17 October, 2011Issue 17.1Asia & AustraliaPolitics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Basket Case

Nakul Krishna

PakistanAnatol Lieven
Pakistan: A Hard Country
Allen Lane, 2011
558 Pages
ISBN 978-1846141607


“A Hard Country”: the journalist and academic Anatol Lieven first heard the epithet that serves as the subtitle of his new book in the mouths of several Pakistani interlocutors. It is not a reassuring epithet, and it is not meant to be. It is, however, preferable to the description all too common in recent reporting from the region: “failed state”. Lieven’s view is more measured: “contrary to much instinctive belief in the West”, he writes, Pakistan “has actually worked according to its own imperfect but functional patterns”. Moreover, he argues that “barring catastrophic decisions in Washington, New Delhi – and of course Islamabad – [Pakistan] is likely to survive as a country.”

These claims are made good in 500 pages of lucid, detailed, closely argued prose. Lieven gives an admirable summary of Pakistan’s post-colonial history, dispassionate and succinct. He has an eye trained to the distinct constituencies among his intended readership—policymakers in the West, fellow journalists, and graduate students in social science disciplines—and moves fluently between the registers appropriate for each one.

At the heart of his argument is the thought that Pakistan’s state is indeed weak, but that these weaknesses are offset by the strengths of its social institutions. He offers thorough overviews of these institutions—religion, party politics, and rival systems of justice. He describes in unsettling detail the mechanics of the country’s insurgencies in Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and offers a searching but cautiously sympathetic account of the country’s military. He offers diagnoses of the country’s problems, and where appropriate, makes bold to recommend changes of policy in Pakistan and in the West.

At least as often, he is at pains to argue against courses of action that could disrupt Pakistan’s delicate equilibrium. He argues, for example, that an American decision to send “ground forces into Pakistan in pursuit of the Taleban and Al Qaeda” would be likely to incite mutiny in the armed forces—an outcome America should be striving studiously to avoid. An unnamed “retired general” tells Lieven about the psychologies of Pakistani soldiers: “if they don’t fight [the Americans], they will feel utterly humiliated, before their wives, mothers, children. It would be a matter of honour…These men have sworn an oath to defend Pakistani soil.”

To his credit, Lieven does not invoke “honour” as a catchphrase that can be neatly accommodated in a simple foreign policy calculus, but as part of a complex way of life that needs to be understood on its own terms. Indeed, the book’s preference for the specific over the general, for the narrative over the catchphrase, owes much to its author’s acquaintance with the ethnographic literature on Pakistan.

For all the nuance of Lieven’s analysis, there remains a moral vision at its core. Lieven is properly censorious of violent warlords, venal politicians, and exploitative landlords. Yet, his judgments are delivered with the humility and attention to local contexts he finds lacking among his colleagues in the media and academy.

Consider his account of the well-attested brutality of the Pakistani police:

No one can seriously imagine that when police rape a woman or torture a suspected criminal in their custody, that this is the will of…President Zardari of Pakistan. They can be accused of not doing enough to stop such abuses – but their ability to do so is very limited.

This is followed by a detailed analysis of the meagre resources of the Pakistani military and the great difficulties of bringing them under political control. Lieven, unlike others who make similar points, does not speak from cynicism or insensitivity, but from a profound understanding of politics as the realm of the tragic. His prose exudes a sense of the limits of political possibility, an understanding that ought implies can.

His line on corruption affords us another example of this tragic sensibility at work. Lieven goes so far as to argue that “patronage and kinship” are—in a country whose state lacks the power to enforce taxation—the means by which wealth and power are distributed across the Pakistani economy. This, he argues, is why Pakistan, for all its “feudalism”, does surprisingly well on measures of economic inequality. This is counterintuitive, almost a parody of fuzzy Western relativism, but Lieven develops the thesis with verve:

Western language about ‘corruption’ in Pakistan suggests that it can and should be cut out of the political system; but in so far as the political system runs on patronage and kinship, and corruption is intertwined with patronage and kinship, to cut it out would mean gutting Pakistan’s society like a fish.

Many in the West will think this a brutally pessimistic conclusion—that the only response to corruption is to grin and bear it—but Lieven’s is a hopeful heresy. To accept that corruption cannot realistically be “cut out of the political system” is to ask oneself in what ways the complex web of patronage and kinship can be harnessed in ways that strengthen, rather than undermine, the authority of the state.

Lieven’s lengthy accounts of negotiation and compromise in Pakistan’s politics suggest that Pakistan’s politicians have been thinking about this question with more intelligence than they are given credit for. He sees analogies for Pakistani society in medieval Europe with its robber barons and power-hungry clergy, in the violence of Celtic clans, and in Pakistan’s neighbour India, where insurgency and corruption have managed to coexist with prosperity and a kindly reputation in the West.

Pakistan’s people do, on the whole, favour stability, order, and justice over their contraries. The evidence of recent history is that of an ongoing, occasionally successful struggle to achieve those very things. Given time, space, good sense, and luck, Lieven seems to be suggesting, Pakistan might yet see better days.

A last point: for all the grimness of his subject matter, Lieven’s Pakistan lacks neither humour nor beauty. Both appear in a footnote where he records his discovery that the “strikingly graceful long-legged grey birds with crests” he sees in Peshawar are called “demoiselle cranes”. He continues, “In an…example of human (male) minds working in the same way across very different cultures, while some Western naturalist named them after young French girls, in Baloch poetry they are used to symbolize girls bathing (French or otherwise).” It is a charming observation, gratuitous yet winsome. There are many others like it in this exemplary book.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.