Pakistan: A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven

PublicAffairs 2011
A book review by Danny Yee © 2012
Pakistan: A Hard Country is a descriptive survey of the politics of contemporary Pakistan. Lieven is a journalist, but he uses ethnographies, histories, and so forth as well as observations, anecdotes, and quotes drawn from firsthand experience over two decades, including conversations with Pakistanis from all walks of life.

A Hard Country begins with a brief historical account, covering the creation of Pakistan but focusing on the contrasting personalities and approaches of four leaders, Ayub Khan, Zulfilkar Ali Bhutto, Zia-ul-Haq, and Pervez Musharraf. Most of the work, however, is devoted to a more synchronic description of its contemporary political system. This is a dense presentation, not really amenable to summary.

Lieven begins with the key components of the system. The justice system — the police, the courts, lawyers — serves ordinary Pakistanis poorly, leaving a major role for alternative, informal and traditional sources of justice (but not, to any great extent, for fundamentalist implementations of shariah law). Everyday religion is dominated by traditional, syncretic forms of Islam, centred on Sufi shrines and holy men, on a continuum with more puritan and fundamentalist elements such as the Jamaat Islami and marginal radical groups. The military operates a bit like a giant family, unusually meritocratic and efficient and one of the few widely respected national institutions; outside attention centres on Pakistan's intelligence services and nuclear deterrent. Political parties such as the PPP and PML(N) are loose coalitions of local interests; an exception is the MQM, largely localised to a mohajir (migrants from India at Partition) base in Karachi but with a genuine grassroots party apparatus.

This is followed by a provincial and regional survey. The Punjab has a sometimes awkward position as a province with more than half the country's population, but there is great variation across its regions, which include industrial areas, the old capital of Lahore, and traditional Multan. Sindh is split between Karachi, with an MQM government and a substantial Pathan minority, and an interior which preserves older, "feudal" traditions. Balochistan is rift by ethnic and tribal divides as well as a separatist movement; it is one of the least developed and most conservative and patriarchal regions of Pakistan. And the Pathans of North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) have a history and a political culture in which conflicts with the central government are normal. (Lieven has nothing at all on the "Northern Areas" of Gilgit-Baltistan, those parts of Kashmir administered by Pakistan.)

Writing around the end of 2010, Lieven is particularly concerned to correct then-current concerns about the stability of Pakistan and the threat to it posed by the Taleban. An introduction sketches the reasons an Islamist takeover of the country is most unlikely, a theme which is also touched on elsewhere. And the Pakistani Taleban are the subject of the last two chapters, which address public opinion in Pakistan as well as popular feeling in the contested areas, the roles of the military and the traditional Pathan Awami National Party, and their interactions (with the army, for example, pressuring the media to present a less uncritical view of the Taleban).

Lieven only touches on other topics where they are connected to politics. So economics features occasionally — with the industrialists of Faisalabad, for example, or with attempts to manage the economy from above — but there's no attempt at an overview. There's a lot on the place of the armed forces in Pakistan's social fabric and political system, but nothing on their military potential or history — no details of the wars with India, for example. There are repeated mentions of floods and the likely ecological effects of global warming, but no details — apart from occasional unanchored figures for such things as the decline in the aquifer at Quetta.

These limits are occasionally frustrating but do help to keep Pakistan: A Hard Country focused. It comes together to give a real feel for how politics in Pakistan works, and for the complex balance of forces holding the country together.

March 2012

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%T Pakistan: A Hard Country
%A Lieven, Anatol
%I PublicAffairs
%D 2011
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9781610390217
%P 592pp