To write a book about Pakistan and give it the subtitle “A Hard Country” is a bit like writing a book on Russia and calling it “Russia: A Cold Country,” or dubbing one on Australia “A Far Away Country.” As Anatol Lieven explains, the accidental author of his book’s subtitle is a landowner-politician in the Sindh province of southern Pakistan. “This is a hard country,” the man told Lieven, a place where anyone not in government needs protection from the police, the courts, the bandits, from practically every corner of society. As Lieven shows, while Pakistan may not be hard to understand, it is a dangerous, fearsome country, a hard place to live and harder still to govern. Besides, “A Hard Country” has a nice ring when you consider that the preliminary title of Lieven’s project was “How Pakistan Works.” That would have made for a very short book.

One could also say that Pakistan, despite having the sixth-largest population in the world, is the most familiar unfamiliar country. Everyone knows why they should be afraid of Pakistan—terrorism, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Asif Zardari (the country’s current president). But good explanations of what any of these menaces mean in a Pakistani context, and how they came to be a part of the nation’s nightmarish social fabric—if indeed they are—are hard to come by. It is a relief that Lieven begins with a calming down, stressing that for all the country’s problems, and contrary to the sensationalism of headline editors in the West, Pakistan is not a failed state. Nor are its problems regional exceptions; insurgencies, rebellions, corruption, autocratic tendencies and inept elites, he reminds us, are rampant throughout southern Asia.

Lieven has written a sensible and thorough exploration of Pakistan’s political sphere—from its politicians, provinces and state structures to the burgeoning Taliban, which are unfairly coming to define the sixty-four-year-old country in Western minds. The terror inflicted on Pakistan by the Taliban, Lieven assures, is a sign not of the group’s strength but its weakness: the surest way to fail at building a mass movement is to kill the people most likely to offer support. Absent institution building, a revolt within military ranks and alliances with popular uprisings, the Taliban are a guerrilla movement operating in a blind alley. Pakistan is not, then, in danger of imploding—not unless the United States allows its disastrous war in Afghanistan to spill over into all of Pakistan, or dispatches the Navy SEALs to kill an Al Qaeda lieutenant living in the country.

Surveying four decades of politicians and their legacies, Lieven is neither exaggerating nor engaging in hyperbole when he says that all of Pakistan’s leaders, whether elected or installed by a military coup, have failed to change the country’s status quo: “Every single one of them found their regimes ingested by the elites they had hoped to displace, and engaged in the same patronage politics as the regimes they had overthrown.” No one is spared from this stinging assessment, and rightly so. When it comes to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Lieven is for the most part fair, if not contradictory. He acknowledges that Bhutto, who founded the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in 1967 and in 1971 became Pakistan’s first democratically elected head of state, “tried to rally the Pakistani masses behind him with a programme of anti-elitist economic populism, also mixed with Pakistani nationalism.” It was the only time a civilian administration sought to enact radical change. But in retrospect, Lieven explains that Bhutto’s government, which was in power for six years, was more dictatorial than the regimes of Gen. Ayub Khan (who ruled from 1958 to 1969) and Gen. Pervez Musharraf (whose nine-year reign began in 1999). Expanding his powers in defiance of the Constitution, certainly an authoritarian move, was one of many egregious mistakes made by Bhutto during his otherwise popular rule as president and prime minister. Still, Bhutto was no dictator. His mandate came directly from the people, and can’t plausibly be compared to that of Khan or Musharraf, generals who ruled Pakistan according to the pulse of the army barracks and the many defense agreements with the United States.

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There are certain errors in Lieven’s discussion of Bhutto’s career that demand clarification, and the fault for them lies perhaps not with Lieven alone. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was an overwhelming figure in Pakistan’s political landscape, and great myths, both laudatory and vengeful, have clustered around his name (Zulfikar was my grandfather). The first of Lieven’s foggy claims is that for some time after Bhutto’s execution in 1979, the PPP was headed by Gen. Tikka Khan, who led the army’s notorious campaign of violence in East Pakistan during the 1971 war of secession, and soon thereafter directed the bloody suppression of separatists in Baluchistan. Unfortunately, there is no denying that Tikka Khan belonged to the PPP, which should have sought his trial for war crimes rather than admit him to its ranks; nevertheless, it was during Benazir Bhutto’s leadership of the PPP in the mid-’80s, not during Zulfikar’s, that Tikka Khan held the position of secretary general.

