A Different Narrative

Written by Raza Rumi  •  April 2012 PDF Print E-mail

1-1Anatol Lieven’s major study, Pakistan: A Hard Country is one of the more comprehensive accounts of contemporary Pakistan in recent times. Lieven quite painstakingly attempts to shatter the stereotypes about the country, which pervade the international and regional media. Pakistan, some say is world’s most dangerous country while others hold that it is a failed state imploding from within. Often these descriptions omit a plain fact that there are 180 million people living in the country who lead their regular, irregular lives amid the chaos and rapid transformation that is taking place. One can argue about the trajectory that the country may take but its dynamism is hard to ignore.

Lieven is also not just another starry-eyed visitor to Pakistan and displays his relative familiarity with the country. For several years, Lieven reported on Pakistan while working for The Times. After his journalistic career, he switched to academia and is currently a Professor of international relations and terrorism at Kings College, London. Perhaps due to his assorted background, Lieven’s style thankfully is not overly academic and is pretty accessible especially for the lay readers fed on a diet of exploding Pakistan mantra.

The central argument that Lieven builds is that Pakistan does not merit the verdict of a failed or disintegrating state. For this purpose he looks at the robust society, its kinship networks and ingrained means of resilience. The other reason for Pakistan’s viability is the Army, which Lieven views, in a less unfavorable light than most writers on Pakistan. A host of Pakistani intellectuals have criticized him for the ‘romance’ with Pakistan’s armed forces.

Lieven has a right to project the military machine as he sees fit. While doing so, he does soften the overarching role of Pakistan’s security establishment and how for decades it has (mis)governed and led the country. The meritocratic culture, efficiency and keeping-the-country-together arguments on the Army receive more attention than what Pakistanis have been experiencing in terms of a coercive and praetorian state. The diverse opinions within the country especially in the smaller aggrieved provinces are most critical of the conduct and adventures of the armed forces than the mainstream nationalist identification with the Army as a centripetal force. During Musharraf’s time and after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the military as an institution has come into sharp, critical focus within Pakistan. This domestic critique is different from the western concerns on Pakistan’s duplicity in the ‘war on terror’ as it challenges the role and space for the army as the dominant institution in the country.

Historian Manan Ahmed last year wrote in The National that most books on the country end up presenting a picture as if “Pakistan is illegible outside of the military. Now, there is little doubt that this remains the case from a geostrategic point of view but does that really exhaust all manner of living in that corner of the world? No Pakistani in these books reads or thinks or paints or writes poetry or sets up a new shop or raises a family, or even walks in the park.”

Admittedly, Lieven does capture the everyday life and recounts numerous anecdotes that he gathered during his visit and therefore this criticism is a little more valid for other writers say Bruce Riedel who view Pakistan via the prism of its military-intelligence complex. Having said that, the militarization of Pakistan’s society and economy continue unabated and Musharraf’s decade intensified this process further. This is where Lieven is less clear. Perhaps a more rounded discussion on militarization might have enriched his account.

But it would be unfair to underplay the merits of this book even if one has a problem with the Army’s portrayal. For instance, Lieven highlights issue of climate change, water resource management and rampant population growth as some of the real dangers to Pakistan’s future. In his view, these issues hold the key to the country’s survival as a viable state. It is a matter of grave concern that despite two major disasters Pakistan is yet to have a national (or sets of sub national) policy and strategy. Our disaster preparedness remains abysmal and 2011 floods proved it once again. Many would argue that without fixing the broader governance quandaries, it is difficult to prioritize such issues. Hence the issue of an obsessive national security state re-emerges and tells us why social change has rarely been on the agenda of Pakistan’s elites.

If anything, Lieven’s book gives a very comprehensible account for the global readership. By delving into the complexity of its society, Lieven presents a humanized storyline about a misunderstood and maligned country. However, the somewhat flawed discussion on the Army mars the overall analysis. It is hoped that his future work on Pakistan would take stock of how Pakistani scholars and writers frame their everyday reality. Overall, Pakistan: A Hard Country is a book that cannot be dismissed as it reaches a few considered conclusions about a dynamic and resilient country. As a Pakistani it is good to read such a narrative even if one momentarily ignores the brutal reality of a dysfunctional, post-colonial state that refuses to place citizen welfare above the imperatives of national security.

Title: Pakistan: A Hard Country
Author: Anatol Lieven
PublicAffairs (April 2011)
592 pages, Hardback
Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-1610390217

Raza Rumi is a Lahore-based public policy expert and the Director of Jinnah Institute. He is also an editor at weekly Friday Times.

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