Are the Pakistani people faced with a devil-and-the-deep-sea choice: condemned to live forever in backwardness and anti-democratic mould, of remaining permanently in a feudal set-up or going the Taliban way? That is the question that one is tempted to ask since the author says his book is intended to analyse the internal problems and sources of Pakistan’s resilience. Lieven brings to bear considerable experience and scholarship to his work. Having reported for the Times from the region, he is now Professor of International Relations in King’s College, London and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington DC. His earlier works include books on Chechnya, ethnicity and nationalism. His credentials demand that he be taken seriously. In this sympathetic analysis of Pakistan, what ails it and where it might be headed, Lieven says if there is one phrase which is the central theme of this book and defines many aspects of Pakistan, it is ‘Janus-faced’. Its very strengths are its weaknesses. Kinship, for instance, is central to the weakness of the state but also to its stability.
The Pakistani society is predominantly rural, built around conservative traditions removed from and with little respect for structures of modern state/government—whether civil or military. Traditional, conservative, predominantly rural population have little faith in state institutions and are, in fact, indifferent to who rules in Islamabad so long as their lives are unaffected. The country remains viable and it ‘works’ because it is bound together as a community by bonds of religion and culture. Rural elites ensure stability by retaining the allegiance of the poor using their power thus obtained to dispense justice, extend assistance and preserve order. These very structures become the bulwark against Islamic revolution and civil war. But to remain so, the rural elite ends up perpetuating backwardness, for education and democracy would threaten the very basis of their power.
Then there is language, which becomes a factor in developing provincial nationalism. Thus, Baloch, Pashto, Sindhi become a basis for ethnic communitarianism though Punjab—the largest language group—speaks either English or Urdu not Punjabi. Lieven postulates Pakistan to be a ‘negotiated’ state held together, apart from other factors, by the fear that a break-up would be worse for each of the component provinces and peoples. The need to carry everyone along entails sacrifices even if in a limited manner. Thus, Punjab which accounts for 56% of the population and generates 65% of the revenue gets only 52% of the revenue under the 2010 Finance Commission award. Punjabi domination, in that sense, is more feared than real, he says.
Beyond these factors of kinship, rural elites and carrying everyone along, however, there is the army. Lieven notes that despite all the social contradictions and divisiveness, economic backwardness, violence, extremism and terrorism, Pakistan is a country that works and is in no imminent danger of collapse because, unlike the many failing states elsewhere, it has an organized, cohesive Army that holds the country together. The eventuality of a collapse would emerge if there is a mutiny in the army and that could happen only if the soldier is faced with conflict in loyalty as a Muslim and, therefore, defender of the faith and obedience to a superior. The ‘Rotten Tree’ of Pakistan will ‘hold together’ unless there is external intervention (US and/or India). If it eventually collapses, ‘it will not be because of Islamist extremism’ but due to ‘climate change.’
As an institution, the Pakistani Army is cohesive, disciplined and imbued with a sense of mission of defending Pakistan. It has, often enough, shown itself to be superior to the civilian establishment in delivering services and in sorting out the mess created by politicians. It is also true that politicians have sought Army intervention from time to time. The Pakistan army enjoys popular support except following long periods of military rule.
In these times, when the Pakistan Army is being asked to take on unpopular missions including fighting the militants within Pakistan, the question arises: how willing would the Army be to fight its own people? Pakistan as it is constituted today is more cohesive than it was when Bangladesh was a constituent part and the Army’s recruits come from all four provinces even if the dominant element is from the Punjab. At one level, therefore, there is the element of kinship that becomes relevant. Then there is the element of social origins where Lieven makes a significant point: it has changed. Many of the generals are ‘sons of clerks, shopkeepers and NCOs.’ (Indeed, the COAS, General Kayani, is also the son of an NCO.) That implies that the value systems of the class to which they belong, that they grow up with and are surrounded by, would seep into the Army. What kind of changes will that bring into the military ethos? If the Army’s recruits reflect the values of the society and class they come from, can the military remain immune to them for long? And if, as the author notes, there is a general distaste for fighting the Taliban or the militants who are seen as fighting foreign forces, will the military be able to wage a prolonged and successful campaign against them?
