Pakistan, A Hard Country


Fruit seller in Multan, southern Punjab

Time in between OU modules allows catching up on some ‘non-edtech ‘ literature, such as Anatol Lieven’s book on Pakistan.   Lieven seems to have travelled all over Pakistan and talked to everyone from farmers and local Taleban leaders up to members from the Pakistani elite in Lahore and Islamabad. Despite its nearly 500 pages, the book is both extremely readable and well in-depth to nuance or dispel the –numerous – misunderstandings and negative connotations that surround the country.

Lieven describes how strong kinship alliances and systems of patronage both weaken the state (only 1% of the population pays income tax) and protect it against extremism and state collapse. Except for the army, the Pakistani state is very weak, be it its judicial system where customary law systems and the Islamist sharia system are more applied than state laws, or education and health, where charity systems from organisations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba have filled the void left by the state.

The Punjab forms the heart of Pakistan, with more than half of the population and by far the most economic activity. Pakistan’s largest city, Karachi, lies in the otherwise rural Sindh province.  The ca. 20 million Pathans make up the majority in the low-density provinces of Balochistan and NWFP (North Western Frontier Province).  The FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) along the border with Afghanistan are formally administered by a Pakistani state agent, but are in practice largely independent.

Lieven usefully distinguishes clearly between the Afghan and Pakistani Taleban.  The former enjoy widespread support among all layers of Pakistani society, for fighting against a foreign invader in Afghanistan.  The latter enjoyed support as long as they focused on the struggle in Kashmir and helping the Afghani Taleban against American interests.  Their brutality and increasing threat to the stability of Pakistan have reduced their support among the population.

According to Lieven, Pakistan’s main threat are external.  First, a foreign invasion (by the US), instilled by increases in drone strikes or operations on Pakistani soil, could dramatically reduce the prestige of the Pakistani army as it would be seen as an American stooge, which would result in widespread mutiny.  Second, Pakistan is frighteningly dependent on the Indus and Himalayan melt waters for its water. Population growth and climate change threaten to reduce agricultural yields and make parts of the country uninhabitable.

Another complexity that is skillfully described by Lieven is Pakistan’s relation with India.  Mass migrations after independence have created groups such as the Mohajirs in Sindh who have (better) managed to break loose from kinship and patronage and are now some of the most dynamic population groups in the country.  The migrations have also caused a deep, irrational, but understandable distrust and fear from India. India is the ultimate benchmark for foreign policy and the army. Support for the Afghani Taleban stems from fear of a non-Pashtun government in Kabul becoming an Indian client state.

Pakistan is a fiendishly complex but therefore also fascinating country. Lieven’s scholarship and desire to understand it proves contagious. Summarizing the whole book is futile, but I share a concept map I made, based on the book  (Pakistan Lieven, links to pdf file), structured around Pakistan’s four provinces in an attempt to connect the main themes of the book. I end with a quote from a landowner-politician from Sindh explaining the book’s title.

“This is a hard country. You need family or tribal linksto protect you, so that there are peoplewho will stick with you and sacrifice for you whatever happens.  That way you will not be abandoned even when out of government. The tribal people gives even ordinary tribesmen some strengths and protection against attack, whether by dacoits, the police, the courts – your tribesmen will get you out of jail, lie for you to the court, avenge you if necessary. (p.18)

Pakistan Lieven

Concept Map on ‘A Hard Country’ (Anatol Lieven)

* the picture on top is from Steve Evans and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.


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