Pakistan v. Pakistan: On Anatol Lieven
When it comes to assessing the legacy of those lacking any sense of justice, Pakistan’s pantheon of dictators, Lieven weaves through the assortment deftly, though perhaps a little generously. He finds it striking “how mild” Pakistan’s dictators have been by historical standards. Lieven credits Gen. Ayub Khan with removing “the ‘Islamic’ label from the official name of the Republic of Pakistan.” However, he was not as steadfast a secular reformer as Lieven suggests. While he did omit “Islamic” from the name of the republic under the 1962 “Constitution,” to use the word very loosely, he had it begin in the name of Allah and affirm that “sovereignty over the entire Universe belongs to Almighty Allah.” It goes on to say that “Pakistan would be a democratic State based on Islamic principles of social justice,” and that “the principles of democracy…as enunciated by Islam, shall be fully observed in Pakistan.” Most bizarre, Lieven says that the Islamicization undertaken by Gen. Zia ul-Haq “proved generally superficial.” Yet it was under the Wahhabi-inspired dictator that the country’s bloody blasphemy laws were enacted, along with the Hudood ordinances, violent laws against women that treat adultery and premarital intercourse as crimes punishable by death. The ordinances were “revised” once, in 2006, with the passage of General Musharraf’s Women’s Protection Bill, which struck the clause stipulating that for rape to be considered a crime before a court of law, four good male Muslims must have witnessed the alleged act. The 2006 bill was an eye-wash of the draconian laws because it has been virtually impossible to implement in police stations across the country.
Lieven is impartial when discussing Musharraf, who painstakingly cultivated an image of himself as a “dictator-lite.” He points to Musharraf’s oddly munificent opening of the media through the granting of television licenses (by 2009 there were more than eighty privately run TV channels, twelve of which were devoted exclusively to the news, and only five of which were devoted to evangelical-style religious programming). He notes the political devolution Musharraf undertook by granting more power to local elected bodies, an arrangement the Zardari government was quick to dismantle. But Lieven makes little mention of how under Musharraf some 10,000 people were disappeared in Baluchistan, according to the estimates of human rights groups, and in the same manner that people were disappeared in Latin America during the dirty wars. Covetous of the province’s rich gas fields (copper mines are now its prized resource) and wary of its secessionist politics and fervently anti-military history, the Musharraf dictatorship struck at Baluchistan with brute force, its most daring act being the army’s alleged assassination of the renowned Baluch tribal leader Akbar Bugti in 2006. In the last eight months, the bullet-ridden and mutilated bodies of 150 missing Baluch activists have been found around the province. This too is perhaps a part of the legacy of what Musharraf touted as his program of “enlightened moderation.”
Though his study of Pakistan’s military despots is at times forgiving, Lieven shines an unsparing light on the workings of Pakistan’s military, one of the largest in the world. He analyzes the institution not simply as an army or as a gang of power brokers but as a corporation. Through its Fauji Foundation the army has a hand in many profitable enterprises, including cement, cereal, banking and real estate. Lieven collates astounding figures—for example, in the 1980s, at the height of the US adventure against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Pakistan allocated 60 percent of its federal budget to military spending—and transposes them onto historical complexities, easily explaining context that is otherwise murky. Those who wonder how the army and nefarious Inter-Services Intelligence became so powerful need to look only as far back as the 1980s and the first American escapade in Afghanistan. Unlike so many foreign pundits, Lieven does not appear confused by the military’s inability to fight its own people as required by the dictates of the US “war on terror.” “We are being ordered to launch a Pakistani civil war for the sake of America,” a Pakistani officer told Lieven in 2002. “Why on earth should we? Why should we commit suicide for you?” While it’s true that the United States has enthusiastically propped up every one of Pakistan’s four military dictators, Lieven points out that “US administrations have no preference for military government or indeed any kind of government in Pakistan as long as that government does what the US wants.” Lieven is possibly the first non-Pakistani I’ve read who connects these glaring dots.
