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Discovering a hard country named Pakistan - interview with Prof. Lieven

In the past decade Pakistan has become a country of immense importance to its region, the United States, and the world. With almost 200 million people, a 500,000-man army, nuclear weapons, and a large diaspora in Britain and North America, Pakistan is central to the hopes of jihadis and the fears of their enemies. Yet the greatest short-term threat to Pakistan is not Islamist insurgency as such, but the actions of the United States, and the greatest long-term threat is ecological change.
by Emanuele G. - Tuesday 26 July 2011 - 2553 letture

Peter Paul Anatol Lieven (28 June 1960) is a British author, journalist, and policy analyst. He is presently a Senior Researcher (Bernard L. Schwartz fellow and American Strategy Program fellow) at the New America Foundation, where he focuses on US global strategy and the War on Terrorism, Associated Scholar of the Transnational Crisis Project, Chair of International Relations and Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.

His more recent book "Pakistan a Hard Country" gained a successful level of attention worldwide. That pushed us to schedule an interview with him.

Why is Pakistan "A Hard Country"?

The phrase itself is one that has often been used to me by Pakistanis talking about their country (sometimes in the alternative form “a difficult country”). On a number of occasions, the speaker has been explaining why he has had to have someone, or a number of people, killed. So the phrase suggests “hard” in the Irish sense of “tough” or “ruthless”. However, the title is also of course intended to suggest both that Pakistan is a hard country to govern, and that it poses hard challenges for US and Western policy.

Would you talk about the preparation work of your last book?

I was a journalist for The Times (London) in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1980s. I always wanted to write a book on Pakistan, since it seemed to me a fascinating country and one that was often misinterpreted by the outside world. However, in 1989 I was in a serious accident while travelling to Afghanistan, and when I eventually came out of hospital, it was just as Communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe. So The Times sent me first to Romania and then to the former Soviet Union, and I did not return to Pakistan for work till after 9/11. Since then I have visited the country almost every year. In 2008 Penguin asked me to write a book about Pakistan, and since then I have spent a total of about six months there for research, on top of my previous experience. I have made a point of visiting both the cities and parts of the countryside in every province, and of conducting as many informal opinion surveys as possible (what in British journalism we call “vox pops”, after Vox Popoli) with ordinary people.

The division of book in four parts allows readers to know what is Pakistan: land, people, history, structures, provinces and talebans. Is that a realistic picture of this country?

To describe the dominant characteristics of any country or society, you need a framework and structure for analysis. This seemed to me the best available. Above all, I was anxious to bring out the complexity of the country, and to avoid the usual simplistic prisms of “extremism”, “feudalism”, “military domination” and so on. All of these are present, but they are only certain facets of the situation.

The basic structure of Pakistan is kinship. Would you spent some words on it?

The nature and importance of kinship links differ considerably across the different parts of Pakistan, but it is fair to say that compared to most of the modern West, kinship is of great importance everywhere. These are extremely ancient social forms. In some areas they have been considerably shaped by modern change, but not eliminated. As through most of human history, in a violent society with a weak, corrupt and often predatory state and a very weak judicial system, kinship links are essential for defence and advancement. In most areas of Pakistan, politicians require wealth in order to get ahead, but they use that wealth to gain leadership positions in their kinship networks, and then use those networks to get elected and to provide support for leaders higher up the chain (whether civilian or military). This enables them to gain access to state resources, which they then plunder – but they have to distribute much of them to their kinsfolk and other supporters, or they would lose their support.

Pakistan seems a mixed country: modern and traditional at the same time. How do Pakistani people succeed in mixing those two values?

Not very well, I’m afraid. This is reflected amongst other things in very low levels of education, and especially girls’ education, across most of the country. Poor education in turn has severe effects on everything from economic dynamism to low levels of hygiene to the appallingly high birth rate. There are certain islands of successful development in Pakistan but they are fairly limited. Karachi is the biggest, but its progress is constantly being undercut by its feral ethnic rivalries.

Can we consider Pakistan as an element of stabilization in South Asia?

Pakistani policy has obviously not contributed to stabilization in the region, though India is also not blameless in this regard. However, the continued existence of the Pakistani state is certainly essential to the maintenance of even relative stability in the region. Its collapse would be a disaster that would dwarf the horrors of Afghanistan or Somalia: 200 million people, 500,000 soldiers, nuclear weapons and so on.

Why are environmental issues more dangerous than nuclear weapons?

To judge by the historical experience so far, nuclear weapons will probably not be used, at least as long as they remain in the hands of organised states (a much greater danger is if nuclear states collapse). So this is only a potential danger. Ecological change by contrast is an inexorable danger, even if its ful dimensions are not clear. And this is true even if you leave climate change out of the equation. A very sober and worrying World Bank report of 2004 draws attention to the worsening water situation in Pakistan – a basically semi-arid area which now contains almost 200 million people. If radical action is not taken to improve water use and conservation, this has the capacity to destroy Pakistan as a state by the end of this century.

I noticed you do not like the importance we give in Western Europe to Taleban. Is that correct?

Not entirely. The Pakistani Taleban are certainly a serious threat to the Pakistani state, though not I believe one that will be able to destroy that state unless actions by the United States provoke a slit in the Pakistani army. The Afghan Taleban are of course an even bigger threat to the Afghan state, but one which I believe will sooner or later have to be accommodated in some settlement, since they have the support of a large proportion of the Pashtuns, the biggest ethnicity in Afghanistan. A key question of course is whether the Afghan Taleban can be persuaded to sever their links to Al Qaeda and other international terrorist groups. As far as the Pakistani Taleban are concerned, their links to terrorism (including sectarian terrorism against other Muslims) are so close that in my view no compromise with their leadership should be attempted.

Why are Western views of Pakistan distorted?

It is a very complex country, hard even for its own people to understand. Terrorism and the war in Afghanistan have naturally increased Western hostility. And due to understandable but nonetheless sometimes exaggerated fears about the security situation there, too few Westerners – even experts claiming to specialize in the Muslim world – visit the place, or travel outside the capital Islamabad. Finally, it must be said that not all Western hostility to Pakistan is misplaced. Many of the policies of the Pakistani security establishment have been disastrous, and many aspects of its society are profoundly unpleasant – even if some of them are also characteristic of large parts of neighbouring India, where they draw far less attention from the Western media.

What is your outlook about the future of Pakistan?

In my view, the country will probably survive in the short to medium term, but will not progress or prosper, without social, economic and cultural changes of which it may well not be capable.

Thank you Prof. Lieven for having opened our eyes on Pakistani matters. We guess to have caught the purpose of your book. Pakistan needs a less superficial approach towards its complexity from Western people. That would be a very first positive step.


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