pakistan: a hard country

This is not an easy book to read. It is complicated because its subject matter is complicated. But as I worked my way through Anatol Lieven's Pakistan: A Hard Country (Allen Lane: 2011), I found my understanding of Pakistan developing so much.

1. Lieven writes with both empathy and objectivity. He has lived and worked and listened his way around this vast country - primarily as a journalist. "I am deeply attached to Pakistan." (37) He warms to the virtues of "courage, honour, and hospitality" (38) in which Pakistanis excel. After three trips to Pakistan in the past two years, I can only concur with both quotations. I, too, am becoming attached. The only time when Lieven's objectivity might be compromised is when he takes his little digs at India along the way, something which this child of India noticed!

2. Some of this empathy leaks out when he covers the subject of being safe in Pakistan. Lieven asserts that after five trips between 2007-2009 - totaling six months of time - "at no time did I feel under any direct physical threat" (36). This is not to say that there is no threat (of course, there is) - but it is to say that the media in the West has become over-excited about the threat. On my own recent visit I struggled to get any regular travel insurance because "Pakistan is a war zone", I was told. Really?! What rubbish. That is such an over-heated over-statement. The Pakistani church leaders whom I know feel deeply aggrieved by the manner in which their country is being portrayed in the West.

Lieven again: "One reason why Pakistan is so little known and so badly misinterpreted is that so many analysts and commentators are too afraid to go there" (36). And so it seems to me that one of the best ways that I can serve the people in Pakistan is to keep visiting them and to encourage others to do the same.

3. A prime purpose behind this book is to combat the widespread perception that Pakistan is 'a failed state'. It isn't - but saying it is a success stretches the facts just as much. The paradox is captured in Lieven's observations of Lahore as "a mixture of elegance and intelligence which could make it one one of the great cities of the world (if they could only fix the roads, the drains, the public transport, the pollution, the housing of most of the population, the electricity supply, the police...)" (268). But it is hardly "a scene reminiscent of Grozny or Mogadishu" (269).

And yes, it is not what it once was. I remember visiting Pakistan as a child - jumping back and forth across the border-line so that I could say, "I have been to Pakistan one hundred times" - and there were a few 'WOWs' about that trip as we observed how much further advanced Pakistan was in comparison with India. In the early 1960s "it was ahead of South Korea" (64). The story is one of decline since those days. In a startling anecdote, Lieven relates how excavations in the Sindh have uncovered a 3000 year old civilisation with clay bricks "better made and better laid than those of the Sindhi towns and villages of the present, though being made of the same mud" (306).

But this is not tantamount to being a failed state. As the flyleaf describes it, "Lieven's extraordinary new book treats Pakistan as a viable and coherent state that, within limits and standards of its own region rather than the West's, does work."

4. It is not a failed state partly because it is 'a negotiated state'. Various forces are in constant tension, correcting each other's extremes and in doing so halting, on the one hand, the prospect of war and revolution and, on the other hand, the possibility of progress and development. "Pakistan's delicate ethnic balance, and the endless negotiations which it entail, contribute to the sluggish pace of Pakistan's development" (261).

It is patronage and kinship that holds the upper hand in any negotiation. Honour paid to kith and kin is far greater than honour paid to party or state. To understand Pakistan is to understand "the weakness of the state and the power of kinship" (18). From here it becomes tricky. "While the power of kinship is necessary to defend against the predatory state, it is also one of the key factors in making the state predatory, as kinship groups use the state to achieve their goals of power, wealth and triumph over other kinship groups" (18-19). There is no corruption as bad as dishonouring those to whom you belong - and so these many lesser corruptions proliferate.

"Collective entities (whether provincial, ethnic, religious or whatever) are constantly being trumped by personal and family loyalties and ambitions" (281). A number of the political parties are centered around family dynasties from different parts of the country (eg., the Bhuttos from the Sindh). In fact Lieven seems to agree with the view that the failure of cricketer-demigod turned politician, Imran Khan, is attributable to the fact that common people "do not think he will have any favours to distribute" (381) if he were in power. So they will not vote for him.

I am not so sure that this is quite the right time for Western people to get all righteous. I look at some of the ridiculous policies that exist in NZ (like superannuation being stuck at 65 and the giving of interest-free loans to tertiary students), or the nature in which US presidential elections are energised by raising funds from donors to whom you then remain beholden once in power ... and I go hmmmm!

