Love letter to Rawalpindi

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A national monument in Islamabad, Pakistan, May 8, 2008.

Article Highlights

  • Anatol Lieven takes on the predictable task of writing a book 'explaining' #Pakistan with a fresh enthusiasm

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  • While forced to set the bar low to express a positive message, Lieven captures #Pakistan's truths in single phrases

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  • Lieven's "Pakistan: A Hard Country" is exaggeratedly enamored of the #military @dhume01

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Every few years, almost as predictable as the seasons, a former foreign correspondent in Islamabad dusts off his notebooks, rolls up his sleeves, and gets down to the apparently urgent business of explaining Pakistan to the uninitiated. The reader can be assured of at least one visit to a great landed estate worked by serfs, a potted history of the country's rogue nuclear program, well-meaning observations on the dismal status of women, and learned asides about the difference between the Barelvi and Deobandi sects of Sunni Islam. Owen Bennett Jones and Mary Anne Weaver, among others, have tread on this path before.

Anatol Lieven continues on this path, though to his credit he manages to touch each of these obligatory bases in "Pakistan: A Hard Country" without once giving the impression that he's simply going through the motions. Mr. Lieven, a British historian who reported from Pakistan for the Times of London in the late 1980s, brings an infectious enthusiasm to his task of summarizing the workings of the world's sixth most populous country. In this quest, he ranges effortlessly from a police station in Peshawar to a politician's mansion in the Punjab to the mean streets of Karachi. He dishes up pithy observations while delving deep into the nation's history, politics, culture and institutions.

"At a time when Pakistan's bravest public intellectuals are calling for a fundamental rethink of how their country is governed, often at great personal peril, Mr. Lieven cleaves to the status quo." -- Sadanand Dhume

For the most part, this book acts as a corrective to what Mr. Lieven appears to view as unfairly harsh assessments of Pakistan's present, and unduly pessimistic prognoses about its future. He rebuts fears of the country succumbing to an Iran-style Islamist revolution by pointing out that Pakistan lacks a unified and centralized form of Islam. He also notes that only the Pashtun-dominated areas of the country's northwest, home to barely 5% of Pakistan's population, appear interested in mass revolt under an Islamist banner. He places much emphasis on Pakistan's interlocking clans and patronage networks, and popular shrines that blur the sometimes bloody distinction between Sunni and Shia, as sources of deep social stability.

Sometimes, though, Mr. Lieven is forced to set the bar rather low to eke out a positive message. He places the extent of the country's troubles in perspective by arguing that "if Pakistan is not South Korea, it is also not the Congo." In a similar vein, he helpfully points out that the Islamic republic is not quite as corrupt as Nigeria. Brutality against women, slow and ramshackle courts, government inability to provide essential services, and unbearably dreary state-run TV channels he attributes to neighboring India as well.

Often enough, Mr. Lieven captures an essential truth in a single phrase. His suggested motto for the Pakistani police: Brutality Tempered by Torpor. His shorthand for followers of the Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami movement: clean living muscular Muslims. His explanation of the significance of the mosque in a poor country: the only beautiful work of human creation that most people ever see. His description of the whirling dervishes at the 14th century Sufi shrine of Sehwan Sharif in Sindh: thousand-year-old hippies.

Mr. Lieven's eye for detail, command of subcontinental history and old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting make this in many ways an excellent primer on Pakistan. Nonetheless, there is one glaring way "Pakistan: A Hard Country" falls short of accurately describing what commentators these days refer to as "the most dangerous place on earth."

Mr. Lieven is unusually enamored of the army, which he calls "the only Pakistani institution that works as it is officially meant to." In itself, this observation would be unremarkable--the army gobbles up more than double the federal outlays for health and education combined--if it didn't shade into a peculiar adoption of much of the army's worldview as his own. That's the defense Pakistan's military is employing as it's besieged by civil society and by outsiders for its apparent collusion with terrorists.

At times Mr. Lieven puts the word democracy in quotes to suggest his regard for its Pakistani variant, dominated by various stripes of squabbling politician. He appears to recoil in horror at the thought of elected leaders in charge of military appointments. He even finds time to worry about soldiers finding it harder to find brides on account of being seen by their compatriots as American lackeys in the war on terror.

This exaggerated concern for all things military gives Mr. Lieven's book the tone of a love letter to a general in Rawalpindi, the country's military capital. On a more serious note, it leads to recommendations that are, ironically for someone who wears his attachment to the country on his sleeve, not in Pakistan's interests. Instead of focusing on the ways in which Islamabad's support for terrorism destabilizes the region and the world, Mr. Lieven frets that the U.S. presence in Afghanistan will destabilize Pakistan. At a time when Pakistan's bravest public intellectuals are calling for a fundamental rethink of how their country is governed, often at great personal peril, Mr. Lieven cleaves to the status quo.

In the end, Pakistanis and Pakistan watchers lined up against the excesses of military power have both common sense and a higher moral purpose on their side. For Pakistan to prosper, the building blocks of the state need to be rearranged rather than reinforced. This means more democracy, not less, and an army that finally learns to take orders from grubby civilians.

Sadanand Dhume is a resident fellow at AEI.

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