IT IS a shame that these books should be published at a time when the world is riveted by events in the Middle East. Pakistan’s population is more than half the size of the entire Arab world; for most of the past three decades it has been involved in a war with a superpower, first against it, and now on the same side as it; it suffers from an Islamic insurgency that has killed 30,000 people over the past four years; it is regarded by students of geopolitics as the most likely location of nuclear conflict; and the reasons why it does not work as a country are many and fascinating.
The trouble with Pakistan’s story is that the country is one rather depressing stage on from the Middle East. Its people have risen up bravely against autocrats (three times over, if you count only the generals, or four if, like some Pakistanis, you count Zulfikar Ali Bhutto as well) and had several unsuccessful attempts at democracy. So it ricochets between military and civilian governments, with a state that does not work very well but has not collapsed, and an insurgency that is not turning into a civil war but won’t go away. Unlike the Middle East, it is not full of hope.
Yet for drama, colour and complexity, the place is hard to beat; and Anatol Lieven captures the richness of the place wonderfully. His book has the virtues of both journalism and scholarship—not surprising, since Mr Lieven used to be a reporter for theTimes and is now at King’s College, London. He has travelled extensively and talked widely, to generals, shopkeepers, farmers, lawyers and bureaucrats.
He quotes the people he meets with both sympathy and scepticism, pointing to “Pakistani society’s ability to generate within an astonishingly short space of time several mutually incompatible versions of a given event or fact, often linked to conspiracy theories which pass through the baroque to the rococo”—a characteristic which anybody who has worked there will recognise. He has a great affection for the country, which he describes as “a place that cries out for the combined talents of a novelist, an anthropologist and a painter.” Aside from occasional bits of horrible writing, he does it justice.
The notion that Pakistan is approaching the condition of a failed state is popular these days. Mr Lieven rejects it. The state may be weak, but in his view society is strong, which both holds the place together and frustrates attempts to modernise it. For instance, Mr Lieven finds the official bit of the legal system—the police, lawyers and judges—horribly wanting. “When I visited the city courts in Quetta, Baluchistan, a majority of the people with whom I spoke outside had cases which had been pending for more than five years, and had spent more than 200,000 rupees [$4,500] on legal fees and bribes—a colossal sum for a poor man in Pakistan.”
Many therefore turn to tribal courts, or to the Pakistani Taliban in areas where they are strong. Few outsiders would recognise some of the tribal courts’ decisions as justice—girls are traditionally given as compensation for particularly serious crimes—yet service is speedy and generally reckoned to be superior to that provided by the state. Indeed, this is one of the main reasons why the Taliban’s rise was, at least initially, widely welcomed.
Democracy, similarly, sits uncomfortably with traditional society. Politics is dominated by big landowners and tribal chiefs, who regard their job not as developing the country’s economy and civil institutions for the good of all Pakistanis, but as distributing patronage to their clan or tribe; and that’s how government is run. Values diverge radically from those normally associated with representative democracy. In 2008, three teenage Baluch girls were shot and buried alive for refusing to marry the husbands chosen for them by their tribes. A tribal chief, a senator belonging to the Pakistan People’s Party of President Asif Ali Zardari, commented: “these are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them. Only those who commit immoral acts should be afraid.” The man was subsequently made a federal minister.
Mr Lieven thinks growing resentment at the hierarchical nature of Pakistani society has helped the Taliban. Educated Pakistanis would ask of some Islamist on the rise: “Who on earth can respect a former bus conductor as a leader?” The answer, says Mr Lieven in rather cross italics, is “another bus conductor…It is precisely the lowly origins of the Taliban…which endear them to the masses.”
Still, Mr Lieven reckons that because of the strength of traditional social bonds, which tie individual to family, and family to tribe or clan, “Pakistani society is probably strong enough to prevent any attempt to change it radically through Islamist revolution, which is all to the good.” Bruce Riedel is less sanguine. He regards “a jihadist victory” in Pakistan as “neither imminent nor inevitable…[but] a real possibility that needs to be assessed”. It might come about, he reckons, as a result of a military coup by an officer sharing the world- view of General Zia ul Haq, or as a result of an insurgent victory; neither of which Mr Lieven’s analysis suggests is likely.
Though Mr Lieven knows Pakistan from the inside, Mr Riedel, who has advised no fewer than four American presidents, knows power from the inside—something he is keen to share with the reader. Every chapter starts with some version of “We were aboard Air Force One en route to California when I began briefing President Barack Obama…”
For readers who can successfully suppress their irritation, his book provides a useful account of the dysfunctional relationship between Pakistan and America. The governments are supposedly close allies, yet betray each other with monotonous regularity. After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan, America abandoned Pakistan for India. Pakistan both helps America in its war against the Afghan Taliban and—playing both sides—allows Taliban fighters to conduct attacks in Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. Pakistan’s people regard America with deep suspicion, and Pakistan’s Taliban is taking up the baton of global (and particularly anti-American) terror from a weakened al-Qaeda.
Although the books disagree somewhat about Pakistan’s prospects, they are not far apart on at least one important aspect of its past. America’s interventions, argues Mr Riedel, have made it “harder for Pakistanis to develop a healthy democracy that can effectively fight terror”, by encouraging military interference in civilian affairs. “It has above all been the US-led campaign in Afghanistan,” says Mr Lieven, “which has been responsible for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan since 2001.” These two books, in different ways, sharply illustrate an uncomfortable truth about American foreign policy: that the war in Afghanistan has helped foster in Pakistan exactly the sorts of tendencies that America went into Afghanistan to wipe out.