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.

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The magical realism of body counts

The following article appeared on Al Jazeera. (in Spanish in Rebelión). You can hear my interview with PressTV here. Andrew Sullivan quotes me on his influential blog the Daily Dish and Natasha Lennard quotes me over at Salon.

Gravediggers of Afghanistan and Pakistan have been kept busy as the US drone war has expanded, but civilian deaths remain undercounted as mendacious officials build a myth of technological accuracy and violent ‘justice’ (REUTERS)

A gypsy named Melquiades who died many years ago in Singapore returned to live with the family of Colonel Aureliano Buendia in Macondo, because he could no longer bear the tedium of death. These are the kinds of characters that populate Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magnificent work One Hundred Years of Solitude. Today they also seem to occupy the tribal badlands of Pakistan’s north-western frontier.

On June 3, when Ilyas Kashmiri was killed in a US drone strike, he had already been dead for over a year. In September 2009, the CIA claimed that it killed Kashmiri along with two other senior Taliban leaders in North Waziristan. But the lure of the limelight was seemingly irresistible even in death, because on October 9, Kashmiri returned to give an interview to the late Syed Saleem Shahzad of Asia Times Online.

Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also rose from the dead many times. On at least 16 occasions, Mehsud was in the gun-sights when CIA drones loosed their Hellfire missiles. Yet, until August 2009, he proved unable to settle into the afterlife. Mullah Sangeen also experienced at least two resurrections.

Death is clearly not what it used to be.

Or perhaps the people who were killed in the other attacks were not Kashmiri, Sangeen or Mehsud. Indeed, the attack on a funeral procession on June 23, 2009, which killed Sangeen was supposedly aimed at the TTP chief. It killed 83 people who certainly were not who they were supposed to be.

These are not isolated events. At the end of 2009, the Pakistani daily Dawn calculated that, of the 708 people killed in 44 drone attacks that year, only 5 were known militants. Earlier that year, The News, Pakistan’s other major English-language daily, had calculated that between January 14, 2006, and April 8, 2009, 60 drone attacks killed 701 people – of whom only 14 were known militants.

You can read the rest here

Pakistan- A Hard Challenge for International Governance

Anatol Lieven discusses Pakistan’s surprising degree of stability; International governance challenges; the role of the army and ISI; the drug trade; and Pakistan’s relationship with the U.S., Afghanistan, and other countries, including India, China, and Russia.

Anatol Lieven is chair of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College London, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His next book, “Pakistan: A Hard Country,” will appear in April 2011.

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Pakistan: A Deficit of Dignity

M. Shahid Alam

Pakistan’s rulers and ruling elites may well be thinking that the wave of people’s indignation that started in Tunisia and is now working its way through Egypt, Jordan and Yemen will never reach them. Perhaps, they are telling each other, ‘We are safe: we are a democracy.’

The Arabs who are pouring into the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Yemen are not protesting only against their dictatorships. Simultaneously, they are also protesting against governments that have sold their dignity and bartered the honor of their country. Nearly, all the Arab rulers are self-castrated eunuchs in the courts of foreign powers, who have turned their own countries into police states, and who jail, maim, torture and kill their own people to please their masters.

The Arabs are venting their anger against elites who have stymied their energies by turning their societies into prisons. In complicity with foreign powers, these elites have ruled by fear, blocking the forward movement of their people because this movement collides with the imperialist ambitions of Israel and the United States.

It is true that Pakistan has had ‘elected’ governments alternating with military dictatorships. Increasingly, however, these governments, whether civilian or military, have differed little from each other. The priority for both is to keep their power and US-doled perks by doing the bidding of the United States and Israel.

Starting in the early 1990s, Pakistan hurriedly embraced the neoliberal paradigm that emanated from Washington. Hastily, successive ministers of finance and privatization – all of them IMF appointees – went about dismantling Pakistan’s industries, selling off for a song its state-owned enterprises, and empowering Pakistan’s elites to engage in unchecked consumerism.

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Million dollar militia

Nixon already tried this in Vietnam. ‘Asian boys to fight Asian boys.’ It failed. In Iraq the Sahwa militias succeeded only as a result of particular circumstances. In Afghanistan, where blood feuds last generations, it can only sow the seeds of permanent civil war.

People & Power examines dangerous conflicts between the US and NATO strategies in the fight against the Taliban.

Exit Afghanistan

This excellent documentary produced by the Dutch VPROInternational is a must see. It presents a picture of the Afghan  conflict with the kind of nuance you are unlikely to find on British or American TV.

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Is Afghanistan the wrong war, at the wrong time, for the wrong cause?

Seumas Milne is generally better informed on Afghanistan than most commentators, but he undermines his case with the typical leftist tendency to impute imagined strategic considerations to every foreign policy misadventure. As Gareth Porter has correctly noted, US Afghan policy is rooted in domestic political considerations. There are no American interests at stake in Afghanistan, as even the military and foreign policy establishment well know.

On 18 June, a debate organised by Yeovil and Sherborne Stop the War Coalition pitted former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Paddy Ashdown, who is now an advisor to David Cameron, against Guardian journalist Seumas Milne.

The motion debated was: Is Afghanistan the wrong war at the wrong time for the wrong cause? Seumas Milne proposed the motion, saying that after nine years none of the original aims of the war had been achieved and there was no end in sight. Paddy Ashdown, passionately opposing the motion, lamented that the war had been very badly run and said he feared that it might well be lost “in the pubs and front rooms of Britain”, rather than on the battlefield. The motion opposing the war was passed overwhelmingly by an audience vote.

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