Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department at King’s College London as well as a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. His areas of expertise include US strategy and political culture; Islamist terrorism and insurgency; contemporary warfare; the countries of the former Soviet Union; and the Greater Middle East, especially Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. His latest book, Pakistan: A Hard Country was published in 2011-2012 by Penguin in the UK, Public Affairs in the USA and Oxford University Press in Pakistan. It is based on his time as a journalist in Pakistan in the late 1980s and extensive research on the ground in recent years. From 1989 to 1998 Anatol Lieven worked as a British journalist in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe for The Times (London) and the Financial Times, and is author of several books on Russia and its neighbours. From 2000 to 2007 he worked at think tanks in Washington DC and studied US foreign and domestic policies in the wake of the
9/11 terrorist attacks. His book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism appeared in 2004, and an updated edition is to be published by Oxford University Press in 2012.
Anatol’s Sessions at the Karachi Literature Festival:
– IN CONVERSATION WITH ANATOL LIEVEN
– TODAY’S PAKISTAN: An Economic and Political Perspective
– EYEWITNESSES AND OBSERVERS: Writing About Pakistan from an Outside Perspective
What papers were you reporting and writing for in the 80s when you worked as a journalist in Pakistan?
It was a string of freelance work, but my main employer was the London Times. I also did a bit of work for the radio and the Economist magazine.
And how long have you now been teaching at King’s College?
I’ve been at King’s College since 2007. I teach Security Studies, basically. There is one course on South Asian and Afghan Security Issues, and one on Conflicts in general.
You new book, Pakistan: A Hard Country has become quite popular among Pakistanis, although with strikingly conflicting reviews. What’s the relevance of the work and research you’ve put into it with present day Pakistan?
Well the book is a strong argument against the notion that Pakistan is or isn’t a failed state like most people say it is… I mean, this doesn’t look like a failed state to me, seriously!
How would you compare today’s Pakistan to the one you lived and worked in some 20 years ago?
Well, compared to when I was here in the 80s, some things have definitely gotten worse. Especially the rise of Islamists and extremists, rebellion and terrorism, which obviously wasn’t an issue back in the day. Some things haven’t changed nearly as much as one would wish: electricity issues, for instance, which was there in the 1980s and it’s still a nuisance today. I must confess I had really hoped that in 25 or more years someone would have been done something about it, and but sadly no one has. However, when it comes to arguing against the doomed scenarios, Karachi used to be much, much worse; even worse than last year when there was a lot of violence in the city.
So you think at least Karachi has made some progress over the years?
Definitely. When I was here the city really did seem to be spiraling downwards towards ethnic and civil war. You not just had a huge number of target killings but also dreadful indiscriminate massacres in markets; riders with machine guns mowing down dozens of people… Recently it’s been bad, but it’s more limited, more targeted. I’m not saying all the violence is good, but it’s better than it used to be. And then of course there’s the infrastructure of Karachi. My God the city is growing! In the last 25 years it’s more than doubled. One might have expected the city to basically have collapsed under the weight like in many other developing parts of the world, for example. Karachi’s infrastructure is a great deal better. So you see, some things get worse, some things get better. And a country or a city just continues on. Look at Afghanistan, it’s in a state of civil war and rebellion against foreign military force. It looks awfully like the 80s to me! The fact that most Pakistanis also sympathize with the resistance to that foreign force is rather interesting.
How important or fruitful do you think that intellectual discourse on a relatively micro level—like at the Karachi Literature Festival— could be for the people of a socially, politically and economically deranged country like Pakistan?
To have an educated, systematic and adherent discourse about critical issues is always good. At the same time, I have to say that while the discussion about broader issues, democracy and civilian rule, national identity, extremism and so forth is all very important, I could wish for a more informant, in depth and systematic discussion in the media, informed by solid research, that aims at solving the issues at hand rather than just a few people discussing them to no apparent end. Take the development of the Thar coal field, for example. Everyone says it could solve Pakistan’s energy crises. It often comes up in the media, but often in a way that’s impossible to tell what’s actually there; whether you can get it out, what you can use it for, etc. These are seemingly limited but tragically important questions. All these issues are also something good journalism and media is about. It’s not as they say sexy, but it is critical.
Pakistan has always been involved in one conflict or another, whether directly or indirectly, since independence. We have a strong history of militancy and we’re perpetually on guard on both our Eastern and Western borders. Being a professor of Conflict Studies and have done extensive research on the region, what do you think are the main reasons why we haven’t been able to settle our differences in 60 odd years?
I’m not a catastrophist. There have been three wars with India, and they were all very nasty and lesser engagements. But if you’re European, you have to keep in mind this does not compare with the damage Europeans did to each other in the two World Wars! It differs on so many orders of magnitude that I can’t even begin to count them! So, lets’ not exaggerate – things have been bad but not nearly as bad as they might have been.