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Although parts of Lieven’s work are reminiscent of textbooks that offer instructive though dull education, those about the structures of the Pakistani state and the Taliban are cogent, clear and illuminating. From the outset, Lieven stresses that for all its problems, Pakistan is not on the verge of collapse. It is beleaguered by many problems, but “Islamist extremism in Pakistan presents little danger of overthrowing the state unless US pressure has already split and crippled that state.” The Taliban were not formed in a day, and some of the underlying causes of their emergence in Pakistan include corruption, political vacuums, incompetent politicians and capitulation to a war that most Pakistanis see as unjust and tailored to the national security prerogatives of the United States.
Before discussing the Taliban and broaching the matter of their increasing popularity, Lieven tackles the question of the inaccessibility of justice in Pakistan. He raised the subject with Imran Aslam, the president of Geo TV and an excellent guide to the country; Aslam is someone more pundits and hacks should seek out instead of the usual assortment of politicians with foreign passports well versed in singing for their supper (the Washington Post has a direct line to this crew). “Ask ordinary people here about democracy,” Aslam told Lieven, “and they can’t really explain it; but ask them about justice, and they understand it well, because unlike democracy issues of justice are a part of their daily lives. Also, a sense of justice comes from Islam—a third of the names of God have something to do with justice, fairness, harmony or balance. Issues of electoral democracy have no necessary relation to this, because in Pakistan electoral democracy has little to do with the will of ordinary workers.” As an example, Lieven reports that as of spring 2009, there were more than 100,000 cases pending before the 110 judges of the Karachi city courts alone. Theoretically, some courts are supposed to hear 100 cases a day.
The scarcity of civilian justice makes the Taliban an attractive and viable legal option. They police towns, enforcing their own harsh version of law and order and providing legal mediation that, though often brutal, is seen as quick and fair. Lieven quotes a farmer in the northern region of the country who proclaims, “Taleban justice is better than that of the Pakistani state. If you have any problem, you can go to the Taleban and they will solve it without you having to pay anything—not like the courts and police, who will take your money and do nothing.” Even if the state courts did rule on cases, the difference between their verdicts and those of the Taliban would in certain cases be slight. For the past three decades Pakistan has had federal laws on the books that would put to death a woman who commits adultery. So would the Taliban, but they would execute the law faster. The Taliban also run madrassas in regions where there are no government schools (there are thousands of such voids) and operate mobile medical vans during times of urgent need, such as the devastating 2010 floods. State hospitals lack the funds, equipment and capability to provide adequate medical care.
Lieven’s account of this newly indigenous Taliban is sturdy and insightful. He explores the history of the Taliban and the army, which supported and propped up the Afghan Taliban during their infancy. In a particularly strong section, he describes the revolt in the Swat Valley in 2007, when a local autonomous group of Islamists marching under the banner of the Taliban took control of the region. Lieven explains that the state initially turned a blind eye to the valley’s Islamist elements; it decided to oppose them only when advantage could be gained by condemning the very situation it had let fester for so long. He talks with those Pakistanis, mostly poor, who have benefited from Taliban rule and therefore support and perpetuate it; and he talks with the lower-middle-class traders, farmers and merchants caught in the middle of a failed establishment and the Taliban. He does not speak to nervy Lahori socialites or businessmen in Islamabad who live in bubbles that have kept them from encountering Islamists in the flesh, though they are eager to sound the alarm over political Islam’s imminent takeover.
Pakistan is a large subject, and an unforgivingly complicated one at that, yet Lieven manages to tackle some of its most obscure problems without losing his cool. Aside from a few stray moments—including an ill-advised confession of wishing he possessed the powers of Gen. Sir Charles Napier, the Raj commander in chief in India (Karachi remembers Sir Charles Napier in its red-light district, helpfully located on the street that bears his name)—he doesn’t treat Pakistanis like curios. Lieven has written a very measured book, no easy task when writing about such a hard country.