When discussing the pre-1971 division of Pakistan into east and west wings separated by thousands of kilometers of hostile Indian territory, Lieven is too quick to excuse the army for its role in the impasse that broke the country. Pakistan was led by one military dictator, Gen. Ayub Khan, when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman of the Awami League presented his six points for the secession of the east, and by another, Gen. Yahya Khan, when the country was divided. Lieven softens the military’s role in Pakistan’s breakup by blaming Bhutto, the winner of the elections in the west (Rahman swept the east), for the deadlock that led to the creation of Bangladesh. He does not note that the Hamoodur Rehman Commission’s report on the breakup of Pakistan, commissioned in 1971 and completed in 1974, has never been released in an uncensored form. Western historians tend to place the blame on Bhutto and Rehman without recognizing that when it comes to Bangladesh, the state’s role in the violence, both political and military, was ultimately and ferociously determined by the armed forces.

The third foggy claim is that Bhutto’s radical measures in the field of nationalization were not fully implemented. Lieven states that Bhutto’s “socialist finance minister Mubashir Hasan had wanted the nationalization of urban land, and the collectivization of agriculture—something that would have led to counter-revolution and bloody civil war across the country.” (More generally, Lieven calls Bhutto’s economic policy “disastrous.”) I put the claim to Hasan, a founding member of the PPP who lives in Lahore and remains active in politics. “The question of nationalizing urban land never passed through the mind of the party,” Hasan told me in an e-mail. Lieven misunderstands a “Punjab law, not a Pakistan law, which permitted acquisition of land in urban areas for the purpose of housing and also for the acquisition of slum land which could then be handed over in ownership to the occupants. The whole thing arose because there were 120 slums in Lahore with a population of over a million. Urban landlords owning the slums were exacting high rent under duress. They also owned large areas of Lahore lying vacant in the midst of very high population density. In both cases, compensation was paid, though the rate of compensation was less than market price.”

Post-Bhutto, Lieven leads the reader through a lineup of the usual suspects: the military; Benazir Bhutto, who became the head of her father’s PPP in 1984, presided over two governments and was assassinated in 2007; and Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister and the leader of the Punjabi-based Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), the second-largest national party in the country. Nawaz Sharif and his younger brother Shahbaz own the Ittefaq group, one of Pakistan’s largest and most prominent business conglomerates, whose large industrial portfolio includes steel and textile mills. Lieven is circumspect in his accounts of them all. He is not seduced by the glamour and “like us”–ness of Benazir Bhutto, who was educated at Harvard and Oxford and spoke English with a cut-glass accent. Correctly, he criticizes Benazir for making vain concessions to Islamists in a desperate attempt to mollify Islamic parties, which at the time—in the mid-1990s (and, as Lieven notes, until 9/11)—were woefully unpopular. Bhutto set in motion the appeasement process with Islamist groups by granting the administration of the Malakand region the right to incorporate Sharia law into its justice process; she also recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. Lieven suggests that she was carrying on a family tradition. Her father, a secular politician, banned alcohol and gambling in Pakistan to appease Islamists.

When it comes to the ethnic Muhajir Muttahida Quami Mahaz (MQM) party, whose hypervigilant cadres, tireless press offices and technological expertise arguably have made it Pakistan’s best-organized party, Lieven is careful to contrast its well-groomed image of being Pakistan’s only so-called secular party with its violent and thuggish past. Based in Karachi, the party “built up a powerful armed wing” in the 1980s that targeted militants from other parties and “journalists and others who dared to criticize the MQM in public,” Lieven writes. “Torture chambers were established for the interrogation of captured enemies.” Nor does he mince his words when it comes to Pakistan’s current president, Benazir Bhutto’s merry widower, Asif Zardari, under whose leadership the PPP has enjoyed many new sobriquets, the Permanent Plunder Party being the best of them.

