An Indispensable Nation?

The American raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan has heightened suspicion of Pakistani double-dealing and laid bare the strained relationship between the two countries. Anatol Lieven’s new book Pakistan: A Hard Country, published just before the May 2 raid, takes up many of the questions raised in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.

Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College in London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., does not address what Pakistan and its intelligence services may have known about bin Laden’s whereabouts, but he does depict the perceptions that influence Pakistan’s response to the U.S. war on terror, from the common suspicion that the United States, not bin Laden, was responsible for the 9/11 attacks to the widespread sympathy for the Afghan Taliban among all sectors of Pakistani society. Examining Pakistan’s relations with Islamist militant groups inside and outside the country, Lieven offers historical perspective and a coherent, nuanced picture of the strategic concerns, politics, and occasional paranoia underlying Pakistani actions. If the West views Pakistan as a reluctant and unreliable partner in the war in Afghanistan, Lieven’s book suggests that Pakistan could hardly be otherwise. The government of Pakistan has been pressed into supporting a war deeply unpopular with its own population and one it sees as at odds with its own interests.

Had Lieven focused only on Pakistan’s role in the war on terror, he would have ample material. But Pakistan is a more wide-ranging book than that, its scope extending well beyond Pakistan’s relations with the United States and its neighbors India and Afghanistan. Lieven tackles nothing less than Pakistan’s long-term viability as a state, its internal dynamics and structure, its politics, history, and anthropology. The book covers a vast amount of ground and is packed with information, much of it fascinating and laden with significance for Washington policymakers. It casts one eye back to the founding of Pakistan and another eye to the future, where, Lieven writes, the biggest threat to Pakistan is not terrorism but the country’s shortage of water and its dependence on a single river, the Indus, for its needs.

A central contention of the book is that Pakistan is a weak state with a strong society. It presents enormous problems of governance but demonstrates surprising resiliency. Individuals’ primary loyalty is to their kinship group, and this takes precedence over loyalty to the state, to a political party, or to a professional code of conduct or ethics. The power of kinship ties makes for a deeply conservative society disinclined to Islamist revolution and equally ill-disposed to efforts to reform the state, which is constantly being plundered for favors by people seeking to gain wealth, status, and power for themselves and their families. Lieven compares the state to a skimpy blanket asked to cover a very fat man; there simply is not enough patronage to go around. Beleaguered as Pakistan is, Lieven argues that it is not a failed state, especially when compared with other South Asian nations. Rather, he writes, Pakistan is a “negotiated state,” its authority constantly tested by different actors and interest groups that it must bargain with.

Lieven’s familiarity with Pakistan goes back more than twenty years to when he first began reporting on the country for the Times of London. Nowadays safety concerns have prompted many Western journalists to quit reporting from Pakistan’s frontier areas. That Lieven traveled to these and other parts of Pakistan adds to his credibility. His conversations with Pakistanis across a broad spectrum of society, from politicians to feudal landowners to soldiers, local mullahs, Islamists, and shopkeepers, paint a vivid picture of the country. American readers may be particularly interested in the chapters devoted to the Taliban and Pakistan’s Pashtun areas. Lieven refers to the Pashtuns as “Pathans,” the term the British used when they ruled India. The Taliban is a Pathan phenomenon, rooted in Pathan culture and history. Lieven examines the Pathan tradition of rebellion going back to the time of the British and before. Visiting Pathan tribal areas in 2009, he found an intensification of the anti-Americanism that now characterizes all elements of Pakistani society, including the military.

The support for the Afghan Taliban throughout Pakistan arises not from any particular ideological affinity, notes Lieven, but from the view that the Afghan Taliban are fighting a legitimate war of resistance against foreign occupation. This was not always the perception in Pakistan. Following the attacks of 9/11, Pakistanis offered little protest to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and accepted Al Qaeda’s responsibility for the attacks. But the U.S. invasion of Iraq convinced Pakistanis that the Bush administration was lying not only about Iraq but about Afghanistan as well, using 9/11 as a pretext to invade another country in the Muslim world. Pakistanis now perceive the Afghan Taliban as analogous to the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s—not necessarily likable but legitimate.

The Pakistani Taliban is a loose alliance of Islamist groups with different agendas but all supporting the jihad in Afghanistan. Many did not intend to fight in Pakistan and claim they have been forced into a defensive jihad there against an army paid by the United States to attack them. The Pakistani Taliban does not elicit the same overwhelming levels of support from the Pakistani people as the Afghan Taliban does. Nonetheless, many Pakistanis see a moral equivalence between the Pakistani government and the Pakistani Taliban, and this perception undermines support for tough military measures against the latter. Until 2009, Pakistan was slow to respond to American pressure to attack the Pakistani Taliban for many reasons, including hesitancy to start a civil war. The Taliban were perceived not as a serious threat but as a local Pathan rebellion that could be contained, including sincere if misguided people supporting a worthy jihad in Afghanistan. Complicating relations further, the Pakistani Taliban were entwined with Islamist jihadi groups that Pakistan was covertly supporting in Kashmir. The fear that India could use Afghanistan to wage a proxy war against Pakistan has driven Pakistan’s policy for years. Convinced that the West will fail in Afghanistan, leaving that country to fall into civil war, Pakistan sees a friendly Pathan-dominated government in Afghanistan as a defense against Indian entrapment.

