A huge amount has been written about Pakistan, most of it very negative - not least since the killing in Abbottabad of Osama Bin Laden by American special forces. I recently visited relatives in Karachi, and most people warned me beforehand to be careful. Even after I returned unscathed, some seemed surprised that the worst thing to have befallen me was a dodgy stomach - not a bomb blast or a rabid mullah in sight.
In this timely book, Anatol Lieven turns on its head the conventional wisdom that Pakistan is caught in an existential battle between western-style modernity and an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency. In fact, he argues, the likelihood of extremist groups seizing control of the country and its nuclear weapons is vanishingly slim and the question we should be asking is not why support for Islamist groups is so strong in Pakistan, but why it is so weak.
This does not detract from the country's immense problems, which the book analyses in detail. Lieven's thesis centres on Pakistan's social conservatism and tight structures of kinship, which engender the "tragic tension" between "the needs of modern progress and the needs of political and social stability". This explains the corruption that is endemic in public life - the obligation to give your kinsman a helping hand always comes first. However, it also explains why the state is unlikely to fall into the hands of extremists who might pose a challenge to ingrained power structures. Consequently, the country is in a double bind: the same traditions that prevent civil war or Islamist revolution stymie Pakistan's development into a thriving, modern state.
By analysing several rulers, Lieven shows that the Pakistani nation state is in fact stable, if ineffectual. Periods of civilian government differ very little from those of military rule - both are constrained by the prevailing social structures and traditions, the true source of power in Pakistan.
That Lieven has spent considerable time in Pakistan - first as a foreign correspondent and then as an academic - is evident not just from the long quotations from his conversations with original sources inside the country, but also from his elucidation of a non-western perspective, explaining what many people in the west perceive to be support for extremism. While I was there, I was struck by the strength of feeling against the western intervention in Libya and the public sympathy for Muammar al-Gaddafi, based not on his actions, but on his defiance of America.
The same is true of the apparent support for Afghanistan's Taliban - it is prompted mostly by deep-running anti-Americanism and fellow feeling with those who refuse to give in to the west. It is not the same as wanting them to implement their harsh version of Islam across the country (another point the book makes is that the versions of Islam practised in Pakistan are too various for Islamist parties to take hold nationally). Members of the westernised upper classes with whom I spent time in Karachi shared this anti-Americanism but jested disdainfully about "bearded fundos".
Lieven lays bare the scars left by colonialism, particularly the imposition of structures that have little meaning in the context of the culture. The justice system is a case in point. Ludicrously, it functions in English - even though many lawyers and judges don't speak the language fluently, and most plaintiffs and accused speak no English at all - and is beset by delays and vast costs. The appeal of the Taliban in the rural tribal areas thus becomes apparent: their justice, though rough, is efficient and accessible. Here, as in other areas, the state is largely powerless. The central justice system has passed several laws promoting women's rights, yet it has no means of upholding them.
Crucially, Lieven sets out clearly the difference between sharia law and the more publicised, often very brutal customs of the Baloch and the Pathans. Many of these practices are repugnant to urbanised or educated Pakistanis and are contrary to Islam. The section on sharia law and the Pashtunwali (the tribal code that informs much of the Taliban's ideology) provides an insight into extremism on both sides of the Afghan border.
A Hard Country portrays Pakistan as a tribal society at heart that is resistant to western modernisation and to radical Islam. It is written with huge affection and often with humour - especially where the national penchant for conspiracy theories is concerned.
But in some ways it is quite negative: it shows how the country's predicament has come about and why the problems it faces are
seemingly so intractable, but does not offer any solutions.
Lieven insists that Pakistan is tough and is unlikely to become a failed state, unless America invades or climate change causes collapse. During my trip, there was news of a bomb attack somewhere in the country nearly every day. Yet the notion that it is "the most dangerous country in the world", so frequently put forward in western newspapers, felt ridiculous from the vantage point of a comfortable Karachi suburb. For the upper echelons, who hold the balance of power, terrorism has little impact, because they have the luxury of avoiding crowded areas where attacks are likely; life is as it always was. Corruption and political instability are visible everywhere, but the country is clearly very far from becoming another Somalia.
Though remaining acutely focused on Pakistan's problems (including that divide between the elite and the masses), this book does much to counter lazy assumptions about the country that proliferate elsewhere. l
Samira Shackle is a staff writer for the NS
Pakistan: a Hard Country
Allen Lane, 576pp, £30