Book review: Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven
Stephen Howe discovers the best book to be written on modern Pakistan
Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven (Allen Lane)
Pakistan is trouble, for almost everyone who has to live in it, deal with it or write about it. Anatol Lieven’s subtitle, A Hard Country, sounds pretty stark, but its adjective is far milder than the ones many choose. Implicit in many, perhaps most, international commentaries on the place are notions that it’s actually a hopeless country, an impossible one to understand, predict or manage, an entity whose very creation was a tragically bad idea, and perhaps the biggest single source of global instability – especially as manifested in international terrorism – today. You name it, Pakistan has it, provided it’s bad: poverty, instability, war, terrorism, oppression, corruption and fanaticism.
Maybe that combination of gloom and incomprehension, so widely experienced when trying to get to grips with the place, explains why so few really try. Serious modern analytical works on Pakistan, or even decent reportage, in any language would fill only a rather short bookshelf. Lieven’s book will surely now take pride of place on that shelf, even if it sometimes evokes as much frustration as enlightenment. He has visited and reported on the country, for The Times and other publications, since the late 1980s. He has travelled widely there, and talked with a huge range of people from Presidents to peasants, army officers to jihadis, and even the occasional taxi driver. He has gone boar hunting with a family of local “feudal” potentates, and traversed the mountain roads of the North-West Frontier. He has also read a huge range of specialist literature. This would not be worth underlining so strongly, if it were not so surprisingly rare: peculiarly few commentators on current affairs seem able both to read and to listen, to visit both trouble-spots and libraries, with any sustained attention. Lieven has an impressive blend of the journalist’s and the scholar’s skills and aptitudes, and this combination gives his book its greatest strengths.
Compared to the utter despondency of so much superficial commentary on Pakistan, Lieven’s is a relatively optimistic view: but it is a very heavily qualified hopefulness. This is, he says, a weak state confronting very strong societies, especially in the dense and tentacular kinship networks which he thinks remain the key to much that happens there. But Pakistan is, he insists, certainly not a “failed state” like Congo or Somalia. Indeed it is “tougher than it looks”, and in some ways remarkably stable. It will, he thinks, survive – unless ill-judged external intervention, especially from the USA, wrecks it, and unless in the longer run its ecological problems (too many people, and always either too much or too little water, floods or droughts) overwhelm it. Jihadi Islamists have no mass base, and are very unlikely to seize power, unless again Western powers effectively force hitherto uncommitted populations into their arms. More pessimistic observers might retort, though, that Lieven much understates the extent to which a brand of radical Islamism has already, gradually, taken over. He had evidently completed his writing before the 2 March 2011 murder of Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, and could include only the briefest mentions of Punjab Governor Salman Taseer’s killing in January.
Lieven is also remarkably sanguine about the recurrent, seemingly endemic failures of democracy and the rule of law. These institutions, he suggests, were British colonial impositions that never struck deep roots in Pakistan. Even where the outward forms persist, they have always been corrupted and manipulated, usually of course in the interests of the rich. No wonder that both various kinds of informal justice and the savage but comparatively swift and transparent processes of shariah have so strong an appeal. Pakistan’s police forces and local courts emerge from Lieven’s account as utterly “unfit for purpose” on every conceivable level. The army, in stark contrast, is depicted as the country’s only truly modern, efficient and honest institution – and for that matter, the only really functioning, positive legacy of the British Raj. Indeed Lieven’s admiration for Pakistan’s officer corps often strikes a disquieting note, and provokes an ungenerous suspicion that his own family background, an ancestry including luminaries of the British, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian imperial armies, has had quite an influence here. Maybe, too, this helps account for his slightly disconcerting tendency so often to quote British colonial officials like Sir Olaf Caroe as the truest authorities, the voice of wisdom on diverse aspects of Pakistani life.
Lieven also draws heavily on the work of anthropologists, many of them again from the colonial era. This is both a strength – in that it enables him to get a grip on the micro-dynamics of local society, of rural cultures and clan networks – and a potential weakness, in that the kinds of study he favours, if not the very discipline of anthropology, so often tend to stress tradition rather than change, a static rather than dynamic analysis. Lieven’s insistence that the strongest social forces in Pakistan are what they always were – family and tribe – and that phenomena like the Taliban are in many ways more products of ancient Pashtun tradition than of modern politics, while it obviously yields powerful insights, may be a bit over-influenced by the anthropological and colonial-era sources he has mined so thoroughly.
Heavy reliance on such sources also, though, reflects another rather troubling phenomenon; again one that points towards a gloomier picture than Lieven generally paints. This is that we’re left so dependent on those kinds of writing in part simply because there are so few good modern historical works about Pakistan, either by natives or outsiders. The contrast with India is stark, although in other ways Lieven is surely right to stress how much the two countries have in common. There are dozens of Indian historians who can, and do, stand in the first rank of their profession worldwide. Their Pakistani equivalents, though not of course entirely absent, are sadly very few. The same is true in other academic disciplines, and in almost every field of artistic and cultural endeavour. It is hard even to pose the question without giving offence – and Lieven doesn’t pose it – but why is this vast country, the world’s sixth most populous, with fairly high literacy levels and so much human potential, so dreadfully uncreative? Why too – surely a closely connected question – are secular, democratic and leftist political currents so weak, and with so little popular support? As Lieven rightly points out, democracy (or at least male democracy!) in Pakistan seemingly has little rapport with values of social justice and liberalism, though he might still be criticised for giving so little attention to secular and liberal-democratic forces.
There is much else to argue with in this book. For instance, while many observers have seen Pakistan’s military Inter-Services Intelligence as the country’s most important body, the power behind every throne, Lieven says rather little about it, and where he does he is notably non-committal about its true role. He might well be right here too, but one could have wished for a fuller discussion of why he rejects ideas of the ISI as all-powerful. Yet if the book often leaves one wanting more, that is far overshadowed by what Lieven does give us. “Best-ever book about modern Pakistan” may, as noted, be a prize with surprisingly little competition, but Anatol Lieven undoubtedly wins it.