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Pakistan: A Hard Country: Six Questions for Anatol Lieven


Journalist turned foreign-affairs analyst Anatol Lieven has Pakistan in his bones. Descended from civil servants and officers in British India, one of whom fought in the rugged North-West Frontier, he cut his journalistic teeth in the subcontinent. His new book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, offers a unique blend of historical, political, and anthropological insight into the country. I put six questions to Lieven about the book.

1. The death of Osama bin Laden, in a villa located in the military town of Abbottabad, a half mile from Pakistan’s military academy, and in an area filled with retired officers, has again focused attention on relations between the country’s military establishment and terrorists. Are the Americans right to ask what Pakistani military leaders knew?


Yes, these questions must be asked. On the basis of my knowledge of the Pakistani military, I find it on balance unlikely that some section of Pakistani intelligence would not have known about Bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. This is not because they would have been looking for him there, but because the military institutions in Abbottabad are obvious targets for terrorist attack by Pakistan’s own militants. It is hard to understand why Pakistani intelligence did not check out the house as a possible launching pad for such an attack—unless they were told not to.

On the other hand, it must be stressed that even in Abbottabad itself, Pakistani intelligence has sometimes been helpful when it comes to fighting international terrorism. In January, they arrested an Indonesian terrorist leader linked to Al Qaeda, Umar Patek, in Abbottabad. Patek was then handed over to the Indonesian authorities. And of course a number of other leading Al Qaeda figures, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, have been captured in Pakistan with the help of Pakistani intelligence and handed over to the United States.

2. Broadly speaking, Western analysts of Pakistan split into two camps, one favoring relations with the military establishment and the other seeking instead to build rapport with the civilian structures of government, political parties, and the middle class (especially professionals). Which of these camps has a firmer grasp of Pakistan’s realities, and why?

[T]oo often in Western analysis, when local forms differ from the supposed Western “norm” they are not examined, but are treated as temporary aberrations, diseases to be cured or tumours to be cut out of the otherwise healthy patient’s system. In fact, these “diseases” are the system, and can only be “cured” by a revolutionary change in the system.The only forces in Pakistan that are offering such a change are the radical Islamists, and their cure would almost certainly finish the patient altogether. Failing this, if Pakistan is to follow Western models of progress, it will have to do so slowly, incrementally and above all organically, in accordance with its own nature and not Western precepts.

—From Pakistan: A Hard Country.
Reprinted by permission of Public Affairs © 2011 Anatol Lieven

I would say that both are right. On the one hand, there is no alternative to working with the Pakistani military and intelligence services when it comes to combating terrorism and militancy. Pakistani intelligence is obviously central to this fight, however little we may trust them. The Pakistani military is conducting a very large scale (and generally quite successful) campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Moreover, the power of the military within the Pakistani state is a fact that is not going to go away, at least until other state institutions and democracy have become much stronger—and that is something which will take decades, and will require much wider and deeper changes in the country. This in turn means that the Pakistani military will in the end go on deciding Pakistani security policy and many aspects of foreign and indeed domestic policy. This influence isn’t always bad. According to Western diplomats and other officials, military pressure was very important in forcing the Pakistani government in March to defy its own parliamentary base and pass a budget by decree that met demands from the International Monetary Fund for increases in revenue collection and cuts in subsidies.

On the other hand, I also believe strongly that the U.S. policy of giving most aid to the Pakistani military—and neglecting development aid by comparison—is profoundly misconceived. As a result of the Bin Laden affair, it looks as if Congress will place still greater barriers in the face of the Kerry-Lugar civilian aid package, while the U.S. executive will go on bribing the generals with military aid. This is exactly the wrong way round. The military now has to fight against Pakistani insurgents whatever happens. It doesn’t need U.S. aid for this. Any military aid should be strictly conditional on real help against international terrorism. Economic aid by contrast should continue, both to help prevent further immiseration and radicalization of ordinary Pakistanis, and with a view to helping transform the Pakistani economy and society in ways that will prove a better basis for real democracy in the future.

3. Pakistan’s Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is often described as an “autonomous” or “rogue” entity, free from the military command and the country’s civilian leadership. Is this a fair description?

The ISI are certainly independent of the country’s civilian leadership. The one institution which should certainly not be blamed for the Bin Laden imbroglio is the civilian government. As to how far the ISI is fully responsible to the military high command, that is rather difficult to say. Overall strategy is set by the high command, of which the directorate of the ISI is part. After all, the director of the ISI and most of the senior and middle ranking officers are seconded regular officers, not professional spies. The present Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, was formerly head of the ISI. The present chief, General Shuja Pasha, is a regular officer and very close to Kayani.

But intelligence services, by virtue of their secrecy, extreme compartmentalization, professional conspiracy-mindedness, paranoia, and so on, do have a certain innate tendency to generate secret plots—we have even seen some of that in our own services. Equally importantly, because of the way in which the ISI under General Zia Ul-Haq was made responsible for channeling huge amounts of U.S. aid to the Mujaheddin (and creaming off a proportion of it), the ISI and cells within the ISI are known to have secret independent sources of funding. This would also allow them to conduct independent operations, and to keep it secret from their commanders. Hence the ambiguity over the ISI’s involvement in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. We know from David Headley’s testimony that ISI officers were involved in planning the operation. It is not entirely clear, though, whether this went up to the top, and whether the involvement was only in the prior planning or also in the actual decision to launch the operation. Certainly, however, the ISI has become a great danger to Pakistan and Pakistan’s neighbors, and in principle it would be far better if it were subject to much more intensive scrutiny. Unfortunately, I very much doubt that the Army will allow this to happen.

