The South Asia Channel

Pakistan: A Hard Country

Following the incident in January of this year where CIA contractorRaymond Davis shot two Pakistanis in shadowy circumstances, U.S.-Pakistanrelations have remained perched at a critical but precarious impasse. Bilateralengagement surrounding Davis’ arrest and controversial release highlighted themany reasons why the relationship remains fractious; the divergent strategicinterests these cautious allies have for the region, the Pakistaniestablishment’s ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Following the incident in January of this year where CIA contractorRaymond Davis shot two Pakistanis in shadowy circumstances, U.S.-Pakistanrelations have remained perched at a critical but precarious impasse. Bilateralengagement surrounding Davis’ arrest and controversial release highlighted themany reasons why the relationship remains fractious; the divergent strategicinterests these cautious allies have for the region, the Pakistaniestablishment’s ambivalent attitude towards militancy, the public’s adamantanti-Americanism, and the civilian government’s inability to manage all of theabove issues.

The post-Davis cooling of relations comes at a tense time,in the run-up to the July 2011 deadline for U.S. troop withdrawals fromAfghanistan to commence as well as the 10-year anniversary of the September 11,2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. All eyes are on Pakistan not only to seewhat role it might play in brokering an endgame in Afghanistan, but also todetermine whether the country – with its nuclear bombs and terrorist safehavens – is indeed the "internationalmigraine" that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright says itis. 

Sandwiched between these events, the release of AnatolLieven’s latest book, Pakistan: A HardCountry, could not be timelier. This insightful, comprehensive portrait ofPakistan is the perfect antidote to stereotypical descriptions of the countryas the most dangerous place in the world.

Lieven has known Pakistan for over 20 years, first as theforeign correspondent for The Timesin the late 1980s, and more recently through five research trips in 2007-09 inhis capacity as a professor of War Studies at King’s College, London. Thanks tohis familiarity with the place and its people, Lieven peppers his analysis of Pakistan withanecdotes, comic observations, and travelogue, thereby favoring the detail andtexture of anthropology over the bullet points and binaries of policy.  

The author is at his best when unpacking the kinshipnetworks and cultures of patronage that permeate every aspect of Pakistanisociety. Indeed, the central thesis of the book is that the Pakistani state isfar more durable than it seems, owing to extensive kinship networks that makeleaders (whether tribal, political, or dictatorial) accountable to anddependent on followers among whom they must distribute patronage to ensuretheir own survival.

To make his point, Lieven spares readers the familiarchronology of Pakistani history with its cyclical propensity for democracy anddictatorship, and instead divides the book politically, geographically, andinstitutionally to illustrate how the demands of patronage impact thefunctioning of political parties, police stations, tribes, courts, sectarianorganizations, religious shrines, and more. We see, for instance, thehigh-ranking politician who cannot make policy because he’s too busy arrangingpromotions and job opportunities for supporters, or attending the marriages andfunerals where extended social networks are maintained. Or the pir (hereditary saint) who cultivates apolitical contact to secure donations for a shrine in exchange for devotees’votes.   

Through such examples, Lieven convincingly argues thatPakistan’s is a "negotiated state," where institutions and political entitiesconstantly broker their authority in light of the elaborate system ofpatronage. For example, Lieven’s analysis of the justice system in Pakistan -which he identifies as comprising competing legal codes, including the law ofthe state, Islamic law, and folk (tribal) law – reveals the concessions andcompromises that parallel authorities must make to deliver justice. Thus asenior policeman may convene a jirga(a council of elders) to settle a dispute in order to preserve the honor of alandowner who would be shamed among his community if tried in a court of law. Suchan action, in turn, would secure the policeman’s prompt promotion. 

Notably, Lieven’s emphasis on kinship and patronage does notreduce Pakistanis to a hapless mass victimized by a hierarchical statebureaucracy, military, or tribal system. He instead shows that the importanceof kinship loyalty to those in positions of power means that many members ofsociety are able to exploit available patronage (whether in the form of cash,clout, or coveted appointments). This argument explains Pakistan’s low inequalityrating according to the Gini Co-efficient, since the state’s resources areconstantly being redistributed through society owing to the demands of thepatronage culture. As long as the expectations of this culture are fulfilled,Lieven suggests, revolutionary action (whether Islamist or socialist) seemsunlikely.

