that casts Pakistan’s army in a less benign light, claiming it reflects ‘ignorance both of military needs and of Pakistani realities’. The footnote refers us to Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc., a book that created something of a sensation after its publication in 2007 by laying bare the substantial economic interests of the army. Siddiqa argued that the army made use of Islam and national secur ity concerns to subvert democratic politics as a consequence. Several serious critiques have been made of Siddiqa’s line of argument, but proposing that she is out of touch with ‘Pakistani realities’ is not one of them; the scholar lives in Islamabad and Bahawalpur, and worked with the country’s defence audit service.
A FA I LED STATE? PAKISTAN: A HARD COUNTRY
By Anatol Lieven (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 560pp £30)
BACK IN 1966, The Times gushed over Pakistan’s success, describing it as ‘one of the most remarkable examples of state and nation building in the post-war period’. In the decades since, the newspaper’s discursive arsenal has been equipped with somewhat different ideas: in March 2009, it described a Pakistan that was ‘losing the war on religious extremism’ and facing a future as a ‘failed state’.
Evidence that the army actively subverted the democratic interregnum of 1988–99 has long existed. Husain Haqqani, Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, has recorded the role of the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) in bribing and intimidating politicians to secure particular political outcomes. Democratic governments, as the economist S Akbar Zaidi has pointed out, were in office, but not in power.
Anatol Lieven sets out to demonstrate that both these discourses are false. His Pakistan is a ‘quite inert and somnolent mass of different societies, with two modernizing impulses fighting to wake it up’ – Islamism and Westernisation. Barring a catastrophic catalyst, like a climatechange disaster or an invasion by the United States, there is ‘a fair chance that Pakistan will in effect shrug both of them off, roll over, and go back to sleep’.
Perched somewhat uncomfortably between scholarship, journalism and travel-writing, Lieven’s book self-consciously locates itself in the tradition of the colonial chroniclers whose t houghts pepper t he t ex t . Kinship and patronage, he cont ends, const i t u t e t he ba s i c building blocks of Pakistan’s polity; ideological movements ‘can topple regimes and bring new ones to power; but they do not change the basic structure of politics’. But the state’s lack of resources and its institutional weakness mean that political actors simply cannot deliver on their promises: ‘rather like trying to get a very skimpy blanket to cover a very f at man’, there just isn’t enough to go around.
Poster of the Bhutto-Zardari family, 2010
Lieven’s contention that political life is shaped by primordial kinship networks, not supposedly alien ideologies, is also reductive. There is a welter of work by scholars such as Arif Hassan and Mohammad Qadeer about the dramatic impact socio-economic change has had on the str ucture of politics in Punjab. There is no doubt that traditional institutions like kinship networks play a crucial role, but, as Khalid Sayeed’s work showed decades ago, intense battles over ideology, identity and faith have also shaped public life.
Lieven’s emphasis on Pashtun traditionalism is similarly facile. Thomas Ruttig’s discussion of pashtunwali, the traditional code beloved of the mass media and Lieven alike, has noted that power, and not a set of mythic values, governs actual behaviour.
Lieven’s perfectly tenable critique of Baloch nationalism is undermined by its approving reliance on the unabashedly racist Sylvia Matheson:
Inevitably, Lieven argues, politicians are compelled to ask the country’s pre-eminent institution, its army, to step in. In his view, the army is ‘a sort of giant kinship group’, just like the other actors in the country, competing for patronage and power. Pakistan’s often-reviled army is thus, in Lieven’s vision, a good thing, an organic, quasi-traditional institution necessary to hold back the nation from an otherwise inevitable lurch into the abyss.
Lieven is dismissive of the growing corpus of literature
Can these traditionally lawless tribes, so cussedly and illogically proud that they consider it more praiseworthy to steal cattle and grain than to demean themselves by working and earning money – can such men as these ever fit into the pattern of modern, democratic civilization as we know it? Lieven relies excessively on anecdote. He posits, for example, that ‘constant mass migration from the countryside
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011
4 THE SUBCONTINENT
continually undermines the development of a civic identity and urban culture’. The evidence: ‘My driver, a recent migrant to Faisalabad from a village (but a village only 10 miles away), could not find the tower in the dead centre of town, even when I showed him a postcard of it.’
In similar vein, Lieven visits a textile manufacturer whose ‘headquarters building could have been an unusually stylish office in Singapore or Frankfurt. None of this is the kind of thing one sees in a failed state.’ It would be interesting to know what he would make of the magnificent Burj-al-Fateh Hotel in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum.
Fact too often comes in second to a good tale. Writing of Quetta, Lieven says: ‘The kepis of the Foreign Legion would not feel out of place here, and as for the sola topees of the British Raj – well, they built the place.’ They didn’t – except in Lieven’s imagination. The city has been documented in history since the eleventh century. Elsewhere, nuance is lacking. It may be that A Q Khan, who ran the Pakistani nuclear proliferation ring that fed North Korea, Iran and Libya, is, as Lieven insists, ‘not an Islamist, but a secular Pakistani nationalist’. Benazir Bhutto, who was presumably privy, as Pakistan’s president, to some information on the issue, felt precisely the opposite – though there is no mention of her views.
Lieven records that he interviewed ‘hundreds of ordinary Pakistanis from every walk of life, most of whom had never been asked for their opinion before by any Pakistani or Western observer’. The ‘views of these voiceless masses form the heart of this book’, he says.
Pakistan’s voiceless masses have in fact shown a robust ability to speak for themselves – but Lieven shows a curious unwillingness to listen, perhaps as a consequence of his sometimes painfully obvious unfamiliarity with the languages of Pakistan and its mass culture.
There’s little sense in this book of Pakistan as a place with people, rather than a problem. If Lieven encountered the writing of Mustansar Tarar or Muhammad Mansha Yaad, of Kishwar Naheed or Syed Ali Mohsin, we are not told of it. We are not led into the vibrant worlds of popular music, film and television, into people’s lives and times.
There has been a flourishing of accessible, highly readable works on Pakistan written by people who know it intimately: the work of Husain Haqqani, Hassan Abbas and Farzana Shaikh stands out. Lieven’s work does nothing to knock them off the purchase lists of anyone who wants to understand Pakistan, for the same reasons that a prospective Pakistani scholar of the United Kingdom would be ill advised to rely on the insights of a colleague who knew no English.
Anatol Lieven’s book is ultimately interesting for what it tells us about a certain tendency in British intellectual life, rather than the object of its interest. To order this book for £24, see LR bookshop on page 16
LITERARY REVIEW June 2011