Six Questions for Anatol Lieven

Journalist turned foreign-affairs analyst Anatol Lieven has Pakistan in his bones. Descended from civil servants and officers in British India, one of whom fought in the rugged North-West Frontier, he cut his journalistic teeth in the subcontinent. His new book, Pakistan: A Hard Country, offers a unique blend of historical, political, and anthropological insight into the country. I put six questions to Lieven about the book.

1. The death of Osama bin Laden, in a villa located in the military town of Abbottabad, a half mile from Pakistan's military academy, and in an area filled with retired officers, has again focused attention on relations between the country's military establishment and terrorists. Are the Americans right to ask what Pakistani military leaders knew?

Yes, these questions must be asked. On the basis of my knowledge of the Pakistani military, I find it on balance unlikely that some section of Pakistani intelligence would not have known about Bin Laden's presence in Abbottabad. This is not because they would have been looking for him there, but because the military institutions in Abbottabad are obvious targets for terrorist attack by Pakistan's own militants. It is hard to understand why Pakistani intelligence did not check out the house as a possible launching pad for such an attack — unless they were told not to.

On the other hand, it must be stressed that even in Abbottabad itself, Pakistani intelligence has sometimes been helpful when it comes to fighting international terrorism. In January, they arrested an Indonesian terrorist leader linked to Al Qaeda, Umar Patek, in Abbottabad. Patek was then handed over to the Indonesian authorities. And of course a number of other leading Al Qaeda figures, including Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, have been captured in Pakistan with the help of Pakistani intelligence and handed over to the United States.

2. Broadly speaking, Western analysts of Pakistan split into two camps, one favoring relations with the military establishment and the other seeking instead to build rapport with the civilian structures of government, political parties, and the middle class (especially professionals). Which of these camps has a firmer grasp of Pakistan's realities, and why?

[T]oo often in Western analysis, when local forms differ from the supposed Western "norm" they are not examined, but are treated as temporary aberrations, diseases to be cured or tumours to be cut out of the otherwise healthy patient's system. In fact, these "diseases" are the system, and can only be "cured" by a revolutionary change in the system.The only forces in Pakistan that are offering such a change are the radical Islamists, and their cure would almost certainly finish the patient altogether. Failing this, if Pakistan is to follow Western models of progress, it will have to do so slowly, incrementally and above all organically, in accordance with its own nature and not Western precepts.

I would say that both are right. On the one hand, there is no alternative to working with the Pakistani military and intelligence services when it comes to combating terrorism and militancy. Pakistani intelligence is obviously central to this fight, however little we may trust them. The Pakistani military is conducting a very large scale (and generally quite successful) campaign against the Pakistani Taliban in the tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Moreover, the power of the military within the Pakistani state is a fact that is not going to go away, at least until other state institutions and democracy have become much stronger — and that is something which will take decades, and will require much wider and deeper changes in the country. This in turn means that the Pakistani military will in the end go on deciding Pakistani security policy and many aspects of foreign and indeed domestic policy. This influence isn't always bad. According to Western diplomats and other officials, military pressure was very important in forcing the Pakistani government in March to defy its own parliamentary base and pass a budget by decree that met demands from the International Monetary Fund for increases in revenue collection and cuts in subsidies.

On the other hand, I also believe strongly that the US policy of giving most aid to the Pakistani military — and neglecting development aid by comparison — is profoundly misconceived. As a result of the Bin Laden affair, it looks as if Congress will place still greater barriers in the face of the Kerry-Lugar civilian aid package, while the US executive will go on bribing the generals with military aid. This is exactly the wrong way round. The military now has to fight against Pakistani insurgents whatever happens. It doesn't need US aid for this. Any military aid should be strictly conditional on real help against international terrorism. Economic aid by contrast should continue, both to help prevent further immiseration and radicalization of ordinary Pakistanis, and with a view to helping transform the Pakistani economy and society in ways that will prove a better basis for real democracy in the future.

3. Pakistan's Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is often described as an "autonomous" or "rogue" entity, free from the military command and the country's civilian leadership. Is this a fair description?

The ISI are certainly independent of the country's civilian leadership. The one institution which should certainly not be blamed for the Bin Laden imbroglio is the civilian government. As to how far the ISI is fully responsible to the military high command, that is rather difficult to say. Overall strategy is set by the high command, of which the directorate of the ISI is part. After all, the director of the ISI and most of the senior and middle ranking officers are seconded regular officers, not professional spies. The present Army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, was formerly head of the ISI. The present chief, General Shuja Pasha, is a regular officer and very close to Kayani.

But intelligence services, by virtue of their secrecy, extreme compartmentalization, professional conspiracy-mindedness, paranoia, and so on, do have a certain innate tendency to generate secret plots — we have even seen some of that in our own services. Equally importantly, because of the way in which the ISI under General Zia Ul-Haq was made responsible for channeling huge amounts of US aid to the Mujaheddin (and creaming off a proportion of it), the ISI and cells within the ISI are known to have secret independent sources of funding. This would also allow them to conduct independent operations, and to keep it secret from their commanders. Hence the ambiguity over the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai terrorist attacks. We know from David Headley's testimony that ISI officers were involved in planning the operation. It is not entirely clear, though, whether this went up to the top, and whether the involvement was only in the prior planning or also in the actual decision to launch the operation. Certainly, however, the ISI has become a great danger to Pakistan and Pakistan's neighbors, and in principle it would be far better if it were subject to much more intensive scrutiny. Unfortunately, I very much doubt that the Army will allow this to happen.

Tags: abottabad, al qaeda, anatol lieven, ashfaq kayani, bin laden, david headley, drought, floods, isi, osama bin laden, pakistan, scott horton, shuja pasha, taliban

    • Scott Horton
    • Scott Horton is a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, where he covers legal and national security issues. As a practicing attorney, Horton has focused on investment in emerging markets. He is also a life-long human rights advocate and serves as a director of the Moscow-based Andrei Sakharov F...

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