This argument about Pakistan’s ultimate stability is steepedin historical context, yet enlivened with the journalist’s ear for the word onthe street. Lieven explains the historical precedent for Islamic terrorism inthe country’s north-western regions as well as sectarian strife in southernPunjab. But he also takes great care to include contemporary Pakistanis’viewpoints on the current implications of these trends. It is to Lieven’s creditthat he allows Pakistanis to express their own understanding of the nation’spredicament through extensive direct quotes. This narrative device helpsuncover the logic behind traits that may seem indecipherable – or even suicidal- to the outsider; the barbaric rulings of western-educated tribal chiefs, theapathy of civilian law-enforcers in the face of militant attacks, or theaverage Pakistani’s appetite for conspiracy theories about the U.S. and India.

The subtlety and fluency with which Lieven deconstructs thequirks of Pakistani society may lead some to write him off as an apologist forthe country. Nothing could be further from the truth. When read closely, Pakistan: A Hard Country contains direwarnings about Pakistan’sfuture, and is often pessimistic about the prospects for change. Take, forinstance, Lieven’s analysis of the southern province of Sindh. He correctlypoints out that waderos (hereditarylandowners) are causing Sindhi society to stagnate, and therefore become morevulnerable to climate change. Water resources are drying up, but the feudalsystem keeps the population uneducated, divided along tribal lines, and thusunable to revamp water infrastructure or local agricultural practice.

At the same time, Lieven does not advocate abolishing the wadero system, and instead points outthat landowners are a crucial barrier against Sindhi nationalism, which couldplunge the province into intense ethnic conflict if stirred. In other words,Lieven argues that either drought or violence will lead to provincial collapse.The realization that there are few good options to address some of Pakistan’s mostpressing issues occurs with unnerving frequency throughout the book. 

Where appropriate, however, Lieven makes clear andconsistent policy recommendations, primarily directed at the U.S. and Pakistanigovernments. His resounding message to the Washington is to avoid incursionsinto Pakistani territory by U.S. ground forces, even in the event of a terroristattack with Pakistani origins on American soil. Lieven believes that a U.S.military intervention is one of the only factors that can truly destabilizePakistan by causing a mutiny and subsequent split in the army, a developmentthat could spur an Islamic upheaval and plunge the country into prolonged civilwar. Given Lieven’s previous writings on the populist and nationalist Americanresponse to Islamic terrorism, his concerns about Washington miscalculating thefallout of U.S. military actions in Pakistan should be taken quite seriously.

Lieven also confronts the Pakistani government with achallenge: to urgently address the consequences of climate change, particularlyimminent and acute water shortages. After all, patronage ceases to be effectivein the face of resource scarcity, and kinship loyalties in stressedenvironments can only lead to violence of the sort that could permanentlyundermine the Pakistani state.

After reading through the 500 exhaustive pages that comprisePakistan: A Hard Country, few will mistake the specificity of Lieven’s policyrecommendations for an oversimplification of Pakistan’sproblems-if anything, the focus on climate change and U.S. intervention demonstrates Lieven’sunparalleled ability to keep the threats to Pakistan’s stability inperspective.

That said, there are some issues Lieven fails to address.There is surprisingly little on the U.S. drone program in Pakistan’s tribalareas, one of the most controversial subjects in the context of strained U.S.-Pakistanrelations and a useful piece of the puzzle to explain anti-Americanism inPakistan. Lieven’s discussion of the Pakistani economy is also limited, eventhough concerns about the destabilizing effect of high inflation coupled withlow growth rates are mounting each day. Rather than critique the country’s macroeconomicpolicies, Lieven reiterates his thesis by showing that industrial and businesselites do not have kinship networks, and therefore exert little power over thestate.  

And while Lieven makes educated guesses about the impact ofrapid urbanization on Pakistani politics and society, his analysis seemsincomplete. According to Lieven, the power of kinship networks will endure inPakistan’s expanding cities as migrants retain their rural links. This analysisruns counter to theories that urbanization will lead to new political, and evenreligious, allegiances. In the absence of raw data, it would have beeninteresting for Lieven to engage these possibilities and include scenarios foran urbanized Pakistan, or document more Pakistani perspectives on a trend thathas yet to become prominent in public discourse.

These, however, are minor omissions in what is otherwise anintuitive, intelligent, and invaluable text. Ultimately, Pakistan: A Hard Country has the power to dampen the paranoia aboutPakistan’s security complex, put terrorism in perspective, and humanizePakistanis.

Huma Yusuf is acolumnist for Pakistan’sDawn newspaper and the PakistanScholar at the WoodrowWilson InternationalCenter for Scholars.

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