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So you think you know everything about Pakistan?

Even before the country’s creation in 1947, some were predicting the collapse and breakup of Pakistan. The Indian Muslim leader Maulana Azad thought the partition of the subcontinent would be reversed in a matter of months.

books Updated: May 20, 2011 23:43 IST
Patrick French

Pakistan: A Hard Country
Anatol Lieven
Allen Lane
Rs599 n pp 576


Even before the country’s creation in 1947, some were predicting the collapse and breakup of Pakistan. The Indian Muslim leader Maulana Azad thought the partition of the subcontinent would be reversed in a matter of months. More recently, in the chaos and bloodshed that have come to Pakistan since 2001, commentators have suggested it’s a failed State. In the last few weeks — since Osama bin Laden was found living down the road from Islamabad — it’s been portrayed as a rogue nation.

Anatol Lieven will have none of this. His Pakistan is a durable and varied country held together by complex ties of kinship, tradition and a powerful professional army. He sees it as far from failure, even if parts of the administration are dysfunctional. As a journalist-turned-professor, Lieven is able to range vividly across different levels of Pakistani society and show the huge differences between, for example, the business community in a city like Karachi and the vengeful tribes living on the Afghan border. His conversations with people in these remote areas are fascinating for their nuggets of insight. He also quotes frequently from the deductions of British colonial officials, whose aphorisms are threaded through his book like verses from a sacred text.

In the same vein, he rejects the stereotype of Pakistan as a land of religious fanatics. Interviewing a frontier chief whose walls “are festooned with the heads of mountain goats and photographs of ancestors bristling with guns, swords and facial hair,” he learns that failures by the police make rough justice popular. In a region where honour is vital, the chief prefers to execute a rapist and slit the nose and ears of his accomplice; if not, the legal system might leave them “free to roam the streets raping more girls and laughing at us”. Islam as practised in Pakistan is often mystical and ‘non-Koranic’, and ‘justice’ arises from local traditions of revenge.

Pakistan: A Hard Country is an important corrective to a monolithic view of Pakistan. Lieven is right when he says support for the Taliban is superficial, or that “water shortages today pose a growing and possibly even existential threat” to the nation. His take is fresh and deeply informed. But it’s rooted in an older, static view of social customs. For example, 100 years ago in undivided India the veiling of women or reverence for a chief were as common as they are in Pakistan today. These practices have largely disappeared in modern India because there has been a calculated attempt at social progress and reform. Such behaviour is rooted not in the spirit of Pakistan’s people, but in a lack of economic independence and mobility.

In the weeks since the killing of bin Laden, the Pakistani media have been awash with intrigue and justifications for the excesses of al-Qaeda. In the words of the writer Nadeem F Paracha: “What was once the lunatic fringe has now become the country’s new mainstream.” When Lieven visited Broomfield Hall, “the school of the local elite” in Multan in 2009, he found conspiracy theories were the stuff of life. In the view of almost all the students, “It has been proved that the Jews were responsible for 9/11; that a Jewish conspiracy exists to dominate the world; that the US has occupied Afghanistan in order to invade Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, and so on.”

Pakistan is today engaged in a psychological civil war. For the last 20 years, it has sent trained killers across India’s border to destabilise Kashmir. It has supported the Taliban on and off — while posing as an ally of the US and receiving large sums of money for military services from western taxpayers. This dual strategy has proved extremely unpopular with most Pakistanis, who feel an undefined sympathy with their fellow Muslims who are being hounded by foreign forces. Public figures such as the cricketer-turned-unelected politician Imran Khan have stirred up an aggressive patriotism, obsessing about insults to national honour while choosing not to talk about the immediate threat in their midst, for fear of getting on the wrong side of the terrorists. As the newspaper Dawn revealed recently, US drone attacks have killed less than 2,000 people — many of them militants — while attacks by Islamist terrorists inside Pakistan have killed an estimated 34,000 citizens since 2004.

Lieven sees the variety of armed groups that are attempting to overthrow the Pakistani State as contradictory. Some are working in the spirit of tribal rebellion, showing “manliness and fearlessness” like their predecessors 150 years ago. Others are driven by local injustices, or are borrowing from precepts exported by the al-Qaeda. Any solution, he believes, drawing on his detailed historical and anthropological knowledge, depends on a negotiated settlement with the Pathan population of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, who form “the backbone of the Taleban (sic) and their allies.”

Patrick French is the author of India: A Portrait