Magazine article The Spectator

Imperfect Working Order

Magazine article The Spectator

Imperfect Working Order

Article excerpt

Pakistan: A Hard Country

by Anatol Lieven

Allen Lane, £30, pp. 528,

ISBN 9781846141607

The publication of Pakistan: A Hard Country could not be more timely. International attention has been focused on Pakistan since the Americans killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. Being in the spotlight generally means trouble for this country that has been bedevilled by war and political drama for over three decades.

Foreigners announce goodwill and arrive with generous aid, but Pakistanis are frequently left feeling bruised, as the outsiders become ever more bewildered by the workings of this beguiling and maddening place.

Anatol Lieven originally planned to call his book 'How Pakistan Works'. It would have been a good title, since this is exactly what he tries to explain. The book's core is an examination of Pakistan's structures - justice, religion, the military and politics - and its four provinces, but Lieven's obsession is not merely the anatomy of the country, but its physiology.

His central thesis is that Pakistan is not - as western observers have described it - a failing state. It works, he says 'according to its own imperfect but functional patterns', and is more stable than it looks from outside. Although the state is weak (under civilian and military regimes alike), society is strong, underpinned by ancient systems of kinship and patronage. These may be indistinguishable from nepotism and corruption, but Lieven is prepared to see them as manifestations of the virtue of loyalty to kin.

Pakistan is described in this book as a 'negotiated state': only in the army is authority genuinely exercised through hierarchical structures. Elsewhere, authority is constantly being brokered. The country's other institutions - including representative democracy and the legal system - do not function effectively, Lieven believes, because they are foreign imports, imposed by the British and in many ways unsuitable for contemporary Pakistan. A friend comments that ordinary Pakistanis fault the Anglo-Saxon legal system for offering no compensation:

Yes, they say, the law has hanged my brother's killer, but who is now to support my dead brother's family - who by the way have ruined themselves bribing the legal system to get the killer punished?

Lieven knows what he is talking about.

He has been visiting Pakistan for 20 years, initially for the Times, covering the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan.

His affection for the country does not blind him to its faults. He refers lightly to Pakistani society's ability to generate within an astonishingly short space of time several mutually incompatible versions of a given event or fact, often linked to conspiracy theories which pass through the baroque to the rococo. …

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