Why They Get Pakistan Wrong

Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country, by far the most insightful
survey of Pakistan I have read in recent years, reflects sensitivity and
considerable, if clear-eyed, affection. Lieven has traveled extensively
through Pakistan (dismayingly atypical for a contemporary foreign
commentator), exploring all of its provinces and speaking with
Pakistanis from a very broad range of backgrounds. He has also
immersed himself in written sources, including pertinent
anthropological research produced over a period of some two hundred

Mohsin Hamid, New York Review of Books

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Few writers offer the insight and deep knowledge that Lieven has of a country critical for the West but one often caricatured by the media and rarely understood by Western policy makers … Timely and compelling.

Maleeha Lodhi

This is a wonderful book, full of learning, wisdom, humour and common sense.

Peter Oborne, Daily Telegraph

One cannot give Lieven enough credit

The book seamlessly flows with historical analysis, anthropological investigation, and painstaking contextualisation … It is both grand in its scholastic description and in its journalistic flair.

Ahmad Ali Khalid, Dawn

A finely researched blend of the nation's 64-year history.

Lieven’s feat lies in his remarkable, flesh-and-blood portrait of the nation … this nuanced analysis should be read, and learned from.

The Independent

By far the most insightful survey of Pakistan I have read in recent years

…a vital book … detailed and nuanced.

Mohsin Hamid, New York Review of Books

Lieven captures the richness of the place wonderfully.

His book has the virtues of both journalism and scholarship.

The Economist

An important corrective to the monolithic view of Pakistan

…fresh and deeply informed

Patrick French, Mail on Sunday

A brilliantly articulated and researched argument

Lieven is a wonderful writer. There are frequent moments of dark humour … and descriptions that a novelist might envy.

Kamila Shamsie, The Times

Everybody nowadays seems to take a view on Pakistan. Very few know what they're talking about.

Anatol Lieven is that rare observer … Pakistan: A Hard Country … fills a large gap in our understanding.

Edward Luce, author of 'In Spite of the Gods: The Strange Rise of Modern India'

The publication of Pakistan: A Hard Country could not be more timely

…illuminating as well as entertaining.

The Spectator

About the Author

Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England.

Read Biography

Origins of the book

The origins of Pakistan: A Hard Country lie in my work in that country as a correspondent for The Times (London) in the late 1980s, backed up by intensive research on the ground from 2001-2010. As a journalist, I also covered the last stages of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the first stages of the purely Afghan civil wars that followed – and that have continued to this day.

This was a formative experience for me, that profoundly shaped my views not just of Pakistan and Afghanistan but of US and Western approaches to the rest of the world. This applied especially to dominant Western “narratives” (the Orwellian name given in the West to Western prejudices, making sure that nobody could possibly confuse them with the prejudices of non-Westerners). During and after the Pakistani elections of 1988, the Western media was full of stories of the triumph of Western-style democracy in Pakistan, accompanied by extremely over-ripe adulation of Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), including headlines like “Benazir’s Tender Democracy”. 

A very brief acquaintance with Pakistan had already been enough to teach me that this was a party led by corrupt aristocrats, superficially westernised in their personal behavior but with no serious reformist agenda whatsoever, and dependent for support on populism, patronage, and dynastic charisma (not it must be said that  the other parties are any better). 

Also striking was the extent to which Pakistani liberal journalists and intellectuals contributed to these Western illusions, from some contribution of ideology, personal advantage and general deference towards the West: a striking example of Western cultural hegemony in action. I have described this as a “copulation of illusions”, or a game of intellectual ping-pong in which the ball never touches the ground of actual reality. I watched the same kind of relationship develop in Russia during and after the fall of the USSR.

More searing was the experience of reporting Afghanistan from the side of the Mujahedin and later, briefly, from the side of the Kabul government. It is to my travels with the Mujahedin that I owe whatever understanding I have of the Afghan Taliban – whose local foot soldiers are exactly the same people, from exactly the same areas, fighting for exactly the same reasons as the Pashtun Mujahedin of the 1980s.

I arrived in Afghanistan a real little cold warrior, completely befuddled by the picture of the Afghan War and the Mujahedin presented by the Western media since 1989; and it was only with painful slowness (of which I remain ashamed) that I escaped from this intellectual straitjacket – one by the way assiduously woven by Western diplomats and “diplomats” in Pakistan; the Afghan War of the 1980s was also an example of just how prepared many Western journalists are to swallow whatever Western governments tell them.

Not that the dominant Western picture was wholly false: the brutality of the Kabul regime and of the Soviet air war on the one hand, and the courage of the Mujahedin on the other were beyond question. However, Western analysis was overwhelmingly within the context of the Cold war with the USSR. Afghan reality, Afghan history and indeed Afghan interests were largely ignored, and the Mujahedin were portrayed in terms that sometimes verged on the hagiographic. It has been bitterly amusing since 2001 to see some of the same Western journalists who in the 1980s blindly demonized “their” Kabul government and idolized the Mujahedin now blindly idolizing “our” Kabul government (several of whose senior officers are former Communists) and demonizing the Afghan Taliban.

