Failed Statement

Failed Statement

Anatol Lieven vividly maps Pakistan’s provinces,but the analysis is deeply flawed

Inside every thinking Indian there is an expert on Pakistan yearning to be heard. Living rooms and seminar halls,newspapers and blogs,television and Twitter are all awash with instant commentary on the problems and prospects of our troubled and troublesome neighbour. Yet our collective obsession with Pakistan has not translated into a serious intellectual effort to make sense of that country. Notwithstanding the proliferation of think tanks and regional studies centres,there is not a single worthy book on contemporary Pakistan written by an Indian.

Those tired of the ersatz literature on Pakistan produced here can turn with relief to this important book by Anatol Lieven. Currently professor at King’s College,London,Lieven was in an earlier avatar a journalist. He has reported for The Times from the former Soviet Union,eastern Europe as well as south Asia. Among other books,he has written an acclaimed account of the conflict in Chechnya. Pakistan is an interesting mixture of reportage,history and strategic analysis. Lieven has travelled extensively in Pakistan. He has managed to meet a diverse array of people ranging from the inspector general of police in Peshawar to the imam of the Badshahi Mosque,from the sardars of Balochistan to the waderos of Sindh,from the activists of Jamaat-e-Islami to textile industrialists of Faisalabad. He has a fine,evocative style of writing and a sense of humour besides.

The subtitle refers to two central and intertwined themes of the book. Pakistan is a hard place to live in,but it is also a resilient country. Lieven’s central argument is that,contrary to received wisdom,Pakistan is a not a “failed state” teetering on the brink of catastrophic collapse. He contends that ironically the same features of Pakistan that inhibit social,economic and political development act as a bulwark against revolutionary forces of all kinds,including Islamist extremism. These key features,in his reading,are the local networks of kinship (familial,biradari,or tribal) and patronage that are vital to all aspects of life. The emphasis on kinship is not a new argument,but Lieven pushes it much further.

Unlike other recent books on Pakistan,Lieven does not confine his interest to terrorism,nuclear weapons or strategic issues more broadly. He ranges widely in his interest and coverage. The chapters on the provinces of Pakistan are easily the best parts of the book: vivid,empathetic and insightful. When it comes to examining structures,Lieven is not on comparably firm ground.


Pakistan,he claims,is a “negotiated state”. Here,“authority is a matter of negotiation,compromise,pressure and violence,not formal rules”. Lieven makes his point by examining the workings of law and justice. Local “customary” law is in many ways more effective than the formal justice machinery. A farmer in the Mohmand tribal agency tells him that “Taleban justice is better than that of the Pakistani state”. Violence,of course,is an integral part of such traditional justice. The effete state of the police and the judiciary is a major reason why people (especially in the countryside) prefer recourse to customary mechanisms. Interestingly,Lieven claims that even the lawyers’ movement that has played so prominent a part in recent times has not evoked much enthusiasm among the people for Western-style “rule of law”.

Lieven finds that religion,too,is enmeshed in local traditions and ties. He analyses at some length the various sects and sub-sects of Islam that flourish in Pakistan. Only the Jamaat strikes him as a consciously modernist outfit among the multitude of religious groupings. Most are “traditional and conservative — far too conservative to support a revolution and far too diverse to submit themselves to a monolithic version of Islam”. Politics in Pakistan,he argues,is entirely in thrall to circuits of kinship and patronage. His analysis consciously follows the model laid out by the historian Lewis Namier in studying 18th century Britain. In the Namierite view,politics is nothing more than a grubby contest among various factions for the spoils of office and passing on bits of it to their followers. Thus Lieven argues that even the so-called religious parties have no ideology worth the name and are no more than machines for disbursing patronage. Forces like nationalism only manifest themselves in opposition to external players like India or more recently the United States.

The only institution that Lieven finds to be relatively free of the grip of kinship is the military. The chapter on the military is in many ways the weakest in the book. Lieven acknowledges the distorting role played by the military,but goes to unnecessary lengths to make a case for the military’s actions. His exposition is laced with caveats like “but before condemning the military for this”,“Before being too harsh on the Pakistani military over this”. He also gives credence to unsubstantiated claims about Indian involvement in Balochistan. The charitable interpretation is that Lieven lacks the psychological insight of a Naipaul to penetrate the webs of deception and self-deception woven by the military elites. Worse,he dismisses the work of thoughtful and critical Pakistani scholars like Ayesha Siddiqa as reflecting “ignorance of military needs and Pakistani realities”. But the snort of the foreign scholar is not matched by a commensurate engagement with their work.

The central argument of the book is also dubious. The structure of Pakistani society,in Lieven’s account,makes it impervious to change. Pakistan is a “highly conservative,archaic,even sometimes quite inert and somnolent mass of different societies”. This is rather problematic. For one thing,Lieven has conducted no systematic research and his evidence is entirely anecdotal. For another,he seriously underestimates the part played by a range of developments — urbanisation,education,radical Islamism,skewed economic growth and the burgeoning diaspora — in changing the old patterns of social intercourse.

Finally,Lieven is blithely oblivious of the intellectual provenance of his claims about Pakistan. His views mirror those of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century European sociologists and administrators of the Raj who saw Indian society as dominated by rigid structures and conservative “natural elites”. Indeed,the book is peppered with quotes from British officials and the gazetteers produced by them — as if there is nothing problematic about such sources. The book is dedicated to the memory of his grandfather who belonged to the Indian Civil Service. Lieven’s portrayal of Pakistan would have been instantly recognisable to him. This picture may be comforting to those who fear for the future of Pakistan. But accepting it uncritically may set them up for some nasty surprises ahead.