Friday, 14 October 2011

Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven – Book Review



For the past many months, I have been planning to write an article on ‘when will Pakistan break-up?’ or ‘What should India do when Pakistan breaks-up?’ Well, I no longer have such plans, having just finished reading Anatol Lieven’s masterpiece on Pakistan where he convincingly argues that though Pakistan might be going through a very bad phase, it is not a failed country and is very likely to survive for quite some time to come. In fact, if Pakistan were to collapse, it is most likely to be the result of water shortages and other problems caused by climatic change, arising from over-exploitation of the waters of the Indus.

Lieven covered Pakistan as a journalist working for the Times and knows his subject matter very well. I doubt if there are many native Pakistanis who could analyse as well as Lieven the nitty-gritty of Pakistan’s internal divisions, both regional and sectoral (between the Shias and the Sunnis) and most importantly the challenges faced by Pakistan on account of the Taleban. Lieven’s account was such a pleasure to read and so very gripping that though it took me almost two weeks to finish the 560-odd page tome (which includes end-notes and the index), I felt sad when the book, like all good things, came to an end.

I learned so many knew things about Pakistan, I didn’t know before. For example, I had a vague idea that the Bhuttos and Zardaris were Shia, but I didn’t know that they displayed outward signs of being Sunni. Thanks to Hosseini’s Kite Runner, I used to think that the Hazaras are a downtrodden community on both sides of the Hindu-Kush. No, Lieven tells us that in Pakistan, the Hazaras (who had migrated from Afghanistan) are a relatively modern and prosperous community.

One of the most important stereotypes dismantled and put aside by Lieven is the one that Pakistan is a feudal society, not much different from 15th century England. No, rather it is one where ties of kinship are very strong. The head of the clan or tribe is expected to look after his people. For this, he squeezes out all that he can from the government, through corruption or otherwise, and spreads it around. Pakistan has one of the world’s highest rates of charitable giving per capita. Politicians are corrupt, but they work very hard in spreading the booty within their clan and support base. The politician who doesn’t do so, will be left without a clan before long. For this reason, Lieven says Imran Khan will not do particularly well in Pakistani politics since no one expects Imran Khan to have much loot to hand out. The army is very powerful and corrupt, but again, corruption is more in the form of standardized rewards for army officers, such as housing plots and plums postings after retirement, rather than individual officers diverting funds for their personal use without other officers knowing about it.

The most surprising thing about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism and the Taleban in Pakistan is that the duo is still so weak and their growth has been so slow. The obstacles to the growth of fundamentalism in Pakistan are the same as those which prevent the spread of democracy, namely kinship and nepotism which forces Pakistanis to resist change. Also, the Barelvi Islam followed by most Pakistanis is very different from the version espoused by the Taleban. Barelvis worship at the shrines of saints who they believe would intercede on their behalf with God and carry out miracles. In many cases, Shariah is actually a modernising force and is less harsh on women than customary laws like Pashtunwali followed by the Pathans or the customs of the Baloch. However, the laws implemented by many Teleban leaders in their areas of control within FATA or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is a mix of the Shariah and Pashtunwali, with more of the latter than the former.

The most impressive aspect of Lieven’s treatise is his felicity in conveying to his readers the complexities of Pakistani society and politics in simple bytes. For example, when he talks of the Pathans, he tells us that they are ‘eighteenth century Scots without the alcohol.’ The Barelvis are compared to Catholics, if the Taleban can be called Puritans, that is. When discussing Punjabi attitudes to other ethnicities in Pakistan, we are told that:

'Punjabis from north central Punjab certainly feel superior to the other nationalities in Pakistan. They are harder working, better organised and more dynamic than anyone else in Pakistan except the Mohajirs. Punjabis respect Mohajirs, but since the latter are not farmers, they cannot really be fully fitted into the traditional Punjabi view of the world. For the Sindhis, the Punjabis have a rather amused and tolerant contempt, as for pleasant and easy-going, but lazy younger relatives. For the Baloch there is contempt without the tolerance, as primitive tribesmen sponging off Punjabi charity. Punjabis believe they are more modern and economically dynamic than the Pathans. Yet in Punjabi Muslim culture there is also an ingrained cultural and historical respect for the Muslim pastoral warriors who repeatedly swept across Punjab from Afghanistan, and from whom many Punjabis – especially in the upper classes – are or claim to be descended. And the Pathans, however savage are widely seen as Muslim warriors par excellence, who prowess has been celebrated in Pakistani literature and propaganda in all the modern wars from Kashmir to Afghanistan.'