The intention of my book on Pakistan was therefore to create a picture of Pakistan’s political system from within, not filtered through and adapted to Western expectations. This required taking up a number of controversial positions: neutrality on the subject of “democracy” and “dictatorship”, based on an understanding of the fact that Pakistani democracy in no way resembles the idealized and ahistorical version of Western democracy peddled by the West; a clear-sighted view of the nature of Pakistan’s political parties and political elites (one however which also sought to get beyond the exhausted cliché of “feudals”); an ability to see the Pakistani military not as a purely negative force but as an inescapable and occasionally positive part of the political landscape, as well as being essential for the survival of the country (while at the same time making absolutely clear that I did not regard them as a force that could reform and develop Pakistan); and an understanding that while Pakistan certainly bore a share of the blame for the disasters in Afghanistan, the USA also shared that blame, as I had seen for myself in the 1980s; and an awareness of the degree to which the survival of Pakistan was threatened not just by Islamist revolt (which it predicted would soon be crushed) but also by the actions of the USA. Finally, this book was unique at the time, and remains very rare, in arguing that the long-term threat to Pakistan’s existence was none of the usual suspects but a combination of climate change, water shortages, and population growth. This is an argument that I develop further in my latest book on the politics of climate change.

To my considerable surprise, given its views, this book was adopted as essential reading for diplomats by both the British Foreign Office and the US State Department (though since the US ambassador responsible was forced to resign soon afterwards this was perhaps a somewhat two-edged compliment).

The structure of the book

The introduction is an analysis of the Pakistani political system, which I see as dominated chiefly (though by no means exclusively) by what I call P2K: Patronage to Kinship; that is, the extraction by politicians of benefits from the state (whether by “legal” or “corrupt” means) and their distribution to followers, the core of whom is generally made up of kinsfolk. My own original title for the book was “How Pakistan Works” – a good title, I have always felt, both because it really describes the book and contradicts all those who think Pakistan doesn’t work. Equally descriptive would be “Pakistan Trundles On” – but doesn’t pick up speed or get anywhere much.

Part I sketches the history of Muslim nationalism and Islamist thought in British India before independence, and how the relationship and rivalry between these two traditions has shaped Pakistan since independence. It sees this basic and enduring factor as responsible for two paradoxes: that under the apparent turmoil of Pakistani politics, political society and structures have in fact remained remarkably stable; and that the factors which have given Pakistan enduring strength in the face of internal unrest are also the ones are responsible for its social and economic stagnation – with consequences that may ultimately become fatal as climate change kicks in.

Part II consists of four chapters on the four worlds of Pakistani political power: civilian politics, the military, the judicial system and Islam. 

The chapter on the military sees the strength of that institution as lying in three things: ample resources extracted from the state and justified in terms of the Indian threat; the fact that the army was the only institution of the British Raj that fused successfully with patterns and traditions of local society; and that it is the only Pakistani institution which systematically and successfully inculcates Pakistani nationalism in its members.

This is then contrasted with the Pakistani judicial system, a case where an institution and code introduced by the British has NOT fused successfully with local social traditions – or rather has done so in a disastrous way, leading to deep corruption, legal semi-literacy, unbearable delays, elitist arrogance and endless manipulation by politicians and kinship groups. This chapter sought to explain why the Pakistani Taliban had been able to benefit from the fact that so many Pakistanis had turned from the state judicial system to the Sharia; and also to puncture the absurdly adulatory portrait of Pakistani lawyers painted by the Western media during their campaign against the regime of President Musharraf (a portrait that was thoroughly shattered years later when after a long string of outrages, a mob lawyers in Lahore wrecked the intensive care ward of a hospital, leading to the deaths of patients, because they felt disrespected by a statement about them by one of the doctors).

The chapter on religion in Pakistan examines the ideological roots of the Pakistani Taliban, but also seeks to bring out the multifarious nature of Pakistani Islam, and how this helps frustrate any united movement for an Islamist revolution as seen in Iran or Egypt. At the same time, this chapter warns against the simplistic idea of there being in Pakistan Islamic “moderates” who can be backed and mobilized against “extremists” or “fundamentalists”. This has subsequently been amply demonstrated by the fanatical and murderous Tehreek-e-Labbaik movement, stemming from the “moderate” Barelvi tradition.

Part III extends this picture of the diversity of Pakistan by examining in turn each of Pakistan’s provinces and their internal ethnic and religious divisions. Amongst other things it considers the nature, extent and limitations of Punjabi hegemony and paints brief portraits of the conflicts in Karachi and Balochistan based on my researches on the ground. 

The final chapter, on the Pashtuns, leads naturally into Part IV of the book, on the revolt of the Pakistani Taliban, their roots in specifically Pashtun history, culture and experience, and Pakistan’s relationship with Afghanistan. When this book was published, Western writers and Pakistani ones writing for Western audiences were convinced that Pakistan was “on the brink” of “descending into chaos” and “perishing forever”. Extending the argument of the rest of the book, I predicted –accurately as it turned out- that when the Pakistani state and military exerted real strength, the Pakistani Taliban would soon be crushed. 

In this part and in the Conclusions, I argued that the only thing that could possibly bring the early destruction of the state would be if some US demand on Pakistan (for example, in the wake of a terrorist attack on the USA by Pakistani terrorists) led to mass nationalism joining with Islamism in northern Punjab, and destroying the Army from within. I suggested that such a revolution would not lead to an Islamist state, but would bring about the collapse and disintegration of Pakistan – with disastrous consequences for everyone, including the USA. This is worth remembering, since although US-Pakistan tensions have eased in recent years, the terrorist threat remains; and having lived through the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA, I do not underestimate the potential for a disastrous US response to any attack.