Saturday, October 15, 2011

Book Review: Pakistan: A Hard Country

Ever since late 2008 I've spent most of my "Solomon2" time over at the Pakistani Defence Forum. I've also done a lot of reading on Pakistan. However, one exchange revealed I didn't that there are no jury trials in Pakistan.

Jury trials are the very intersection of society and the institutionalized process of justice. Since I didn't know there were no jury trials, I concluded that I was missing something very basic: while I had studied Pakistan's military and the decision-making process of its policymakers and such knowledge might be of some utility, my knowledge of Pakistani society was not.

Back to the books, then! The most-recent comprehensive view of Pakistan is the 500-page Pakistan: a Hard Country by Anatoly Lieven - an experienced British author who is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, an outfit that has invited me to several mid-east and Pakistan-related events, for reasons unknown.

Both Lieven and Zbigniew Brzezinski are scions of European aristocrats displaced by the Bolsheviks; while the experience drove Brzezinski to help support an insurgency in Afghanistan in the 1970s, Lieven's heritage seems to have compelled him to investigate the current result of such impetuosity. The author has toured Pakistan extensively twice, twenty years apart. This has helped him distinguish long-term attitudes from spur-of-the-moment popular trends, and taught him to be cautious at evaluating Pakistani public opinion.

On the minus side, Lieven makes several unsupported cuts against Israel - possibly his admission ticket to a Pakistan where, as one interlocutor once told me, "Pakistanis say they can't be openly pro-Israel because their throats could be slit twenty minutes later." Or maybe his anti-Israel attitude is honestly felt, expressing the current bias of Britain's intellectual class.

Succos plus Shabbat being a three-day holiday my reading plans were set. In between family time, prayer time, community time, and by stealing some hours from sleep I accomplished my purpose, for the book is a real eye-opener.

First, nothing else I've read so far comes close to depicting Pakistani society in breadth with illustrative episodes of detail.

Second, it strongly suggests that my conception of Pakistan was fundamentally wrong. I had thought that of Pakistan as a strong state dominated by a military lording it over society. Instead, Lieven depicts a weak state dominated by multiple strong societies within. Many a time the military finds it more effective to solve problems - even deadly ones - by negotiation, realizing that killing off kin-leaders can be counterproductive to building a successful Pakistan.

So Pakistan isn't really a mini-Roman Empire on the verge of coming apart. It's been in pieces since the beginning. Within the weak state the military is dominant but it only serves as a kind of glue holding fissiparous kin-groupings and ethnicities together. Not an empire decaying into feudalism but a feudal collective existing under the state - not particularly happily, as many are convinced life was better under previous princely rulers than under today's irresponsible bureaucrats and ministers.

(This again suggests to me that seeking a presidential- or parliamentary-type system in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been a mistake; constitutional monarchies with free cities would have been better. Monarchs at least own responsibility for their actions. Elected officials can usually obfuscate matters to hide their own involvement, something easy to do when the populace is mostly illiterate and there are no good checks and balances.)

Third, Pakistanis are corrupt, and this corruption is both personal and collective. Any Pakistani who has any power at all, even a tiny amount, uses it to improperly manipulate the state to his or his kin-group's advantage. If an individual commits a crime the courts often fail to convict because he can instantly enlist ten family members (even distant cousins) to provide alibis for him. Swearing on the Koran is not allowed: Since it is assumed that all witnesses lie doing so would discredit Islam, which is forbidden. With corruption the rule, politics and crime (closely related in Pakistan) are reduced to power-sharing negotiations between different parties: the "negotiated state" as Lieven puts it. The most effective law enforcement measures are "encounter killings" - extrajudicial executions of murderous miscreants, usually at night.

Fourth, about juries: Jury trials were forbidden in British India as incompatible with the colonial system and Pakistan and India both kept this after independence. At PDF both Indians and Pakistanis approved this: "We had it many decades ago but it was done away with as being unsuitable to our socio-economic environment" "We are different doesn’t mean we are evil and lesser beings"

(While Colonial America did have jury trials the Americans had greater experience with self-government and a higher literacy rate. One should also remember that the Vice-Admiralty courts of the late Colonial period, set up to enforce trade laws, had no juries - and were very much hated by Americans.)

Fifth, confirmation that, as I had gathered from my readings and on-line conversations, Pakistanis are greatly afflicted by self-deception usually expressed in but not limited to conspiracy theories. The problem is as wide-spread as I imagined, permeating all classes, and in the intellectual class going right up to the level of university president. The amazing and upsetting part is that such unsupported (and unsupportable) pronouncements are taken as more authoritative than pronouncements backed up by serious research. The author writes that the conspiracy-theory mentality is bred by the Army itself.

Sixth, the dacoits. This was a surprise. I had no idea that the Pakistani elite still employed professional robber-killers on retainer. I had thought this a thing of the past.

Seventh, the media. As I had strongly suspected from the moderation of my comments on Pakistani newspaper sites, the media can be very strongly influenced by the military. "The change in media coverage was crucial to the change in Pakistani public opinion" regarding operations in Swat. Such success naturally makes me wonder how much more could be done, should the military put its will into it.

Eighth, it isn't all about Islam. There is also the code of the Pathan, pashtunwali, and for women in particular that is much worse. Reading this, I realized that when President Bush criticized the Taliban for its treatment of women a few years back he was not criticizing sharia law, as I thought at the time, but pashtunwali. If I made this mistake then I suppose other Americans have done the same.

Additional conclusions thus far:

1) Pakistani police need to be better-paid, need better training and access to forensic equipment, and a greater division between local and national outfits; currently they are not tools of security as much as traffic cops or political tools to employ against rivals.

2) I have a somewhat more sympathetic attitude towards the Pakistani military than I did before, but only slightly. The P.A.'s moral judgments lead to much suffering among Pakistan's neighbors. Its nuclear weapons whet militant appetites and disorder. And its domestic meddling has kept society together but also kept many problems from being solved and allowed others to fester. The word that comes to my mind is embrittlement.