Between a Rock and a Hard Country

My review of Anatol Lieven’s must-read book, originally published at IPS.

It is almost obligatory these days to subtitle books on Pakistan with some conjunction of ‘failed’, ‘dangerous’, ‘lawless’, ‘deadly’, ‘frightening’ or ‘tumultuous’. Pakistan is a ‘tinderbox’, forever on the brink, in the eye of the storm, or descending into chaos. It is an ‘Insh’allah nation’ where people passively wait for Allah. In the narrow space ‘between the mosque and the military’, there is much ‘crisis’, ‘terrorism’, ‘militancy’ and ‘global jihad.’

British author and policy analyst Anatol Lieven’s refreshingly understated title Pakistan: A Hard Country eschews emotion for description, which is fitting because the book is a 519-page myth- busting exercise.

Lieven, currently a fellow at the New America Foundation, argues that some of the alarmist claims about Pakistan are indeed true – it is a corrupt, chaotic, violent, oppressive and unjust country. But it is also a remarkably resilient one. It is not nearly as unequal as India or Nigeria, or for that matter the United States. Its security is beset by multiple insurgencies but they affect a smaller proportion of its territory than the ones India faces. Its cities are violent, but no more so than those of comparable size in Latin or even North America. It has an abysmally low rate of tax collection, but, at five percent of the GDP, it also has one of the world’s highest rates of charitable donations. It is no doubt corrupt, but this is due less to the absence of values than to the enduring grip of the old ones of loyalty to family and clan.

Beneath the chaotic surface, the country is held together by the underlying structures of kinship and patronage which account for its relative stability. Leaders of kinship networks derive their legitimacy from property ownership and the capacity to provide protection and patronage to followers. This creates a degree of accountability and wealth redistribution since in order to retain the followers’ loyalty, leaders have to secure and distribute patronage – and in a country endowed with modest resources and decrepit industry, much of it is stolen from the state.

However, the same forces that ensure Pakistan’s stability also impede its progress. The primacy of clan loyalty over civic responsibility has served as a barrier to the development of modern democratic institutions. Both civilian and authoritarian military governments have been frustrated in their attempts at reform. Little changes whether the country is ruled by a dictator or a democrat, because both have to sit atop and draw support from the same pyramid of kinship networks. The military, which functions relatively more efficiently than other institutions, has insulated itself against these forces by turning itself into the biggest kinship group of them all, securing itself the largest share of the state’s revenues.

The economy (to which Lieven unfortunately gives very little space) becomes yet another victim of this system. Indeed, ‘the most economically dynamic sections of the Pakistani population are those which have to a greater or lesser extent been shaken loose from their traditional cultural patterns and kinship allegiances by mass migration,’ he writes. These include the Muhajirs of Karachi and the migrants from East Punjab.

Pakistan, writes Lieven, is a ‘highly conservative, archaic, even sometimes quite inert and somnolent mass of different societies, with two modernizing impulses fighting to wake it up’ – the Westernised liberals and the Islamists. Both have been stymied by the nature of Pakistani society as much as by the liberals’ identification with the deeply-loathed United States and the Islamists inability to overcome the political quietism of the conservative, highly superstitious Islam practised by most Pakistanis. In their confrontation with each other, both ‘see the battle between them as apocalyptic, ending with the triumph of good or evil’, yet their chances of success are equally grim.

Lieven carefully unravels the various strands of Islamism and gives a measured assessment of their relative influence in Pakistan. What is notable, he writes, is less the strength of Pakistan’s Islamists than their weakness. The same kinship networks, loyalty to hereditary saints, and the potpourri of sects and sub-sects are barriers which also prevent the spread of Islamism. With the partial exception of the Jamaat-e-Islami, he notes, Islamists have themselves been swallowed up by the patronage system.

Lieven is concerned with the treatment of women in Pakistan, and some of the incidents he describes are horrific indeed. But unlike other Western commentators, he is careful to note that contrary to popular myth, the worst abuses against women are sanctioned by the traditional customary law rather than the Sharia. The case of Mukhtar Mai’s gang rape and the lesser known (at least in the West) story of the Baloch girls who were shot and buried alive for choosing to marry out of clan are instructive in this regard. Both were sanctioned by tribal customary law.

