Pakistan is often in the news nowadays, very rarely for good reasons. Edward Luce, the FT’s Washington correspondent and former India writer, has written that: “Everybody nowadays seems to take a view on Pakistan. Very few know what they’re talking about”. This is true. Pakistan is commonly associated with terrorism or Taleban militants. It is not an enviable position for a country to be in, and it distorts our impression of this complex and interesting place.
Fortunately, Anatol Lieven does know what he is talking about. Currently a Professor of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College, London, he was previously a journalist based in South Asia who spent many decades in the region. He therefore combines an academic understanding of the country, with enormous, on-the-ground experience. The result is a book filled with fascinating anecdotes and rich in explanation.
A Hard Country (I will refer to it with its subtitle to avoid confusion) is not a history of Pakistan, nor is it a mere travel book filled with light-hearted reflections that go slightly beyond the tourist trail. Rather, it is an explanation of how Pakistan functions, an elaboration of its complexities, and an analysis of its rather unique geopolitical situation. It is divided into thematic parts, on the country’s land, people and history; its (state and non-state) structures; its provinces; and finally a section on the Taleban, which includes a discussion of Pakistan’s prospects and role in the infamous “war on terror”. It is a dense book, but suitable for the general reader.
The sections on the country’s history and geography are useful in giving the reader an understanding of the context in which to place Pakistan. An estranged sibling of India, Pakistan has had a rough ride since Partition in 1947, breaking up once again in 1971 when East Pakistan became Bangladesh. It has had a series of ‘strongman’ leaders, such as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq, but its politicians quickly developed into family dynasties (the Bhuttos being perhaps the most prominent), built on a system of patronage through which they could garner support. From an outsider’s perspective, this has led to a form of institutionalised corruption, with each politician working for their own interests and those groups to whom their patronage extends. It is rare then to find a clean Pakistani MP, in part because voters don’t expect to receive any favours if they vote for him (or her). Professor Lieven remains sceptical of the prospects of the Movement for Justice party of the former cricketer, Imran Khan, “because, as many ordinary people who admire him but will not vote for him have told me candidly, they do not think that he will ever have any favours to distribute.”
Indeed, corruption is so endemic to the Pakistani state that many traditional state functions, including the dispensation of justice, are being undertaken by non-state actors, including the Taleban. Justice is an interesting case in point. It is regularly dispensed by tribal elders, at so-called jirgas, and sometimes suits both parties, but often involves odious practices of giving young girls to offended tribes, or honour killings for adultery – in some places, such as rural Balochistan, this is even carried out if a girl resists marrying the man her family wants her to. Honour is a central part of tribal life in Pakistan, and the justice system that the Pakistani state inherited from the British is wholly unsuited to dealing with it. The Taleban and other strongmen, particularly in Pathan areas, offer to dispense justice and do so quickly. These de facto justice systems are certainly very far from perfect, but they are relatively transparent to both parties and are fast. Contrast them with the corrupt, inefficient and creakingly slow official judicial system, which offers no compensation (something which Professor Lieven’s interlocutors complain about). In one of Professor Lieven’s incredible interviews, he is told by the Vice-President of the Karachi Bar Association that:
“It is not permitted in Pakistani courts to swear on the Koran… Most people would swear and lie anyway. That would bring religion into disrepute – and you are not supposed to do that in Pakistan.”
It is little wonder then that tribal people turn to informal channels.
While A Hard Country tells the grim truth of parts of life in tribal Pakistan, it is very far from another obituary of this South Asian country (bleak – and inaccurate – doom-saying by Westerners being one of the things that most annoys some South Asians, as Ramachandra Guha repeatedly points out in his book on India). Indeed, perhaps A Hard Country’s most important contribution is the demolition of a number of negative clichés. Most importantly, he shows that Pakistan is not simply a failing state: that is, not a Somalia with nukes. It has gargantuan problems, but it is still a tough, resilient state that will not descend into total anarchy without a large push. Professor Lieven suggests such a push could come from an ill-conceived ground invasion of Pakistan by the US, which would almost certainly spur a mutiny within the country’s military and precipitate the collapse of the state.
While we may need to worry about knee-jerks in US foreign policy though, we do not need to worry so much about an Islamist takeover of the country. For Taleban terrorism – by which I specifically refer to the bombs and attacks in main Pakistani cities, where Pakistani civilians are targeted – remain just that: terrorism. The Taleban are not able to mount a push to overturn the state, as they are doing in Afghanistan, and do not look likely to do so in the near future. That said, Professor Lieven writes that many common Pakistani citizens feel sympathy for the Taleban when they fight the US, and have almost totally been taken in by ludicrous conspiracy theories that purportedly explain US foreign policy (such as that the US staged the 9/11 attacks to give itself a pretext for its wars in the Muslim world). CIA drone strikes have only added to this sense of hatred towards the US. While those strikes may have hit many dangerous Taleban militants, they contribute to a growing alienation of Pakistani citizens. As an ally in the war on terror, and with its own (possibly paranoid) fears of Indian involvement in Afghanistan, the US cannot afford to play fast and loose with public opinion inside Pakistan; the possible dangers are too great. A soft power gain on the part of the US could come from a renewed effort to bring India and Pakistan to an agreement over Kashmir. That is still a distant prospect, but that frozen conflict contributes towards Pakistani radicalisation.
That said, common sympathy towards the Taleban is not unqualified and when they carry out some of their most barbaric activities against the Pakistani people, the Taleban loses a huge amount of respect. Professor Lieven recounts the story of Pir (a hereditary saint) Samiullah, who represented a strand of Islam that the Taleban does not agree with:
[Pir Samiullah] was a leading hereditary religious figure from the Barelvi tradition and guardian of the family shrine at Mangal Dagh, and had led local opposition to the Taleban. It was not the fact that the TNSM/Taleban killed him that caused the disgust, but the fact that they later dug up his body, hung it in public for three days, and then blew it up with explosives, scattering bits for hundreds of yards – in order to shatter the mystique attached to the body of a pir.
The Taleban’s version of Islam will not take over the state however, as the population of Pakistan is diverse in its religious beliefs, as the quotation implicitly shows. Professor Lieven points out that: “the cults of the saints, and the Sufi orders and Barelvi theology which underpin them, are an immense obstacle to the spread of Taliban and sectarian extremism, and of Islamist politics in general.” One does not get this impression from the shallow coverage of Pakistan conferred by much of the media. Indeed, the terms ‘Sufi’ or ‘Barelvi’ may well be new to most readers.
Given Pakistan’s geopolitical importance, between India, Iran, China and Afghanistan, and its possession of nuclear weapons, it is rather worrying that it is such a misunderstood country. Intriguingly – and depressingly – though, Professor Lieven writes throughout that the biggest cause of concern for the near future is one not commonly associated with Pakistan: climate change. Pakistan has been terrible at conserving water, and with its population explosion, low levels of education, and increasing scarcity of this vital resource will lead to greater instability, as well as mass migrations into neighbouring countries. In Balochistan, over the past fifty years, “draining by tube-wells has made the local water table sink from 40 feet to more than 800 feet below the ground.” This points to a looming catastrophe.
For those interested in South Asia, or even just the war on terror, A Hard Country is a welcome and illuminating book. To return to Mr Luce’s comment, after reading it, you can be sure to know more about the subject of which you are talking.