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.