Daily Times – BOOK REVIEW: Hard is good —By Dr Farah Zahra

BOOK REVIEW: Hard is good —By Dr Farah Zahra

Pakistan — A Hard Country

By Anatol Lieven

For a while now, Pakistan has been the most diagnosed country in the world, mostly as a failing state where ownership of its nukes should be taken care of. But when a westerner negates this view and states that Pakistan is “a hard state”, it is new and interesting for Pakistanis as well as the international community. Quite in keeping with his own person, Anatol Lieven has brought to his readers a balanced account that seems hype-free.

Essentially a book for the western audience, in particular the US and Britain, it helps Pakistan to be viewed through a more relaxed lens. It is neither a book that pretends to, nor attempts to chart out details of how Pakistan may rid itself of its own problems. Nonetheless, given the propensity of western governments, the media and academics to take the alarmist view towards this country, this view is intended to craft better policies towards Pakistan by western states.

With regard to the nuclear arena, where western concerns are most poignant, Anatol courageously asserts that, “the greatest dangers may not be Pakistani realities but US fears”. What gives this book even more credibility is the acceptance amongst western audiences that this is indeed a different view, one that is based on a more wholesome approach by the author’s range of interviews with myriads of ordinary people. It has been well received in the circles that it has been intended for. From the Pakistani perspective, in rejoicing that a western academic has given a new outlook on the country that may mitigate the suspicions and fears in the western world, it is sagacious to realise that at the same time, repairing the image does have something to do with reality itself. Attempting to rectify Pakistan’s image is a separate issue, while attempting to change realities within the country may be different, considerably more difficult, and incidentally may also be lacking in keen scholarship.

Anatol’s book examines the land and people, the provinces, the politics and the Taliban, and provides an especially involved analysis of domestic politics and the Taliban, depicting the author’s keen understanding of the terrain. His long association with the country is also to be credited for the depth of his understanding as he has remained interested in this country since his first stint here as a journalist for The Times in 1988. This, of course, also assisted him in formulating his links with politicians, the military and intelligentsia.

So, as he returned to Pakistan to research this book, there were several influential and political families that aided his research by extending their hospitality. He names several personalities including Abida Hussain and Fakhr Iman, Najam Sethi and Jugnu Mohsin. His section on politics therefore somehow aptly surmises that if water is H2O then Pakistani politics is composed of P2K where P is patriotism and K is kinship.

It remains to be seen how effective this gora with a Jewish last name is in advising western governments, in particular the British government. Even though he has received fairly good reviews all round, his detractors do try and put him down as the “Pakistan military’s guy”. Nonetheless, what he says in the book is difficult to find issue with (for any other military either). His fair and balanced views in the International Herald Tribune, his comments on Pakistan on British radio channels and his unusual understanding of this country in seminars on terrorism should be ample testimony to his academic integrity.

Even so, his views seem to be too benevolent in certain areas and for certain actors in the international community. For example, he hails the ecological challenge to Pakistan as the greatest threat to the country in the long term. More detail on that may have been expected by those who were happy to buy his argument that it is, in fact, even more significant than insurgency within the country. But he does not dwell upon this much and seems a bit too optimistically dismissive in his faith in the country and its farmer’s resilience. On the other hand, he does however honestly admit that there were times when he was writing the book that it seemed to him that he might have had to change the title to a ‘requiem’ for the country.

Some of his major policy advice to the US and Britain is that they should not dream of controlling Pakistan through a stronger India. He says, “We should also not dream — as US neo-conservatives are apt to do — that India can somehow be used by the US to control Pakistani behaviour. The truth…. is exactly the opposite”, and furthermore, that “a balance needs to be struck between the economic and security benefits to the West of closer ties to India and the security threats to the West stemming from a growth of Islamist militancy in Pakistan.”

This book was officially released only three days before the news that US forces had killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Anatol advised the US to “observe restraint in its pressure on Pakistan. Drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas have….not noticeably impaired the Afghan Taliban’s ability to go on fighting effectively, while causing outrage among Pakistanis.” He seems strongly of the view that “there must be no open intervention of US ground forces in FATA, as this risks outright mutiny in the Pakistan army”.

This is some of his most significant advice to the West for a “much more generous attitude to helping Pakistan”, which he feels is a hard country. It may indeed be a hard country because, in all its hardness, it may be a hard country to understand, a hard country to fail or break down, a hard country to fix. Admittedly hard.

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