Inadvertently or as a matter of choice, Lieven virtually mirrors the self-perception of the military, which in effect, means the army. (The Air Force and the Navy have consistently complained of not being consulted in major decision-making, including operational.) There is insufficient analysis of the impact of the Army’s dominance of the state that has stunted the growth of civilian institutions. In representing the Army’s viewpoint that it needs to defend itself against civilian encroachment (!), the author asks whether one would like to have the likes of Nawaz Sharif or Asif Zaradari make Army appointments. This misses the point. It is not an issue of personalities but the principle of civilian control and having systems in place.
Pakistan’s worldview involving permanent hostility to India and perception of Afghanistan as a strategic rear has been so pervasively propagated that the alternative of friendship and cooperation in the region have never really been given a chance. The many suggestions made by President Zardari since taking office—on NFU; on putting J&K on the backburner (this has also been the Chinese advice); on expanding trade and economic cooperation—have all been rejected by the army brass which holds a veto on foreign policy. On Afghanistan, the author cites the Pakistan military’s belief that Indian involvement in Afghanistan creates a two-front situation and thus there is need for a friendly government in Kabul and/or forces in bordering Pathan areas. He records also the observation of Mullah Zaeef (he was the Taliban’s Ambassador in Islamabad and, following 9/11 spent years in Guantanamo) that the Taliban never really trusted the Pakistan military and since 2001, some have even strong hatred for it. If even the Taliban is not an insurance against India, how on-the-ball are Pakistani calculations? As The Economist noted in May 2011, the generals have come to have too much power; because the armed forces are powerful, the government is weak and their interventions in Pakistani politics exacerbate this imbalance and undermine democracy. Second, it has shaped Pakistan’s dealings in Afghanistan resulting in the protection afforded to the Taliban. Third, it has led Pakistan to foster Islamist terrorism.
“In this sympathetic analysis of Pakistan, what ails it and where it might be headed, Lieven says if there is one phrase which is the central theme of this book and defines many aspects of Pakistan, it is ‘Janus-faced’. Its very strengths are its weaknesses.”
The Pakistani Army’s ideology is not simply Pakistan nationalism. If it were, it would be no different from most armies. The Zia doctrine claimed for the army the role of the guardian of the ‘ideological frontiers’ of Pakistan—a concept never spelt out in any detail but which clearly encompasses much more than the state. Lieven notes that the army acts like an extended family to its personnel and provides services to its officers and soldiers and their families that builds loyalty and keeps morale high. But he does not tell us what happens to morale when soldiers on authorized missions are disowned by no less than the COAS, as happened during the Kargil operation, to the point that Pakistan refused to accept bodies of their own soldiers for burial since, in theory, they were not Pakistan Army regulars. It was the Pakistani media that exposed this duplicity. And, lo and behold, military awards were conferred for that operation at the Aiwan-e-Sadar!
The author notes, correctly, that terro-rism and insurgency are two different things. Terrorism is not enough to overthrow the state. Indeed, nor is insurgency unless it prevails. The problem is, as the aftermath of the assassination of Salman Taseer showed, that the majority often prefers to remain silent. In that situation, if the elite chooses to be coopted out of fear or unwillingness to stand-up and be counted, what is the direction the state will take? Nazi Germany, McCarthy era US and China of the Cultural Revolution are all cases in point. Pakistan is neither a mature democracy nor an organized enough state to avoid these dangers.