The U.S. decision to widen the war in Afghanistan to the tribal areas of Pakistan where the Afghan Taliban were taking shelter has come at a high cost to Pakistan. By February 2010, official figures cited by Lieven indicate that 7,598 Pakistani civilians had lost their lives to terrorism, Taliban executions, Pakistani military action, and U.S. drone attacks—two and a half times the number of those killed on 9/11 in the United States. The number of Pakistani military deaths was 2,351, two and a half times the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan. Official figures put the economic cost as $35 billion, almost twice what Pakistan has received in aid from the United States since 2001.

Given these costs, both Pakistanis and Americans may wonder if the U.S. strategy in Pakistan has been worth the price. Pakistani military action and U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have not appreciably diminished the Afghan Taliban’s fighting ability, Lieven observes, but they have bred terrorism in Pakistan, contempt for the Pakistani military as a force for hire, and some of the highest levels of anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. The fall of General Musharraf’s government in 2007 was largely due to anger over the U.S. influence in Pakistan; there are signs that the Zardari presidency will go the same route. Lieven warns that any attempt to put U.S. soldiers in Pakistan’s tribal areas will spark a mutiny of the Pakistani army.

Lieven provides a sympathetic but unsentimental portrait of a complicated country that is disorganized, violent, economically backward, and harsh on women and the poor. Because Western critics frequently misunderstand how Pakistan works, their analyses often miss the mark, he writes. They assume as a starting point that Pakistan follows the same top-down model of authority as Western governments and that Pakistani institutions operate according to rules. But the state commands very few resources. Only about 1 percent of Pakistanis pay income tax; wealthy landowners pay no direct tax at all. The lack of state services means the state has little effect on most people’s lives. The police, judges, and government officials present a facsimile of a modern state but most of the time are working for themselves or others who have the influence and money to obtain their services. In many respects, Pakistan is closer to fifteenth-century England than it is to twenty-first-century America. Corruption and inefficiency are endemic; government authority is weak and indirect; law and order are uncertain.

The justice system seems even worse. Lieven quotes several Pakistanis comparing Taliban-rendered justice favorably with that of the state justice system. However brutal the verdicts may appear to Westerners, some Pakistanis perceive the speed and relative fairness and honesty of the decisions as an improvement upon the state justice system that moves slowly, takes money from the poor, and too often renders justice only to the rich.

An exception to the pattern of government dysfunction Lieven describes is the military. Its honesty, discipline, and efficiency make it a remarkable institution, he writes, one of the few in Pakistan that performs as intended. Its effectiveness is due both to esprit de corps and to the large and disproportionate amount of resources it receives. The military is not only better funded than any other state institution in Pakistan, it is better funded than all other state institutions combined. Lieven notes that the military’s success, influence, and prestige come from its immunity to kinship interests and the corruption these spawn, “but it has only been able to achieve this immunity by turning itself into a sort of giant kinship group, extracting patronage from the state and distributing it to its members.” It is because the military does function well that it is periodically called on to take over the reins of government when civilian rule fails. But whenever that happens, military rule, too, is tainted by its involvement in politics. Lieven observes that the difference between Pakistan’s democratically elected heads of state and its occasional military dictators is smaller than sometimes thought: the country’s dictators have tended to act like democrats, while its civilian heads of state often reflect the prevailing culture of authoritarianism.

Western fears that nuclear weapons may fall into the hands of terrorists are exaggerated, according to the author. “There is no chance at all of the Pakistani military giving them to terrorists,” nor is there any chance of terrorists seizing them, as they are “the most heavily defended objects in Pakistan.” In Lieven’s view,

The greatest danger may not be Pakistani realities but U.S. fears. That is to say, the risk that the United States might launch a strike on Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent prematurely, thereby precipitating precisely the scenario that the United States fears—since such an attack would so radicalize the army and destabilize the state as to run a really serious risk of bringing about mutiny and state collapse.

Pakistan: A Hard Country is too ambitious a book to be elegant. It is a sprawling, in-depth look at Pakistan, impressively researched and, like its subject, important. With 180 million people and the world’s fourth-largest army, Pakistan is of much greater consequence than Afghanistan, Lieven reminds readers. No short-term gains for the United States in Afghanistan could outweigh the devastating consequences for the region should Pakistan collapse. Indeed, the destabilizing effect on Pakistan of the U.S. war in Afghanistan is one of the strongest reasons for the United States to bring a swift end to it. Lieven suggests a more informed, realistic, and generous policy toward Pakistan, one that acknowledges, if only privately, that the war in Afghanistan is the main cause of increased terrorism in Pakistan, and that Pakistan has legitimate security needs in Afghanistan that will have to be considered in any final settlement of the conflict there. Such a policy will also have to accept that Pakistan will never fully embrace the U.S. campaign against the Afghan Taliban as long as it considers this against its interests. Looking beyond the war, he warns that the United States must not sacrifice Pakistan to its developing alliance with India. The latter may be beneficial, but so is the stability of Pakistan. Limiting Indian involvement in Afghanistan, pressing for a peaceful solution to the Indian-Pakistani dispute over Kashmir, and developing a new approach to Pakistan regarding Afghanistan should be measures adopted as part of a policy of long-term engagement with Pakistan, one that recognizes the country’s vital and enduring importance.

Published in the 2011-09-23 issue: 

Margot Patterson is the author of Islam Considered: A Christian View (Liturgical Press).

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