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Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself Hardcover – July 19, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


Advance praise for Playing with Fire
“Pamela Constable, one of the world’s leading reporters on South Asia, has distilled her many years of reporting on Pakistan and turned them into an accessible and well-written account that illuminates one of the world’s most opaque countries. Constable does that by meeting and understanding all sorts of Pakistanis from rural laborers who live like serfs to their feudal politician bosses. Her book is a key to understanding this much misunderstood country.”—Peter L. Bergen, New York Times bestselling author of The Longest War and Holy War, Inc.

“Pamela Constable has woven the fabric of Pakistan into an engrossing and vivid portrait of a country dangerously on the edge. With empathy yet unblinking candor, Constable exposes the powerful rifts tearing Pakistan apart and delivers a sobering warning about the future of both state and society.”—David E. Hoffman, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
“Pakistan has become one of the great problem-countries for the world, especially for the United States which did much to help it but also much to create the present malformed state. Pamela Constable has written the best introduction yet to this troubled and troublesome country, where the very idea of Pakistan is in tatters and the state is failing. Her emphasis on the powerlessness of ordinary Pakistanis, the cupidity of its political and military institutions, and the head-in-the-sand attitude of Pakistan’s elites is alarming but accurate. Not bogged down in detail, this is the best overview of Pakistan yet published.”—Stephen P. Cohen, senior fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, The Brookings Institution

About the Author

Pamela Constable is a foreign correspondent and former deputy foreign editor at The Washington Post. Since 1998, she has reported extensively from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India as well as Iraq. Before joining the Post in 1994, she was a foreign correspondent and foreign policy reporter for The Boston Globe, where she covered South and Central America for a decade, focusing on Chile and Haiti, as well as parts of Asia and the former Soviet Union. Constable is author of Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia and co-author of A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet. A graduate of Brown University, she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a winner of the Maria Moors Cabot Prize, and a former fellow at the Alicia Patterson Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She is the founder of the Afghan Stray Animal League, which operates a shelter and clinic for needy small animals in Kabul.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; First Edition edition (July 19, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400069114
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400069118
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #814,650 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

23 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Phil (not) in Mågnoliá TOP 100 REVIEWER on August 8, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
For those who are interested in understanding Pakistan and how it has come to its current state, concentrating on the influences that are present today on the Pakistani people, sympathetically written by Pamela Constable, a veteran foreign correspondent for The Washington Post.

This book does not concentrate on political matters but rather is focused on several key topics that describe Pakistani society, including the lack of opportunity for women in the country, the ineffective justice system, the strong and dominant military, and the rising influence of religious extremism. The author deals less with the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan, which has been amply covered by others. This is a book that attempts to assist readers to understand the Pakistani peoples themselves, and the influences on their lives today.

The author explains how the appeal of the Taliban to people in Pakistan derives largely from the terrible ineffectiveness and corruption of Pakistan's own government. When the people do not see a future for their children, when they do not feel that they have access to justice, they turn to the alternative that does offer a future (they hope) as well as a more efficient justice to them, even if it is crude and frequently cruel. The Taliban was beneficial to Pakistan when it served as a proxy against India, but it is now out of control in Pakistan and it has turned against the Pakistani state.

Pakistan has a population of over 170 million people, sixth largest in the world, largely poor and with one of the largest illiteracy rates of any nation in the world (overall literacy rate of 56% in '08). Half of the population is under 15 years old. Modern Pakistan was born at the same time (1947) as the current nation of India, with vastly different result. The country does have great potential, and this book can help readers understand the difficulties faced by the people of Pakistan in their lives today.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By maskirovka VINE VOICE on August 17, 2011
Format: Hardcover
Whenever I think of Pakistan, I always find myself wondering why that country, designed to be a democracy and homeland for Muslims turned out so badly, while Israel, another nation founded to be a democratic homeland for Jews has been a far greater success despite its many difficulties. Perhaps a few hundred years from now, someone will write a doctoral thesis about the two countries.

But I digress. "Playing with Fire" is a fascinating tour d'horizon of Pakistan and its almost surreal problems. For me, the most enlightening chapters dealt with the deep-seated feudalism that still plagues the country despite a thin veneer of modernity, the deeply depressing level of anti-Americanism that is rampant there, and the impact of the drone attacks.

The book is not perfect. The author gets the date of the Kargil episode wrong by a year but that's a minor gripe, and there are a few places where the prose gets a bit clunky. I also wish the author had spent a few pages on organized crime in Pakistan (like "D-Company") and perhaps some more pages about Siachen Glacier and the deranged conflict up there. But you can't have everything.

I'd recommend these other books about Pakistan.

To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan

Pakistan: Eye of the Storm
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By azhar hameed on October 22, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am impressed by how well someone who is not born and raised in Pakistan can understand the cultural sensitivities and class conflicts so well. It is a must read for Pakistanis more than anyone else because it gives them an opportunity to look outside in without inside out bias.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Charles Walker on October 15, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Once again, Ms. Constable rises to the occasion and applies her considerable talents to helping us all understand Pakistan. For an American to translate this cultural divide in language we can understand, without dumbing down one bit of the complexity, says much about her analytical abilities. That I find understanding Pakistan to be elusive, and she brings it all into such (intense) focus, makes this one worthy read. Make this book a priority if you care to understand this culture and dissect the politics of the region.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Persistent Widow on February 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book has lots of good information about Pakistan, but is not well organized for people coming to it with minimal background. The chapters focus on topics, which means the chronology is always hard to follow. I like to know the chronology. When a sentence begins with "On December 10" how hard would it be to put in the year? Too many sentences like that lead to confusion. It would help to have a table with the chronology of important events and names of leaders and their times of hegemony. And definitely a map should have been included. Too many acronyms slow down the reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Roger Gilkeson on January 17, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I agree with the many positive comments others have submitted, but would add that the publishers have generously included dozens of movingly beautiful photographs of Pakistani citizens from all economic levels of society. The photos (by Constable) testify to the fine eye of the author for the human beings she writes about with such profound insight. One can open the book at random and read any paragraph for words that go to the hearts of real people, with their long and complex history. She clearly knows her subject very well, but never let's abstract analysis distract us from confronting the rich humanity which fascinates her, and through her writing, fascinates us as well.
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