Thursday, 5 July 2012


If you like spy-novels and are a fan of complicated countries and societies in the Middle East and Asia, you might enjoy the books by David Ignatius. Some of the best are Agents of Innocence, about Lebanon in the 1970s, or The Bank of Fear, about Saddam's Iraq.

Now I just finished reading his newest release, Bloodmoney, about - among other things - the role of the ISI in Pakistan. Ignatius has a talent for depicting the complexities of fascinating places. Conflicting loyalties, tradition and modernity, the tribal areas, the army, kinship and patronage, Afghanistan and India, all creating a maze of tensions, into which Western intelligence agents blunder with a surprising lack of understanding.

Having finished the book, I wanted to know more about the place, and checked out what was on offer. After a quick and intense in-depth study of available literature, the book I liked most was Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven. Lieven shows Pakistan as a weak state inhabited by strong societies. What holds the country together are dense networks of kinship and patronage, the corruption often deplored being the lubricant that keeps the system going. Authority is a matter of constant negotiation, with the state being only one actor among many. While the casual observer sees Western modernizers fighting Islamist traditionalists, just under the surface Pakistani politics is infinitely more complicated. Lieven undigs a haze of conflicting loyalties mostly impenetrable to outsiders, which make outside intervention a most dangerous game to play. However, among the seeming chaos there are also islands of relative stability, such as the army and small numbers of highly motivated and honest civil servants. Finally, Lieven argues that the very things making Pakistan so complicated - most centrally kinship and patronage - are also those that keep the country from descending into chaos. 

In short, Pakistan is a complex place, more complicated but probably less unstable than most people think. It must also be a fascinating country to travel to, so it's now bookmarked on the list of places to go.

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