The United States sinks several hundred million dollars a year into Pakistan, and several score millions more funnel through Pakistani territory to support the guerrillas fighting in Afghanistan. We even have a treaty that could bring us to the direct support of Pakistan in case of Soviet invasion -- and Moscow's troops now are just across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
For all this, we know precious little about this country that is an anchor of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia.
We know, ever so vaguely, that Pakistanis and Indians have a lot of trouble getting along with each other. We know that the Islamic currents that have rippled across much of the region have had their effect in this overwhelmingly Moslem nation. And we know, sometimes to our elucidation and most often to our everlasting misperception, the lessons that Rudyard Kipling left us from the last great encounter of a western nation in the land that stretches east and south from the Khyber Pass.
By his own admission, Richard Reeves brought little more by way of knowledge to his encounter with Pakistan in the summer of 1983. But he brought a lot more by way of reportorial skill and instinct, and that, coupled with his considerable talents as a writer, combine to give us a book that is both eminently readable and a worthy introduction to a region that Americans would do well to learn a lot more about.
The word introduction should be underlined -- twice perhaps. "Passage to Peshawar" is not, and does not pretend to be, a comprehensive treatment of the history and contemporary religious and political undercurrents of Pakistan. Reeves tells us at the outset that this is a 90-day wonder, from the summer of 1983, burnished by a two-week follow-up trip in the summer of 1984.
A critical perspective might point out how little he gives us on the history of the region, both since the formation of the Pakistani state in 1947 and especially before. There is little about the regional strains that threaten the country's political cohesion. And there are occasional fliers, such as Reeves' sudden suggestion, out of nowhere during one discussion of Pakistani economic development, or the lack thereof, that maybe the country could use a dose of socialism.
Reeves, an American syndicated columnist and free-lance writer, does offer a series of interwoven essays that give us a feel for the dynamics of the place and especially for the region that is currently the focal point of American policy in the area -- the wild Afghan border territory. In the process, he sets very basic points in sharp relief, cutting through some of the misconceptions that fog our understanding.
He makes clear first and foremost that it is not some mystical "Islam" that establishes the norms of government in Pakistan, but a group of men. First among these is the military and foremost among the military, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, president and chief martial law administrator. Importantly, Reeves goes the next necessary step to make clear that even if it is men who press the movement toward a system based upon more rigorous fulfillment of Islamic values, this should by no means suggest that the process is somehow dishonest or that the "western" way is the only one toward a more modern society, although he certainly has some doubts about how far Pakistan can go under Zia's harsh combination of martial law and conservative Islamic tenets.
Writing, as he stresses, as an American abroad in the country next door to Iran, Reeves focuses not just on Pakistan but also on the American role in Pakistan. His unequivocal conclusion is that Foggy Bottom's men in Islamabad are knowledgeable, competent and skating on the edge of disaster because the United States is so totally identified with Zia's rule.
It is serious stuff with which he deals -- Islam, the desperate desire for economic growth, the interaction of a great power and developing state in a turbulent part of the world. But Reeves' writing and outlook are anything but dull and pedantic, and the result is a book both highly readable and cautiously provocative.