5. In that negotiation various entities play their part, including the many different flavours of Islam that exist within the country. "Most forms of Pakistani Islam are traditional and conservative - far too conservative to support a revolution, and far too diverse to submit themselves to a monolithic version of Islam" (127) - like the ones found in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

On this point, Lieven is unequivocal. There isn't going to be an Islamic revolution in Pakistan that sweeps extremists to power. "The Taleban stand about as much chance of taking over Karachi as I do" (304). "There is no chance at all of the Pakistani military giving nuclear weapons to terrorists" (201)- simply because it is nationalism, not Islamism, which drives them. "The greatest danger may be not Pakistani realities, but US fears" (201).

Lieven reckons that the only possible thing that could start a revolution in Pakistan is the US taking their ultimate action, ironically, to stop a revolution: committing ground troops to the country. "Islamist extremism in Pakistan presents little danger of overthrowing the state unless US pressure has already split and crippled that state" (124-5). And so, as far as Lieven is concerned, "there must be no open intervention of US ground forces in (the northwest), as this risks outright mutiny in the Pakistani army" (479).

It is critical that the outsider understand that the army has been the most respected institution in Pakistan. Their 'cantonments' are the most ordered part of Pakistani society. And yet in recent years the army looks to the general populace as if it is the lapdog of the Americans. Loss of honour is building within the army. "If the US ever put Pakistani soldiers in a position where they felt that honour and patriotism required them to fight America, many would be very glad to do so" (185) ... and that is how a revolution will begin.

6. So the US needs to be careful, very careful. Could their policy-makers just be a bit more willing to listen to how they are perceived, rather than being so brash about what they intend? For example, there is much rhetoric about freedom and preserving a way of life coming from the US. While the intention behind this may be to elevate the virtue of democracy worldwide, is that how it is being perceived? Again and again I hear other things as I travel. What many are perceiving is the vice of self-interest and the freedom to pursue a life of consuming a far greater share of the world's resources than is warranted and a willingness to fight wars and invade countries to protect this freedom for consumption. See, "most of Pakistani society is not Islamist ... what it is, is bitterly anti-American" (414). In the face of this the US needs to be far more humble and self-critical, enquiring why this might be so and then being prepared to change lifestyles in light of what they hear.

What are some of these perceptions? That Afghanistan is every bit an occupied country now as it was in the 1980s - this time occupied by the US, rather than the Soviet Union? That the Afghan Taleban are essentially freedom-fighters against the foreign invader enjoying widespread support from ordinary Pakistanis? That the foreign policy of the Bush Administration looks every bit as fanatical to them as anything emerging in this region? Perceptions may be wrong - but they are real.

7. When I was a kid in India it was all so straightforward. India cuddled up to the Soviet Union and Pakistan cuddled up to the USA. Now things are far more complicated. India's eyes are on China every bit as much as Pakistan's eyes are on India. But it just got worse for Pakistan. Dazzled by the potential of trade with India, there is a perceived 'tilt towards India' by the US. Pakistan feels betrayed. To complicate things further, this 'tilt' - in combination with the US presence in Afghanistan - spreads an anxiety that India might one day 'encircle' Pakistan, "using Afghanistan as a base to support ethnic revolt within Pakistan" (407).

There is an understandable paranoia about India within Pakistan. 'It is exagerated, but not irrational'. Goodness me - aren't there rational reasons for it? "Pakistan is basically a long thin country on either side of the River Indus. Its second largest city, Lahore, is virtually on the Indian frontier and the crucial highway linking Lahore and Karachi is, for long stretches, within 50 miles of Indian territory" (176).

In the concluding paragraphs of the book, Lieven is unequivocal about what needs to happen. "The US needs to continue to limit Indian involvement in Afghanistan if it is to have any hope of a long-term cooperative relationship with Pakistan ... not even the greatest imaginable benefits of US-Indian friendship could compensate for the actual collapse of Pakistan" (480-481). And someone please tell Fox TV to turn down the volume because "only Pakistan can control Pakistan" (481).

And lurking in there is Kashmir as well. It is a far bigger conflict than the West is willing to acknowledge. And here the UK needs to wake-up because as Philip Jenkins, in God's Continent, notes "one third of the 2 million people in Britain who originated in the Indian subcontinent came form just one region - Mirpur in the Pakistani part of Kashmir" (110). Staggering! Or, Lieven again: "Punjabi speakers from Pakistani Kashmir also dominate the Pakistani diaspora in Britain" (278). Given the presence of extremists within Britain, the well-being of Kashmir will continue to be of great relevance to the well-being of Britain.

