Tariq Ali’s The Duel is a deeply rewarding read that provides crucial insight on the historical development of Pakistan, the massive corruption of its political elites, the challenges it faces on the receiving end of US imperialism and the prospects for change in its future. Ali opens the book with a startling statistic that “60% of [Pakistani] children under five [are] moderately or severely stunted”. This figure brings into sharp focus the human costs associated with a political class that serves the interests of US power over that of their own population and can be understood as a ominous sign of Pakistan’s future, unless US and Pakistani leaders change course.
Founded in 1947 as a “gift” from the British empire and a strategic barrier to Soviet influence, Ali paints a national leadership that repeatedly submits to imperial dictates from the callaborationist policies of the Muslim League to general Zia’s “anti-communist” alliance with the US in the 1980s to president Musharaff’s decision to join George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror. Each time these decisions have clashed with the basic needs of the Pakistani public who have been systematically deprived of access to food, shelter, and healthcare. Perhaps the most interesting chapter in Ali’s study is his description of the events that preceded the liberation of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) in 1969.
In this year general Ayub Khan faced massive protests, the majority of which were led by students, against repressive policies which included prohibition against trade unions, repression of political parties, and the elimination of opposition newspapers. Khan was a strong ally of the US who in 1953 signed the southeast Asia treaty, making Pakistan a favored state in the “anti-communism” of the cold war years. The murders that were committed by Khan in crushing these protests and the scale of the protests themselves vastly exceeded anything experienced in north America and Europe during this period (the anti-Vietnam protests). Predictably, the murders registered little, if any, response from US political elites.
This popular discontent came to a head in 1971 when the citizens of east Bengal rose up to extricate themselves from the “subcolonialism” of west Pakistan. West Pakistan was exploiting the agricultural labor, mainly jute farming, of east Pakistan and attempted to force east Bengal to disavow Bengali, their native tongue, in favor of Urdu. Ali claims these events–the 1969 protests and the uprising in east Bengal–marked a “qualitative break” in Pakistan’s history. The carnage that resulted from this independence struggle is described as a “genocidal operation” with estimates of east Pakistanis killed at one million people. After the war the US state department reported “one million people were killed in Bengal between March and December. Some four million families–up to 20 million people–appear to have fled their homes, nearly half of them to refuge in India. Between one and two million houses were destroyed.” In this case, as in the 1969 protests, the US “tilted” toward Pakistan.
Highly relevant are the sections of this book where Ali analyzes western treatment of Pakistan’s internal security, which, as he notes, is obsessed with the prospect of a “jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger”. In response to this fear he thoughtfully suggests that few would claim ultra orthodox Jews or fundamentalist Hindus pose a threat to Israel or India’s nuclear arsenals. This is but one of the many valuable insights he offers about American double standards when confronted with the prospect of a marginally disobedient “ally”.
Yet the most valuable aspect of the Duel is how it broadens and enriches how readers understand the political calculations of national leaders and how unpopular political decisions carry ramifications that transcend generations. This reality was captured most powerfully in Ali’s treatment of the Bhutto family. Beginning with Zulfiqar Bhutto, a man who garnered popular support with the vow to guarantee food and shelter to Pakistan’s poor, one can perceive the ease with which democratic rhetoric can be used to deceive the public. After a lengthy period of conflict with the courts and general Zia, Bhutto was executed by hanging in 1979. This act of the Zia dictatorship helped to consolidate his power which would reach it’s brutal zenith in the 1980s with the blessing of president Reagan. Zia himself perished in a plane crash under circumstances ambiguous to this day.
Equally intriguing was the account of the life and death of Benazir Bhutto. Though she was the recipient of some popular support as the leader of Pakistan’s Peoples Party, she also engaged in a fair deal of corruption. In the preface of the book Ali, who knew Bhutto personally, notes “as I was working on the manuscript, Bhutto was assassinated. Sentiment dictated I soften the prose, but despite my sadness and anger at her death I resisted. As the German writer Lessing once remarked, ‘the man who presents truth in all sorts of masks and disguises may be her panderer, but never her lover.’”
Such intellectual courage is extremely hard to find in journalistic circles in America that routinely glossed over her history of corruption after her tragic murder, if not presenting her as a champion of democracy. This intellectual courage permeates every chapter of Ali’s text, not least in the cultural analysis he also provides. Take for example his observations about the Afghan city of Herat. Here “important books were written and illustrated, including the fifteenth century classic Miraj-nameh, an early medieval Islamic account of the Prophet’s ascent to heaven from the Dome of the Rock and the punishments he observed as he passed through hell.” Ali added that “some European scholars maintain that a Latin translation of this work inspired Dante”. The book also cites several poets from Faiz Ahmed Faiz to Fakhar Zaman, two artists who were able to express the daily suffering of the majority of Pakistanis in verse.
If there’s anything that is paramount in this book it’s the contrasting trajectories of the Pakistani elite, specifically the military elite, and that of the Pakistani people. In each case, this conflict of sovereignty has been sustained by imperial powers, first by the British in their imposition of the Durand line following the horrors of colonialism and then by the US in its many exploits to rid the region of disobedient powers. Right now the Obama administration is drone bombing the northwest frontier province, creating conditions of life that are, according to a recent NYU Law school study, mutilating civilians both physically and psychologically.
Acts of terror of this kind have ominous implications for the future of Pakistan and could initiate a split in the military, a scenario that Ali says will turn the fear of “a jihadi finger on the nuclear trigger,” (despite its current absurdity) into a “self-fulfilling prophecy”. Predictions of this kind should not be ignored when one considers Ali’s observation that more Pakistani soldiers have been killed in the border regions fighting “militants” than US and allied NATO forces killed in Afghanistan, a fact made more compelling if one researches the number of memorials (or even news stories) the western press has aired to acknowledge this strange reality.
As an analysis of world affairs, Ali’s work is an invaluable asset to those who are witnessing president Obama’s global assassination campaign unfold without any context to understand the experiences of “military aged males in a strike zone,” the president’s preferred phrase for the innocent lives extinguished in this so-called war on terror. In this sense, the Duel is much more than a lurid exposé of the sins of powerful men and women. It is, in its substance, a damning indictment of the system in which they participate, a system where “60% of [Pakistani] children under five [are] moderately or severely stunted”.
On this front, the blame not only lies with corrupt military men, national leaders, capitalist landowners, or Washington. It also lies squarely on the civilian populations of privileged societies who refuse to resist (and sometimes fervently support) their odious policies. The Pakistani people, as illustrated in this great book, have already done their part. It’s now time for the American people to force an exit off the “flight path” and do theirs.