Pakistan: A Hard Country

April 28, 2011

This hefty volume, which offers a sweeping portrait of modern Pakistan, is a curious product. Couched in language sometimes reminiscent of the memoirs of a British district administrator under the Raj, complete with accounts of boar hunting with Sindhi "feudals" and witty descriptions of remote regions, it also promises to offer a "profound and sophisticated analysis...of a viable and coherent state".

There is, of course, always room for another book on Pakistan aimed at the general reader. But with a number of more concisely written and equally compelling accounts of Pakistan already available (by Owen Bennett Jones, Mary Anne Weaver, Emma Duncan and Nicholas Schmidle, to name a few), some may be daunted by a book with the weight, but not the authority, of a reference guide. And those looking for a convincing study with the power to reset current debates about one of the most important but least understood countries in the world will have to turn elsewhere.

Yet what is not in doubt is that Anatol Lieven, in his first attempt at "understanding Pakistan" (his other books have been overwhelmingly focused on Russia, the Baltic states and the US), aims at nothing short of a grand narrative. Eschewing the pedestrian format of historical chronology, he boldly opts to recast Pakistan in the light of four broad categories: the land and its people; structures; provinces; and the Taliban. Each is then subdivided, although not always coherently: the Pathans, an ethnic group, are mysteriously listed in the table of contents as if they were a province on a par with Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Together these categories serve as the framework to develop Lieven's main argument, which is that ties of kinship and an elaborate system of patronage are fundamental in explaining "how Pakistan works".

This point, although well taken, is hardly original. Nor is his contention that ideas of democracy, notions of justice and standards of human rights drawn from Western experience can explain little about Pakistan. There are other limitations, which stem from Lieven's methodology. Relying heavily on a journalistic approach, he falls prey to the temptation of drawing conclusions on the basis of what are little more than eyewitness reports. His assumption that all that is required to understand the reality of Pakistan is to articulate the views of Pakistan's "voiceless masses", most of whom "had never been asked for their opinion before by any Pakistani or Western observer or organization", is both naive and questionable.

Most problematic, however, is his treatment of Pakistan's key state institution, the military, and his failure to address how fundamental ambiguities about the role of Islam in Pakistan have widened the space for the Taliban and their Islamist allies. His view that the military is, at best, a largely benign entity and, at worst, a ruthlessly efficient "meritocracy" essential to keeping the country together, reads uncomfortably like a thinly veiled attempt to rehabilitate one of the most predatory organs of the Pakistani state.

And while Lieven recognises the wide variety of Islamic traditions in Pakistan that could yet frustrate the Taliban's monolithic vision, he lacks a coherent explanation for the murderous contestation over "Islam" that has plagued the state since its inception in 1947 - other than to conclude that it is largely a by-product of US policies towards the country. In so doing, he risks endorsing the less than convincing view that Pakistan's problems are mainly due to external causes.

Indeed, he comes dangerously close to suggesting that, left to its own devices - ie, free from foreign influence - Pakistan would not only continue to "work", and "work" well, but also possibly enhance its prospects of survival as a viable state. This extraordinary claim is hard to sustain when set against Pakistan's status as a classic rentier state long dependent for its survival on hiring out its services as a geo-strategic asset to the highest foreign bidder, namely the US. Nor does it explain why, in 1971, when left to its own devices, it chose to pursue a unilateral course of action in defiance of the international community by waging a murderous civil war against a majority of its population, and the country's disintegration was swift.

That Pakistan is a global security concern is not in doubt and Lieven is right to highlight the urgency of constructive engagement. His warning against compounding the errors of US policy in relation to Pakistan since 9/11 and his appeal for a more carefully calibrated policy towards Pakistan also deserve a wider hearing. But however pressing these concerns may be, and however laudable Lieven's desire to sympathise with the plight of Pakistan, neither can be allowed to stand in the way of critical enquiry or more rigorous scholarship.

Pakistan: A Hard Country

By Anatol Lieven Allen Lane, 576pp, £30.00 ISBN 9781846141607 Published 28 April 2011.

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