S. forces. In a more recent interview since the writing of the book, Ali reiterated the same idea, “Pakistan is much larger country than Afghanistan, it is a country of 200 million strong with nuclear weapons, so it’s foolish to try to destabilize this country.”[1] 

In “The Duel” Ali provides the history that leads up to this current crisis. The actual duel is described as one “between a U.S. backed politico-military elite and the citizens of the country” a duel shaped by the formation of the state itself and the relationships between India, China, Russia and the U.S.’ perception of its strategic needs.  The most important aspect of the duel “is not the highly publicized conflict n Waziristan, but the divide between the majority of the people and their corrupt, uncaring rulers.”  It is a duel in which “The people cannot be blamed for the tragedies that have afflicted the country.”  While that is true of just about any national history as ‘the people’ simply want to get on with their lives, in Pakistan it presents a particularly tragic and morbid picture of what occurs when imperial strategies (British, Russian, U.S. or any other) ride roughshod over any group of national people.  That Pakistan was founded as an Islamic state (identified by Ali as possibly an unintended outcome of negotiations on the British withdrawal from India) and covers an area inhabited by several national groups with the Punjabi military and bureaucratic dominance as the strongest focus, instability is not surprising. 

Accordingly, as “there is no serious political alternative to military rule…The outlook is bleak.”  The main issues in Pakistan are not (or were not until recently) the Taliban and the war but social and economic inequality.  The solutions for a successful Pakistan have commonalities globally.

First and most obvious for the Pakistanis would be the withdrawal of NATO forces n Afghanistan, and even more so, from all Middle east territories, as the “recent Islamist movements with their extremist factions is a modern phenomenon….It’s a phase that will whither away…if the military occupations of Muslim lands are ended.” As has been proven in Iraq and other areas of the world, the strongest recruiter for any military insurgency is occupation and attacks on civilians. 

Along with the disencumberment of the military serious social and economic changes would be required: land reform, military power controlled, the globalization rules of the IMF need to be altered, the social infrastructure, in particular education, health, and affordable housing, needs to be reformed, and the legal system needs it independence as does the media.

“The Duel” is a strongly written, well argued, and readily accessible work.  Ali is quite clear in his opinions and supports them well with the history of intrigues and manipulations that have kept the military and political bureaucracy in place over millions of citizens, half of whom live in poverty.   The United States has been alongside the power groups all the way, always looking for a compliant regime for whatever label to further its foreign policy and strategic interests.

For both the interested citizen and the concerned politician, “The Duel” will go a long way towards providing information for a country that has until recently been only on the sidelines with the current war on terror. The members of governments of the ‘western’ world, who openly professed ignorance of Afghanistan, tend to be quite ignorant of much of what has taken place in the Middle East and South Asia. Tariq Ali provides a history and social-political perspective that should be known before more aggressive moves are made in spreading the war on terror into this complex and dynamic country.

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for The Palestine Chronicle.  Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] Wajahat Ali,  “Dueling Partners: Pakistan and the U.S.”  October 3, 2008.

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