Does Punjab dominate Pakistan? Yes, to some extend it does. However, Lieven doesn’t think it is entirely one-sided. Unlike the Sindhis, Balochis or Pathans, Punjabis identify themselves with Pakistan as a whole, to the point of almost submersion in Pakistan. They haven’t made any effort to develop Punjabi as a provincial language. ‘Whereas Sindhis and Pathans almost always speak Sindhi and Pashto among themselves, educated Punjabis usually speak Urdu with each other, when they are not speaking English.’ On top of this, Punjabis are not a monolithic group and there are so many divisions within Punjab. For example, in most of Southern Punjab, a distinct language called Seraiki is spoken.

Lieven does not seem to have much sympathy for the Baloch nationalist movement. Lieven quite rightly points out that though Balochistan occupies 43% of Pakistan’s land area, it has only 7% of Pakistan’s population. Therefore, crying out for a greater share of wealth, isn’t necessarily very fair. Lieven feels that, if Balochistan gained independence, ‘Baloch tribalism would reduce it to a Somali style nightmare, in which a rage of tribal parties – all calling themselves ‘democratic’ and ‘national’ – under rival warlords would fight for power and wealth.

Lieven keeps asking around for information and comes up with gems. For example, a military acquaintance tells Lieven that ‘while A.Q. Khan certainly profited personally from some of his deals, at no stage was he truly a ‘rogue’ element. Rather, every Pakistani president and chief of army staff knew in broad outline what A.Q. Khan was doing. They might not necessarily have approved in detail – but then again, they took good care not to find out in detail. ‘He had been told, “get us a bomb at all costs”, and this is what he did.’’ All of this makes a lot of sense.

A former minister in Nawaz Sharif’s cabinet sums up his character for Lieven as ‘not at all educated but very shrewd, intelligent, determined and courageous. But unfortunately also autocratic, impulsive, reckless and hot-tempered, which has often been his downfall.’ This descripton differs rather drastically from the one provided by Ahmed Rashid in his Descent into Chaos.

Lieven has a good eye which notices the small things as well. While visiting Nawabzada Bugti, a Baloch leader, he comes across Bugti’s ‘small, thin, dark-skinned servants’ who are called ‘Mrattas’, since they are apparently descendants of Marathas from central India, captured in war by the Mughal emperors and given to their Bugti troops in lieu of wages. I’ve never heard of this community before. I assume they have converted to Islam. Does the Indian government have any plans to seek their repatriation, I wonder? Would the Mrattas want to be repatriated?

Lieven’s conclusions are interesting – they could have been made by a nationalist Pakistani politician. Lieven asserts that the US led campaign in Afghanistan has been responsible, above everything else, for increasing Islamist insurgency and terrorism in Pakistan since 2001. Lieven wants the US and other coalition forces to recognise that ‘Pakistan’s goals are in part legitimate, even if the means by which they have been sought have not been and this legitimacy needs to be recognised by the West’. Pleading for restraint in drone attacks on targets in Pakistan, Lieven is vehement that US ground troops should not be inducted into Afghanistan. Rather, he would have the US and Pakistan negotiate with the Taleban. I can’t say I fully agree with Lieven, though this position is understandable. For Lieven, the Taleban are just a manifestation of Pashtun society. In the past, even during the time the British ruled India, it was common for religion to be used to rally the Pathans against outsiders. After, Pathans are always willing to die for Islam, though they don’t necessarily live by it.

Lieven briefly says in his conclusion that a collapse of Pakistan will be disastrous for India too, generating chaos which will destabilise the whole region. Lieven does not explain this in detail. I had taken a similar position in this post published over two years ago.

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