Reviewed by: Peter Oborne
The crisis in North Africa and the Middle East has driven Pakistan out of the headlines, but this is surely only a temporary lull. Cursed by nuclear weapons, home to al-Qaeda, victim of several raging insurgencies and a chronically unstable political structure — most Western experts continue to view Pakistan as the most dangerous country in the world.
Lucid and well-informed, Lieven deals carefully with all Pakistan’s well-known problems. And one of the joys of this nicely written volume is that it avoids the hysteria and partial judgement that disfigure much contemporary writing on the subject. Above all, it emanates a deep affection bordering on love for unfortunate, beleaguered, magical Pakistan.
Lieven, a former foreign correspondent and now professor of terrorism studies at King’s College, London, talks to just about everybody who counts: farmers, intelligence officers, judges, clerics, politicians, doctors, soldiers, jihadis.
Lieven demolishes the neo-conservative narrative that Pakistan is dominated by a mortal struggle between virtuous modernity and rage-filled Islamist conservatism. He insists that Pakistan is not a country on the brink. We needn’t worry too much about its nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands.
On the contrary, Pakistan is remarkably stable and it is completely daft to compare it to failed states such as Somalia, Congo or Yemen. The key question, Lieven asks, is not why Islamist political movements are so strong in the 21st-century Pakistan. It is why they are so weak. His argument is for the most part persuasive. It is certainly true that the institutions imposed by the British before independence — above all parliamentary democracy and the rule of law — are failing.
But does it mean that Pakistan itself is failing? Democracy and the rule of law were imposed by the West and have never taken hold. The big, powerful forces in Pakistan remain the same as ever — family and tribe. It is a profoundly traditional society and Lieven argues that even destabilising forces such as the Taliban are best understood as new manifestations of something very ancient: the implacable hostility to the outside world demonstrated by Pathan tribes since time immemorial.
He quotes Olaf Caroe, the last governor of North West Frontier Province, writing in 1958: “There arose one of those strange and formidable insurrections among the Pathans which from time to time sweep across the frontier mountains like a forest fire.” Taliban leaders are really contemporary versions of warlike figures such as the old Mullah of Hada, who caused trouble to Winston Churchill and his Malakand Field Force, when he was based on the North West Frontier at the end of the 19th century
In a brilliant section devoted to an exploration of the life of Pakistani politicians, Lieven demonstrates clearly that politicians cannot escape the obligations to family and friends, meaning that they are obliged to reward their dependants and connections upon attaining power.
This client-based structure of Pakistani politics — comparable in certain important respects to Lewis Namier’s famous analysis of 18th-century British politics — is certainly a fundamental obstacle to progress. But this same conservatism also blocks all other movements and ideologies, whether socialism, military dictatorship or radical Islam.
Lieven powerfully warns of two potent threats to Pakistan’s stability.
The first and most important of these is climate change. Last year’s catastrophic floods suggest that the ecology of the Indus may be under threat, putting the livelihoods of tens of millions of people at risk.
The second problem is the Anti-Americanism that is today a very powerful force in Pakistan.
In all, this is a wonderful book, full of learning, wisdom, humour and common sense.