8. The biggest concern facing Pakistan is associated with climate change - and the challenge of finding water. "The greatest threat to Pakistan's existence is not insurgency, but ecological change" (477).

9. One of the most troubled areas of all relates to shariah law. Whichever way you look at it, its ugly. But maybe there is some value in trying to understand even the indefensible? "A great many people see this as preferable to the appallingly slow, opaque, alien and corrupt Pakistani judicial system" (421). An archaic British legal system in combo with an "unaccountable" local police force overlaid with local chieftans and panchayats and jirgas - makes for a mess that does not move quickly. Amidst this paralysis, shariah come across as 'quick and crude, even if a bit rough'. Furthermore the advocates of shariah would argue that it is less about the content of the law (where western critics rightly focus) and more about "the popular access to the law, the speed of the law, and who gets to enforce the law" (119).

10. A little history helps...
Unlike the birth of India, the birth of Pakistan was "endangered" from the beginning - and made worse by having its founding father (Jinnah) die within the year, while India's founding father (Nehru) ruled for seventeen years. Then there was that crazy idea of dividing Pakistan into East and West. What about the crazy idea of leaving most of the Muslim heartland cities in India?

However nowhere is history more useful than in understanding the north-west, those mountains along the border with Afghanistan that have always been unruly and unconquerable - the "graveyard of armies" (374). Here is the home of the Pathan who have more than a hint of "Braveheart" about them. To understand the Taleban one must understand the Pathan. "The Taleban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan are as of 2010 first and foremost a Pathan phenomenon, with deep roots in Pathan history and culture" (377). [NB: 'Afghan' is the Persian word for 'Pathan' - and so it is another of those places where the British created a border which divided a people]. As the saying goes, "The Afghans of the Frontier are never at peace except when they are at war" (377).

It is no wonder that the British basically gave up and just let them be. "The tribes of the frontier were considered to be too heavily armed, too independent-minded, and too inaccessible in their steep and entangled mountains to be placed under regular administration" (382). And so a system of 'indirect rule' emerged which in some ways is still operational - the idea being not so much "to govern, but to manage" (382). And so one wonders just how successful the drones of the US can ever be in this region?

11. While it sounds incredibly colonial of this 'British subject' (it really does!), Lieven often infers that to understand Pakistan - particularly the rural heartland - you may have to transport yourself backwards a bit because "Pakistan has a rather medieval look" (34). There is a bit of a feudal system revolving around wealthy land-owners. Patronage is alive and well. Government is often indirect and local. The allusions to Charles Dickens hover around...

some little facts
Rudyard Kipling lived in Lahore. In the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) literacy among women stands at just 3%. After partition (in 1947) 25% of Pakistani Punjab were refugees.

some little regrets
Where are the maps? I couldn't believe that maps had been left out of this book. Maybe it is because the story is not over yet, but the closing chapter on 'Defeating the Taleban?' was less astute in its analysis.

some little highlights
Lieven is at his very best describing the major cities in each of the provinces - Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Faisalabad, Peshawar etc.

When I visited Pakistan in 2009 an ex-pat told me that in order to survive in Pakistan you have to subscribe either to the 'conspiracy theory' or the 'chaos theory'. The conspiracy theorists are legion [NB: readers would be amazed how many Pakistanis believe that 9/11 was a plot by the Bush Administration "to provide a pretext for the US invasion of Afghanistan as part of the US strategy of dominating the Muslim world" (47)] ... but he felt there was far more sanity to be found in chaos! I understand the chaos far more thanks to Anatol Lieven. I hope and pray that some of my readers might go and read him as well - and become 'attached to Pakistan'.

My last word can be his last words:
"...the West needs to develop a much deeper knowledge of Pakistan, a much deeper stake in Pakistan, and a much more generous attitude to helping Pakistan" (481).

May it be so.

nice chatting



Paul said…
I sent this review to one of my friends in Pakistan - this was part of his response:

"The sad thing is that the general impression of Pakistan is that it is a safe haven for terrorists and a factory producing terrorists. But the outside world needs to understand that Pakistan itself is a victim of terrorism, and we have suffered more than any other country in the world from terrorism."

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