Lieven’s Hard Country

Anatol Lieven’s ‘Pakistan – A Hard Country’ is a hard book. Not least because it is difficult to read or it is about Pakistan, but because it is so detailed that it is mind-spinning. On the other hand, he makes sure that, once you finished the last page, you wouldn’t need to read another book on this country.

The title must be quite enticing for an Indian. I, for my part, must admit that I was lured into the book by its title. Ironically Lieven had originally thought of the title ‘Pakistan – How it Works’, but later changed his mind although doesn’t satisfactorily explain why the change of mind came about. By the title, one would expect (and as an Indian, hope) , to find reams and reams of tales about the problems the Pakistanis face and why it has become a ‘failed state’. While you get these reams to your heart’s content, it doesn’t quite fully satisfy your Pakistan-hating taste-buds, due to two reasons:

Firstly many of those descriptions of Pakistani society largely resemble that of India itself. Things such as nepotism, corruption, political apathy, political patronising, police atrocity, snail-paced justice system, creaking infrastructure, public apathy, and even in common man’s resilience on continuing to survive despite all these problems, Pakistan mirrors exactly that of India. As Lieven himself points out, in most of the cases, the word Pakistan can be replaced with India in many parts of this book and it would not be entirely inaccurate.

Secondly, a ‘failed’ Pakistan would consequently mean ‘failed’ India, because ‘what happens to Pakistan will have a crucial effect on the rest of South Asia,’ therefore ‘those Indians who would be tempted to rejoice in Pakistan’s fall should therefore consider that it would almost certainly drag India down with it.’

For these two reasons stated by Lieven, and further concern for pacifism, it is not possible to read this book without acute care and concern for the Pakistani society. Throughout the book Lieven amply warns the Indian reader that it is in their interest they should pray, strive and work for a stable Pakistan.

There are a lot of standard ideas that are generally broken by this book. The common, and ignorant, belief that Pakistan is a single homogenous society is shattered in this book. Pakistan is not a one religion (Islam) one language (Urdu) society. Urdu is just a minority language mainly promoted by those Muslims who migrated from central and western India and supported by the Punjabi Muslims for political reasons. Ethnically, Pakistan is as diverse as India, only less acute, perhaps, in numbers. The ethnicity is felt harder by lack of unifying efforts, or rather more aggressive unifying efforts. For instance, Urdu was enforced aggressively on Sindh whose language is Sindhi and Pathans whose language is Pashto, Baluchistan whose language is Baloch and, believe it or not, there is even a small minority community that speaks a language called Bahrui which is a Dravidian language! And most of them hate the enforcement of Urdu! Secondly the Sunnis dominate the country but they pull in different directions – there are Sunnis with Sufi practices – opposed by other Sunnis and who practice more ‘purer’ form of Islam without Sufi ‘corruption’. There are Shia – opposed by all Sunnis and attacked by extremist Sunnis. There are Barelvis and Ahmedis whom both the Sunni and Shia want to be declared as non-Muslims!

Pakistani army is the most unifying, most efficient and least corrupt organisation in the country. A soldier is always a Pakistani first and anything else second. Political parties are the least unifying, least efficient and most corrupt. There is never a single party that represents the whole of Pakistan. PPP is the Sindhi party run by the Bhuttos, who are, of course, Sindhis. PML (N) is the Punjabi party run by the Sharrifs. The MQM is for the Mohajirs (Muslims migrated from various parts of India during Partition). And, of course, there are fringe, smaller parties for each ethnicity such as Pathans and Baloch. It’s, therefore, little wonder that army takeover of the governance is widely lauded by the people. Also, ironically, with the grave exception of Zia-ul Huq, every military ruler had attempted to introduce legal, social and economic reforms. Lieven gives most credit to Musharraf and going to the extent of calling Musharraf’s regime the best Pakistan ever had.

The problems facing Pakistan are far more complex and far less homogenous than usually reported by the media, especially the US and Indian press. The US media does not understand the complexities of Pakistani society and the Indian media, who want only bad news from Pak, does not care.

A failed Pakistani state would immediately mean a disintegrated army. A group of explosive experts, weapons trainers, terrain specialists, commandos and various defence experts without an organisation and would be ready to be recruited by the extremists groups. As such, already the Taliban pay more than the local police in the North-West Frontier Province areas (a Constable – 8,000, a Taliban solder – 12,000 – in Pakistani rupees). With the state and, consequently, army gone, the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Toiba wouldn’t need to hire from the remote villages. And what would happen of the nuclear reserves is something nobody is willing to bet. Currently Pakistan follows one of the best systems in the world for safeguarding and maintaining their nuclear installations so that no enraged major or colonel can trigger the N-button, without following the proper protocol.

If there is anything that is capable of destroying Pakistan it is the Nature. Ecologically Pakistan is at the vulnerable state and there are already water shortages and unless some initiative is taken immediately, in less than 15 years, half of Pakistan will be without water. As of writing of the book, nothing seems to have been initiated.

Despite all these, Lieven claims, Pakistani people are a resilient lot. With no support from the government and constant threat from the militants, they live on. They hope, pray and manage to sustain their livelihood in the midst of so many opponents that if is not anything, it is the people’s resilience that is making the country work. For now.

Lieven’s book ‘Pakistan – A Hard Country’ is a hard book. Don’t mistake, if you’re interested in South Asian history and politics and religious fundamentalism and terrorism – in short, if you’re me, it is one of the most interesting books on Pakistan you’ll ever read. To me, personally this is the best book on Pakistan.. But, yes, but it requires patience, consideration and being open to Lieven’s viewpoints which are not always agreeable. However, if you loosen up a bit and stay open to his arguments, you will end up seeing Pakistan not as an enemy, not as an ally but a struggling, yet resilient, society that needs all our attention and help and, which, once saved, will deliver the security for the rest of the world.

And especially for South Asia.