Let’s look first to the Western border: I think there is a chance, and only a chance, that the Americans will make a peace settlement with the Taliban. If this happens, it won’t end Afghanistan’s problems, but if they could do that it would end this risk of Afghanistan descending into a full-scale civil war. It won’t end Pakistan’s problems either, because clearly some of these militants are determined to continue with their militancy regardless of what happens. But I hope that it will mean that the attraction of the Afghan jihad, and when the Pakistani Taliban uses that to mobilize themselves, they will go down. It may then be possible to drive a wedge between, say, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi and some other militant groups… those Taliban who only got involved because they were angry that the US is involved in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s alliance with them. Hopefully a peace settlement in Afghanistan could lead to a limited peace settlement in Pakistan. Of course not surrendering to these people in terms of giving them land to control, but basically getting them to go home in return for amnesty.
In on Eastern border, I’m not optimistic I must say, about a general settlement or reconciliation. There is so much opposition on both sides and both the governments are very weak. It’s often said that the Pakistani government is too weak, but actually I’m sorry to say Manmohan Singh’s government in Delhi is equally weak. Even though the concessions Pakistan would have to make are so much greater, the Indians ought to jump at this settlement. But there’s just too much opposition. The military plays a blocking role in India too and not just here.
So you’re basically suggesting there’s no reason to believe things will cool down on either side of the country anytime soon?
Not at all! Let me explain with an example I often give: during the Cold War between the West and Soviet Union, you had a complete structure of hostility on both sides. Especially the Soviet side and on the American side. This conflict really helped shape the institutions and politics, but it didn’t stop limited agreements on specific issues. For example, the issue of backing away from certain proxy conflicts elsewhere in the world. It’s very striking. You know, the biggest energy infrastructure in the world, still, is the network of gas pipelines from Siberia to Western Europe, and it was built in one of the coldest moments of the Cold War. The building continued through the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while of course overall the Westerners were deeply hostile. So what I’m saying is, perhaps you don’t need to “solve” everything with India in order to bring down tension and reach limited agreement.
Pakistani journalism and media has taken a big leap forward in the last five-six year, becoming more aggressive and analytical like it should be, and yet there’s also been a lot of criticism for it. You obviously have been in the loop what with your many trips here. Do you feel we’re headed in the right direction? What suggestions would you give to the younger lot joining the profession?
You’re right, the Pakistani media has become very good at exposing certain abuses, but it hasn’t become so good yet at following them up. With dogged tenacity, the ability to go on and on, probing and asking questions. I say that with due humility; if you talk about that in England, you’re not talking about the same thing as in Pakistan, where you can actually end up getting killed! I say that with great respect for Pakistani investigative journalism, because they’re running risks that their Western counterparts don’t. There has been a depressing trend in Pakistan for the most ghastly abuses to be uncovered and then nothing to happen. That’s’ the fault of politicians, judiciary, and your police. The point is, society has to be mobilized to demand redress, and that’s the job of the media.
Another thing I would say is, do away with conspiracy theories. I hate them! The problem is you can’t argue against them. It may be true and it may not be, there’s no evidence! I always say lots and lots of people criticize the conspiratorial mindedness of Pakistanis, but you have to understand that if there are so many conspiracy theories, that’s because there are so many conspiracies. Look at Memogate; look at the death of General Zia-ul-Haq, which is perhaps a classic example. The only thing anyone can be certain of in that case was a conspiracy to kill him, but who did it and why? There are literally thousands of theories! But sometimes, it goes a little too far.
Conspiracy theories are unnecessary and they make a rational discussion impossible because those depend on actually producing enough evidence. So my approach to them is basically to introduce them, as in the case of Memogate, only if what happened could not possibly have happened without conspiracy. Otherwise, just focus on beginning with what you can actually produce and then build on that. Pakistani journalists need to realize that.
Any words on the Karachi Literature Festival? Are you enjoying yourself?
Oh yes. The people here today are delightful to talk to and I’m very glad I came. I’d love to come here again. I should take William Dalrymple and put a hard word on him to invite me to Jaipur next year as well!
Lastly, how would you define or describe your relationship with Pakistan?
Well, being a journalist you have to get used to seeing terrible things. On a number of occasions over the years I’ve had to visit hospitals after the latest batch of ethnic killings. More recently, I’ve had to see wounded men. In the heartrending period in the 80s, I had to see women and children who had been machine-gunned at random. Today of course you see the same thing coming from terrorists. The thing is, thanks to the tremendous warmth and hospitality of Pakistanis at the same time, it all becomes much easier. In the evenings I’m invited to dinner by friends; I get an invitation to go to a party or go to the countryside to hunt quails or boar. I’ve met lots of extremely intelligent, interesting, educated people here, and they have all treated me in their own interesting ways. There aren’t many places where on the one hand you’re dealing with depressing things like visiting a hospital or covering the latest dreadful case of gang rape or bomber killing, and on the other you enjoy yourself in the company of hospitable and warm and open friends. Pakistan is an amusing country. I’ve become quite attached to it.