However, Lieven notes that the murder of the Baloch girls somehow elicited far less outrage from Pakistan’s liberal elite than an incident that happened around the same time involving the public flogging of a girl in Swat. The outrage around that incident proved one of the catalysts for the subsequent military operation there. But Lieven fails to pursue the implications of this comment further. Of course the reason why the Swat incident attracted more attention is that it had entered the ‘war on terror’ narrative where a whole industry has flourished, thriving on exaggeration and fear.

Lieven rejects the alarmist claims which portray Pakistan as on the verge of Islamist takeover but warns that things would be less certain if the U.S. were to intervene directly on Pakistani soil, potentially triggering a military revolt. The insurgency at present only affects a very small stretch of Pakistani territory and, as demonstrated by the offensive in Swat, it can be crushed when the state makes a determined effort.

Lieven considers the Swat campaign a success but acknowledges that the terrorist threat in the rest of the country has increased. But these are not simply parallel developments; there is a causal relationship between them. There was never any doubt that the Pakistani army had the capacity to crush the Taliban but the real question was always the costs and consequences of such an operation. Predictably, the use of blunt force has turned a geographically delimited insurgency into an amorphous terrorist threat against which the state can do very little.

However, Lieven is categorically opposed to military intervention in Pakistan and marshals some eminently reasonable policy recommendations in his brief conclusions.

For Lieven, Pakistan is resilient enough to survive the terrorist threat, but the danger which could really precipitate its collapse is climate change. A country which receives at an average only 240mm of annual rainfall and is overly dependant on the Indus will be seriously at risk as its already large population grows further and water tables drop unless it makes efforts to better preserve its water resources and prevent waste.

Unlike most Western writers who go looking for interlocutors in their own image – secular, liberal, Westernised – Lieven’s research includes a remarkable range of voices, including soldiers, Islamists, policemen, peasants, a president, and taxi drivers. He is sympathetic, but rarely credulous. He is particularly sceptical of the Pakistani elite – ‘even, or especially, when their statements seem to correspond to Western liberal ideology, and please Western journalists and officials’.

Lieven brings an anthropologist’s rigour, a journalist’s intuition and a travel writer’s descriptive power to a book which is perceptive, nuanced, and eminently readable. The book is illustrated with telling, sometimes amusing, anecdotes. But its greatest strength is that it shakes Westerners and Pakistanis alike from the complacent assumptions that underlie their respective political discourses.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

3 thoughts on “Between a Rock and a Hard Country”

  1. A good overview, although I’m surprised you don’t have any bones to pick with him whatsoever. Many on the Pakistani left are lamenting what they see as Lieven’s very positive characterisation of the armed forces. They also suggest that he overplays the kinship issue to the point of obscuring other pertinent social forces that shape modern Pakistan. Just wondering what’s your take on that?
    For instance: http://www.exacteditions.com/exact/browse/327/342/8916/3/6

    1. Lieves explores the positives and negatives of every segment of the society. The army is no exception: he gives praise where he thinks it is merited, and is harshly critical when necessary. He is fair even to the Taliban. That’s what scholars are supposed to do–shake us out of easy assumptions. His book is mainly about the kind of Catch-22 situation in which the country is caught in–and the military is a key component of it. As he points out, it has turned itself into one of the biggest patronage systems, and while it functions relatively more efficiently than other institutions, it does so mainly by sucking the resources from all others.

      Yes, there is a lot to criticize there: Lieven for example only gives cusory attention to the atrocities and extra-judicial killing being carried out by the military. But that is not what Pakistan’s westernized liberal elite (whom you rather curiously refer to as the ‘Pakistani left’–it would be more accurate to call them Pakistani neo-conservatives since they are socially liberal and extremely hawkish on defense) are complaining about. In fact their main beef with Musharraf and the army was that their collective punishment policy in the FATA region was not tough enough. While the tribal belt was being devastated in scorched earth military operations, they were blaming the army for not doing enough. Unlike them — or Lieven — I think the Army should have never made itself an instrument in an American war.

      As regards the link about, yes I had noticed that it was being passed around in Pakistan’s liberal elite circles. It is a nice hit job, and bears no resemblance to the book I read. It is also deliberately misleading. e.g., it takes a statement about Baluchistan’s autocratic hereditary elite and makes it sound like a comment on the people.

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