Pakistan, Anatol Lieven writes in his new book, is “divided, disorganised, economically backward, corrupt, violent, unjust, often savagely oppressive towards the poor and women, and home to extremely dangerous forms of extremism and terrorism”. It is easy to conclude, as many have, from this roll call of infirmities that Pakistan is basically Afghanistan or Somalia with nuclear weapons. Or is this a dangerously false perception, a product of wholly defective assumptions?
Certainly, an unblinkered vision of South Asia would feature a country whose fanatically ideological government in 1998 conducted nuclear tests, threatened its neighbour with all-out war and, four years later, presided over the massacre of 2,000 members of a religious minority. Long embattled against secessionist insurgencies on its western and eastern borders, the “flailing” state of this country now struggles to contain a militant movement in its heartland. It is also where thousands of women are killed every year for failing to bring sufficient dowry and nearly 200,000 farmers have committed suicide in the previous decade.
Needless to say, the country described above is not Pakistan but India, which, long feared to be near collapse, has revamped its old western image through what the American writer David Rieff calls the most “successful national re-branding” and “cleverest PR campaign” by a political and business establishment since “Cool Britannia” in the 1990s. Pakistan, on the other hand, seems to have lost all control over its international narrative.
Western governments have coerced and bribed the Pakistani military into extensive wars against their own citizens; tens of thousands of Pakistanis have now died (the greatest toll yet of the “war on terror”), and innumerable numbers have been displaced, in the backlash to the doomed western effort to exterminate a proper noun. Yet Pakistan arouses unrelenting hostility and disdain in the west; it lies exposed to every geopolitical pundit armed with the words “failing” or “failed state”.
Such intellectual shoddiness has far-reaching consequences in the real world: for instance, the disastrous stigmatisation of “AfPak” has shrunk a large and complex country to its border with Afghanistan, presently a site of almost weekly massacres by the CIA’s drones.
Pakistan’s numerous writers, historians, economists and scientists frequently challenge the dehumanising discourse about their country. But so manifold and obdurate are the clichés that you periodically need a whole book to shatter them. Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country is one such blow for clarity and sobriety.
Lieven is more than aware of the many challenges Pakistan confronts; in fact, he adds climate change to the daunting list, and he is worried that Pakistan may indeed fall apart if the United States continues to pursue its misbegotten war in the region, thereby risking a catastrophic mutiny in the military, the country’s most efficient institution. But Lieven is more interested in why Pakistan is also “in many ways surprisingly tough and resilient as a state and a society” and how the country, like India, has for decades mocked its obituaries which have been written obsessively by the west.
Briskly, Lieven identifies Pakistan’s many centrifugal and centripetal forces: “Much of Pakistan is a highly conservative, archaic, even sometimes inert and somnolent mass of different societies.” He describes its regional variations: the restive Pashtuns in the west, the tensions between Sindhis and migrants from India in Sindh, the layered power structures of Punjab, and the tribal complexities of Balochistan. He discusses at length the varieties of South Asian Islam, and their political and social roles in Pakistani society.
Some of Lieven’s cliché-busting seems straightforward enough. Islamist politics, he demonstrates, are extremely weak in Pakistan, even if they provoke hysterical headlines in the west. Secularists may see popular allegiance to Islam as one of the biggest problems. But, as Lieven rightly says, “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.”
From afar, a majority of Pakistanis appear fanatically anti-American while also being hopelessly infatuated with Sharia. Lieven shows that, as in Latin America, anti-Americanism in Pakistan is characterised less by racial or religious supremacism than by a political bitterness about a supposed ally that is perceived to be ruthlessly pursuing its own interests while claiming virtue for its blackest deeds. And if many Pakistanis seem to prefer Islamic or tribal legal codes, it is not because they love stoning women to death but because the modern institutions of the police and judiciary inherited from the British are shockingly corrupt, not to mention profoundly ill-suited to a poor country.
As one of Lieven’s intelligent interlocutors in Pakistan points out, many ordinary people dislike the Anglo-Saxon legal system partly because it offers no compensation: “Yes, they say, the law has hanged my brother’s killer, but now who is to support my dead brother’s family (who, by the way, have ruined themselves bribing the legal system to get the killer punished)?”
Lieven, a reporter for the Times in Pakistan in the late 1980s, has supplemented his early experience of the country with extensive recent travels, including to a village of Taliban sympathisers in the North West Frontier, and conversations with an impressive cross-section of Pakistan’s population: farmers, businessmen, landowners, spies, judges, clerics, politicians, soldiers and jihadis. He commands a cosmopolitan range of reference – Irish tribes, Peronism, South Korean dictatorships, and Indian caste violence – as he probes into “the reality of Pakistan’s social, economic and cultural power structures”.
Approaching his subject as a trained anthropologist would, Lieven describes how Pakistan, though nominally a modern nation state, is still largely governed by the “traditions of overriding loyalty to family, clan and religion”. There is hardly an institution in Pakistan that is immune to “the rules of behavior that these loyalties enjoin”. These persisting ties of patronage and kinship, which are reminiscent of pre-modern Europe, indicate that the work of creating impersonal modern institutions and turning Pakistanis into citizens of a nation state – a long and brutal process in Europe, as Eugen Weber and others have shown – has barely begun.
This also means that, as Lieven writes, “very few of the words we commonly use in describing the Pakistani state and political system mean what we think they mean, and often they mean something quite different.” Democratically elected leaders can be considerably less honest and more authoritarian than military despots since all of Pakistan’s “democratic” political parties are “congeries of landlords, clan chieftains and urban bosses seeking state patronage for themselves and their followers and vowing allegiance to particular national individuals and dynasties”. (With some exceptions, this is also true of India’s intensely competitive, and often very violent, electoral politics; it explains why 128 of the 543 members of the last Indian parliament faced criminal charges, ranging from murder to human trafficking, and why armies of sycophants still trail the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty).
Lieven’s book is refreshingly free of the condescension that many western writers, conditioned to see their own societies as the apogees of civilisation, bring to Asian countries, assessing them solely in terms of how far they have approximated western political and economic institutions and practices. He won’t dismiss Pakistan’s prospects for stability, or its capacity to muddle along like the rest of us, simply because, unlike India, it has failed to satisfactorily resemble a European democracy or nation state. Rather, he insists on the long and unconventional historical view. “Modern democracy,” he points out, “is a quite recent western innovation. In the past European societies were in many ways close to that of Pakistan today – and indeed modern Europe has generated far more dreadful atrocities than anything Islam or South Asia has yet achieved.”
Busy exploding banalities about Pakistan, Lieven develops some blind spots of his own; they include a more generous view of the Pakistani military than is warranted. He doesn’t make clear if Pakistan’s security establishment can abandon its highly lucrative, and duplicitous, arrangement with the United States, or withdraw its support for murderous assaults on Indian civilians.
Still, Lieven overturns many prejudices, and gives general readers plenty of fresh concepts with which to think about a routinely misrepresented country. Transcending its self-defined parameters, his book makes you reflect rewardingly, too, about how other old, pluralist and only superficially modern societies in the region work. “Pakistan is in fact a great deal more like India – or India like Pakistan – than either country would wish to admit,” Lieven writes, and there is hardly a chapter in which he doesn’t draw, with bracing accuracy, examples from the socioeconomic actuality of Pakistan’s big neighbour. Easily the foremost contemporary survey of “collapsing” Pakistan, Lieven’s book also contains some of the most clear-sighted accounts of “rising” India.
Pankaj Mishra’s Temptations of the West is published by Picador.