An interesting and significant point that the author makes is that the majority of known Pak terrorists have gone through the government school system and are not Madrassa educated suggesting that the base of Islamism is in the lower and middle classes. If the TTP militants tend to be Madrassa educated, it is because the bulk of their cadres are drawn from the NWFP and the province does not have a strong state schooling system. Focusing on Madrassas as an instrument of Islamic militancy that can be isolated and eliminated is a widespread mistake. Lieven says Islamic revolution won’t happen because there are diverse sects and even ‘con-servative reactionaries’ like the Barelvis are opposed as much to modern Islamist revolution as to liberalism. But he notes also that organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have greatly contributed to the spread of terrorism into Punjab including attacks on high profile military targets which could not have been possible without at least low level sympathizers of the military. In this context, it is noteworthy for those in India who view the lawyer’s movement as a major step in civilianizing the society and freeing its thinking from the military’s worldview that several of the leaders of the movement, Lieven says, believe in the same paranoid theories of US, India, Israel conspiracy against Pakistan.
Lieven believes that if one were to analyse Pakistan in comparison not to the West but to other countries in the region, it is not very different from India—its pervasive dynastic politics; continuing efforts by institutions to seize power from other institutions; endemic corruption; violence in everyday life; and that enforcement of the state’s will and exercise of individual rights are a matter of constant negotiation rather than something that can be taken for granted as in the West. If Pakistan is to follow the western models, it will have to do so slowly, incrementally, and above all, organically in accordance with its own nature.
Pakistan remains important to the West, according to Lieven—there is nothing new here—being the second largest Muslim nation with a population of 180 million; its ‘vital and irreplaceable’ role as an ally in combating terrorism; its military and nuclear weapons. Sanctions are unlikely to work; economic incentives are the way to go. Pakistan’s fears of India may be exaggerated but are not irrational so attention has to be paid to addressing them. The alliance with the US involving fighting the Afghan Taliban (fellow Muslims fighting foreign occupying forces just as they fought the Russians) or the Pakistani Taliban (fellow citizens opposed to the anti-Muslim foreign forces in fraternal Afghanistan) is distasteful to the soldiers and people at large. The Army is much more at home fighting India—again nothing new here—and the people have been conditioned to support that cause.
The prescription: West should help Pakistan because its survival is ‘vital’ to the West and China beyond Afghanistan; Pakistan is more important and dangerous than Afghanistan, therefore, it is necessary to look beyond Pakistan’s relevance to the presence of US troops in Afghanistan; an early NATO and US withdrawal from Afghanistan would have a salutary impact on reducing militancy in Pakistan; drone attacks should bear in mind the adverse effect on public opinion and image to the credibility of the military’s prestige as it is seen as a force for hire. Pakistan seeks strong influence in Afghanistan so that India should not be able to threaten Pakistan from Afghanistan. Finally, the greater threat to Pakistan is not insurgency but ecological change.
So, what is one to make of the choices before the people of Pakistan? In the chapter on justice, Lieven points to the acceptance of the people of the Taliban’s methods which are ‘brutal, barbarous, odious’ but swift in execution in contrast to the existing structures of judiciary and politics which are corrupt and incompetent. But is this the system of justice Pakistan should be based on? Is this the basis for the creation of a modern state and societal structure? If not, should the people of Pakistan not be calling for a reform of the existing system rather than going the Taliban route? Should the argument that it works and so people accept it become the excuse for its perpetuation? If India is used as a reference point, should one not note the vigorous debate in opposition to summary justice dispensation e.g. the Khap panchayat? It is unlawful; compliance and reform is being sought by educating the people. Again: Can a modern state have multiple systems of law and justice and still manage to enforce its writ? Would this same logic not help create a basis for opposing any state policy that runs counter to traditional practices? Then again, if kinship groups see themselves as independent and sovereign groups for purposes of law and justice, could they not extend this self-perception to other areas of state and society?
The question that all well wishers of Pakistan would want an answer to: What are the chances of Pakistan emerging as a society and state with a modern agenda/vision and, if necessary, willing to fight for it even if it means fighting both the Taliban and other terrorist outfits as also the feudal structures?