The PPP’s assertion that it is a party of the poor and powerless is contradicted not only by evidence of its orgiastic corruption over the past twenty years (John Burns of the New York Times wrote the seminal condemnation of the first couple’s venality in 1998) but also by the high-level federal ministers and politicians from its ranks whose hands have been dirtied in honor-killing cases. The cases Lieven describes are infamous in Pakistan but rarely discussed outside the country, which is perhaps understandable considering how deeply the United States and Britain are invested in maintaining the power and stability of the ruling party.

In a case from 2008, three teenage girls from Baluchistan were sentenced to death by a tribal jirga for trying to marry men of their own choosing. Two female relatives of the girls tried to intercede and were shot. The three girls were shot and buried while still alive. Sardar Israrullah Zehri, a local chieftain and senator with the PPP, sided with the girls’ killers: “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them.” As a reward for his candor, Zehri was appointed minister of posts. In another case, Abid Husain Jatoi, also a local chieftain, presided over a jirga that condemned to death a girl from the Jatoi tribe who had eloped with a boy from another tribe. For this verdict Jatoi was appointed provincial minister of fisheries and livestock. (The regional high court ended up interceding to protect the couple.) In a third case, the PPP’s federal education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijrani, was charged by the country’s Supreme Court for his role in settling a dispute between two families by ordering a marriage swap—the guilty family had to hand over five girls to the aggrieved family. The eldest of the girls was 6; the youngest was 2. None of these politicians, all of whom hold senior government posts, have been expelled from the PPP or reprimanded in any way.

Lieven criticizes the Sharif clan and its PML(N) for their Punjabi chauvinism, a criticism much made in Pakistan but less so in the West, where the main worry about the Sharifs is their affection for the Saudis. In March 2010, Shahbaz Sharif, the province’s chief minister and the brains behind the Sharif operations, publicly beseeched the Taliban not to attack Punjab. The rest of Pakistan was fair game, he offered, but because the PML(N) opposed many of General Musharraf’s policies (while remaining schtum on the “war on terror”), and could therefore be seen as “fighting for the same cause” as the Taliban, Punjab should be treated as an ally of the Taliban. (When Senator John Kerry came to Pakistan in February to lobby for the release of Raymond Davis, the CIA operative who shot two Pakistanis in the middle of Lahore, he met Shahbaz Sharif’s brother. Nawaz Sharif greeted his guest as “Senator Kerry Lugar,” confusing the senator with the bill passed in 2009 that directs billions of dollars in nonmilitary aid to Pakistan. Sharif did not call him “Senator Kerry Lugar Bill.” One should be thankful for small graces, I suppose.) The charge sheet that Lieven compiles on the Sharifs, who came to prominence under the mentorship of Pakistan’s fundamentalist dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who ruled from 1977 to 1988, resembles the one he pins on Benazir Bhutto: encouraging monumental graft, presiding over killings carried out by the state’s security agencies, packing courts and sacking judges who don’t toe the party line, and acquiescing to Islamist parties and their demands.

The only public figure who impressed Lieven during the eight years he spent reporting and researching his book is the police surgeon of Baluchistan, a 58-year-old Pathan grandmother named Shamim Gul. Gul travels around Baluchistan at night without a police escort, exhuming rotting corpses from ditches and examining them in ad hoc morgues. In a province like Baluchistan, where extrajudicial killings are common, the dead are left unreported, their missing corpses warnings to the living. (It was Gul who discovered the bodies of the three girls sentenced to death by tribal jirga in 2008.) That Lieven does not focus more on Pakistanis like Gul, a citizen who manages to survive with a pronounced sense of dignity and justice, suggests that he is interested only in looking at Pakistan as a hard country.

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.