4. You use the phrase “P2K” in talking about Pakistan. What do you mean by it?

This represents a shocking surrender on my part to SMS-speak, which comes of associating with students!

What it stands for is “Patronage to Kinship,” which is central to the nature and workings of the Pakistani state and political systems. In my book, I argue that this system—especially in the countryside but to some extent also in the cities—revolves around local elites using their own wealth to gain leadership positions in their kinship groups, using these positions to advance in politics and get elected to the provincial or national assembly (whether under civilian or military rule), and then in turn using their influence on government to extract corruption.

However, by contrast with some systems, like Nigeria’s, the benefits of this corruption cannot simply or even mainly be kept for the immediate beneficiaries. In order to retain support, they have to distribute a reasonable proportion of it to their kinfolk and other supporters—otherwise they won’t go on supporting the leaders for very long. Even within quite tight-knit kinship groups, there is usually a rival relative who will step forward to claim the leadership if the existing leader is seen as mean, greedy, and unresponsive to his followers’ needs. There are two good U.S. quotes which illustrate the morality behind this. The first was said about Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago by his supporters: “He dunks, but he splashes.” The second comes from Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman”: “A man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no friend of mine.”

In my book, I describe this system as “Janus-faced.” On the one hand, because of the way in which it maintains kinship links and spreads a certain amount of patronage through society, it helps maintain the existing system’s resilience in the face of the threat of Islamist revolution. On the other hand, it cripples the state’s ability to generate and spend resources effectively on infrastructure, education, and every other form of state service, and it is therefore disastrous for Pakistan’s economic development and social progress.

I argue that the power and prestige of the Pakistani military within the Pakistani system has been due chiefly to its ability to separate itself from the normal workings of the patronage and kinship system, and to operate as a relatively efficient and honest meritocracy. However—and I do wish more of my critics would notice this—I also say repeatedly that the reason the military has been able to do this is that it has in effect functioned as a giant patronage network, extracting a massive share of state resources and spending them on itself, albeit in an orderly way and with some benefits reaching the ordinary soldiers as well as the officers.

5. You write that water shortages loom as a major test for the Pakistani state—a claim that seems a bit incongruous in light of the massive floods that struck the country last year. What are the indicators for the problem and how can Pakistan cope with it?

It should be clear from this book, that Pakistan, though a deeply troubled state, is also a tough one; and that, barring catastrophic decisions in Washington, New Delhi—and of course Islamabad—it is likely to survive as a country. In the long run, the greatest threat to Pakistan’s existence is not insurgency, but ecological change. However, Pakistani farmers are also tough and adaptable, and while some areas like the Quetta valley are likely to suffer disastrous water shortages in the near future, in the country as a whole, drought will take several decades to become truly catastrophic; and floods, though devastating in the short term, can also be controlled and harnessed given determination, organization and money. This allows time for human action to ameliorate the impending crisis.

—From Pakistan: A Hard Country.
Reprinted by permission of Public Affairs, © 2011 Anatol Lieven.

In many other parts of the world, alternate floods and droughts are not incompatible. The answer relates to both the extremes of the local climate (which climate change is likely to make much worse), and local society’s ability to harness or limit the effects of such natural phenomena. In the case of Pakistan, however, the biggest long-term threat seems likely to be drought. The World Bank in 2004 produced a study of the prospects for Pakistan’s water resources in the coming decades that is profoundly worrying, especially given a population which (unless the birthrate can be brought down much more steeply than hitherto) may well reach 335 million by the middle of this century. In principle, Pakistan can cope with it, because if infrastructure and water use are improved, there will be enough water to go around. But this will require profound changes in Pakistan’s state and society, and to put it mildly it is not clear if the country is capable of such positive change. And by the way, the World Bank’s frightening predictions hold true even without factoring in the unknown impacts of climate change.

6. So much of the discussion of Pakistan turns on India as a natural rival. Looking at “midnight’s children,” is it now fair to say that one has achieved at least modest success in shaping a modern state with a growing economy while the other is a frightening mess at risk of becoming a failed state?


Yes, I’m afraid that to a considerable extent this is true. There are however a few counter-arguments to be made. The first is that if Pakistan were a state of the Indian Union, it would be somewhere in the middle—far below such success stories as Karnataka, but well above such dreadful basket cases as Bihar. This also goes for human rights in India, as Human Rights Watch reminded us in a recent report on the Indian police. India too suffers from domestic insurgency—the Naxalite Maoists control a much bigger proportion of the country than the Islamist militants do of Pakistan. I also do not think that Pakistan will probably become a failed state in the short term, unless the United States is provoked into destroying it. The question is whether it can ever really progress as a country—and if it doesn’t, whether it can survive in the long term.

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