The cost of conflict

October 02, 2022

An analysis of the behavioural patterns that have led to conflict and what is at stake every time the country is embroiled in one

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akistan was still in a nascent stage when it fought its first war over Kashmir in 1947-48. Its relatively short history of 75 years has been marked by several wars and conflicts, involving both state and non-state actors. While books and memoirs have been published to explore various facets of these wars, seldom do we find an analysis of both high-level decision-making and its impact on civilians.

Dr Tariq Rahman’s Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternative History brings together a well-researched and thought-provoking analysis of the behavioural patterns that have led to these wars. It also emphasises the experiences of widows, children, common soldiers, displaced civilians and villagers living in border areas. It shows us what is at stake and for whom every time the country is embroiled in conflict.

Aptly titled as an alternative history, the book is not a nationalist narrative. Rather, it offers valuable insights into how decisions were made prior to these wars, leading to battles Pakistan has fought. A comprehensive analysis, the book delves into the 1947-48 and 1965 wars over Kashmir, the 1971 war and the birth of Bangladesh, Siachen and Kargil. It also goes further, to look at the fighting in Kashmir from the 1990s onwards as well as military actions against Islamist militants.

Using the ‘gambling model’, Dr Rahman studies the risk-taking behaviours and the clique mentality – i.e elite decision-making involving a handful of individuals – that have precipitated these wars in a climate where there is a lack of civilian control over the military and a ‘political culture of authoritarianism.’ He argues that while both civilians and army officers have taken decisions about wars, it is the lack of civilian control over the military that creates a political atmosphere where decisions are not questioned or debated or examined by all stakeholders.

What makes the book stand apart is the way it shows the ramifications of high politics for lay individuals. Skillfully deconstructing the ‘macho masculinity’ which tends to glorify combat, and the analysis of which often gets reduced to factors that led to or inhibited the success of the military, the book focuses on the subjective, personal and nuanced experiences of those who fought in these wars, as well as their families and other civilians. This enables readers to understand both the origins of Pakistan’s conflicts and their aftermath, adding an essential human dimension often missing from military histories.

A seasoned writer and one of Pakistan’s foremost intellectual scholars, Dr Rahman is cognizant of the limitations of the work. Conducting interviews in Pakistan about wars or military affairs, in general is difficult. Many respondents will often reproduce the official narrative. It then becomes important not only to document what is being said but also listen attentively to what is not being said and what is being deliberately silenced or allowed to emerge only in a slip here or there.

Dr Rahman pays keen attention to what lies between the lines. Further, he recognises that the interviewees are often – though not always – from the higher echelons of society and not necessarily ‘subaltern’ in the classical sense. Instead, he refers to them as ‘situational subalterns,’ in that they contest the standard ‘macho’ or ‘pro-war’ narrative that is dominant. Thus, there are stories of women who speak of hating the wars that took away family members, of men who fought in the battles and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder or other kinds of mental distress, or those who became stigmatised as ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly.’ Alongside these voices, there are those who fit the more traditional definition of the subaltern – villagers, sweepers, porters, and security guards. These are the narratives that do not make it to the grand tales of victory and loss, to textbook history or to mainstream discourse that glorifies war and casts deaths and injuries as majestic sacrifices and martyrdom.

While chapters two to eight focus on the different wars and conflicts, chapters nine and ten focus on the gendered impact of war. In these chapters, the book aims to move beyond binary depictions of women as ‘beautiful souls’ and men as ‘just warriors’ to bring forward a diverse spectrum of experiences. In the chapter titled War and Gender: Female, the book speaks to the well-established reality of sexual violence during conflict and highlights experiences that cut across communal lines. The book also touches upon displacement, stress, anxiety and trauma and the impact of losing loved ones not only on women but also men – who are often left to suffer quietly. The intersectionality between gender and class also means that this suffering is even more heightened for subaltern groups including sweepers, cooks and porters, who lack resources available to the elite and are often forgotten in history.

It is perhaps Dr Rahman’s own personal conscientious objection to wars of aggression, colonialism and exploitation (which I have detailed in an interview with him, documented in 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India) that allows him to tell the stories that get lost in military histories and war analysis. In doing so he busts many myths surrounding Pakistan’s wars, particularly in the case of 1971, while also bringing to the fore voices of other conscientious objectors like those of activists (late) IA Rahman and Ahmad Salim.

Dr Rahman employs a series of secondary resources to supplement the primary resources – speeches, memoirs and books – to produce a nuanced and deeply engaging book that is both practical and hopeful that lessons can be learnt and risks can be understood to mitigate future wars of aggression. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the political and the human dimension of conflict, in understanding the cost of violence and the threat to peace.

Note: The author has apologised for his mistake in writing Gen Rahimuddin Khan (p. 141, line 9) instead of Gen M Rahim Khan. The error will be corrected in the future editions.


Pakistan’s Wars: An Alternative History

Author: Dr Tariq Rahman

Publisher: Folio Books, 2022

Pages: 540

Price: Rs1,345



The reviewer is the author of 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India (2019), Between the Great Divide: A Journey into Pakistan-administered Kashmir (2018), and the award-winning The Footprints of Partition: Narratives of Four Generations of Pakistanis and Indians (2015)



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