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Book Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country

[ 4 ] July 30, 2012 |

This is the third in an eight part series on this year’s Patterson School Summer Reading List:

  1. Jason Stearns, Dancing in the Glory of Monsters
  2. CJ Chivers, The Gun
  3. Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country tries to change the extant Western narrative on Pakistan. Lieven has travelled extensively in Pakistan over the course of several decades, and is familiar with virtually all of the major political factions. Lievan’s most important point, made repeatedly for emphasis, is that the social structures that undergird Pakistani society (primarily kinship structures, along witha  melange of tribal and ethnic affiliations) are far too robust for either radical Islamists or the Pakistani state to disrupt. While Pakistan may in some ways resemble a “failed state” (itself a dreadfully over and mis-used term), there is little prospect for any kind of transformational change of state structures. Pakistan is here to stay, and will likely remain genuinely “Pakistani” for the foreseeable future.

Lieven makes clear that a surface analysis of Pakistani politics, even one that takes into account the interplay between the major political parties and ethnic groups, lends little understanding as to how the political system actually functions. He makes clear that party politics fails to adequately describe the interactions of the Pakistani political class, and that the extant parties are themselves little more than broad-based patronage networks with a thin ideological veneer. Not all parties are equally part of this system, although most of those that see any kind of prolonged success find themselves in a system which strongly rewards a kinship-patronage based program. This makes it difficult for political parties to take advantage of broader identifications, including ethnic attachment or class consciousness. These attachments surely exist, but their impact is muted by the deeper social structure. For example, even parties interested in agrarian reform have rarely had much success penetrating the networks of obligation, and have earned enduring hatred from what amount (in some ways) to feudal agrarian lords. However, Lieven makes clear that the feudal model also misses much; rural conditions are less drastic than statistics indicate because the upper classes are themselves bound by these systems of obligation.

State capacity problems extend to tax collection, infrastructure projects, management of the local police, and basic governance of the more restive provinces. Nevertheless, Pakistan has managed to construct a well trained, technological advanced, competent army, albeit one that consistently rejects civilian supremacy. Pakistan has also managed to build itself ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs, both of which are centralized, capital intensive endeavors. Consequently, Pakistan only approaches being a “failed” state on certain metrics of domestic governance; its central government can consistently draw on the resources necessary to projecting a powerful international image.

Lieven rejects the argument that Pakistan is likely to fall to the Taliban, or to undergo an Islamic revolution similar to Iran’s.  It’s not just that secular institutions are too strong, although in the case of the Army this is surely true.  More importantly, the network of identities that bind Pakistani society together are too strong for revolutionary forces to tear apart.  While the Taliban has prospered in some parts of Pakistan and has periodically won certain forms of official sanction, it has also discovered hard limits on its appeal, not to mention the tolerance of Pakistani security institutions. The Army and intelligence services have been happy to make limited use of the Taliban and Taliban allies to conduct proxy wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but have moved quickly to crush any serious threats to the Pakistani state.

Lieven repeatedly returns to concerns about climate change.  He argues that climate change could destabilize Pakistani society in ways that neither the state nor the Taliban can match, by undermining the fundamental economic substructure. Indeed, next to climate change Lieven sees only a US or Indian ground invasion and occupation as events that could bring about revolutionary change in Pakistan.

The weak state, strong society dynamic helps explain the problematic nature of Pakistani civil-military relations.  Built on a British model perfected during the Raj, the Pakistani Army is a strong institution, capable of managing itself in a more or less meritocratic fashion, of building a security strategy that informs (and to some degree constitutes) Pakistani foreign policy, and of commanding all of the resources necessary to a modern, effective military organization.  It is nearly the only institution in the country that operates on such a Weberian logic. Thus, the military tends to hold a great degree of legitimacy (although this varies across region), and tends to have strong attitudes about the nature and conduct of the civilian Pakistani state.  At the same time, the civilian state remains remarkably corrupt and incapable of reforming either itself or life in the countryside.  Consequently, the military often had both an interest in political intervention and the social capital to undertake such intervention.

Lieven notes on several occasions that the Pakistani public sphere is rife with conspiracy theory.  These include a widespread belief that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks, that the United States and India support Al Qaeda, as well as a few others.  Lievan makes a good case that these beliefs go beyond what we might account as typical nationalist/political paranoia (such as American beliefs on climate change, President Obama’s religion, etc.) and have a detrimental effect (although perhaps not a significant detrimental effect) on Pakistani public life and foreign relations.

Pakistan: A Hard Country isn’t quite “everything you know about Pakistan is wrong,” but rather “most of what you know about Pakistan needs to be viewed in different context.” To be sure, while Lievan makes certain that his readers get the point, the argument occasionally comes across as repetitive. In part this is because Lieven previews certain discussions in the course of engaging other topics; given that national political problems are often inter-related, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this. However, there’s a degree of truth to the claim that you can get most of Lievan’s argument from his first chapter. You’d miss out on a tremendous amount of supporting evidence and detail, but nevertheless could probably get a grip on his key assertions. Altogether, it’s a worthwhile volume.

Comments (4)

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  1. Steve LaBonne says:

    In trying to understand Pakistan it’s useful to know something (beyond the usual sanitized version) about its birth. As Perry Anderson’s recent LRB essay on the Partition shows, it was set up to fail from the outset.

  2. shah8 says:

    Was this published before or after the floods? The Pakistani floods in current context really seemed to set off a serious downward spiral, more than I would have thought when they were happening.

  3. Josh G. says:

    Lievan’s most important point, made repeatedly for emphasis, is that the social structures that undergird Pakistani society (primarily kinship structures, along with a melange of tribal and ethnic affiliations) are far too robust for either radical Islamists or the Pakistani state to disrupt. While Pakistan may in some ways resemble a “failed state” (itself a dreadfully over and mis-used term), there is little prospect for any kind of transformational change of state structures.

    If kinship structures and tribal/ethnic affiliations are able to effectively defy the central government, then that’s pretty much the definition of a failed state.

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