While foreign correspondents in most countries can get by with a crisp writing style and a slightly cynical outlook, those covering Pakistan face a particular difficulty. The gap between what the country’s leaders say and what they mean is so cavernous, it goes way beyond normal political dissembling.

A few hundred words in a newspaper or a minute on a TV news program are simply not enough to explain that when President Ali Asif Zardari said he wanted the murder of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, investigated, he in fact meant the opposite. And that when former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif backed lawyers campaigning for the independence of the Supreme Court, this was indeed the same Nawaz Sharif who as prime minister a few years before had allowed a hired mob of thugs to smash up the courthouse.

The Alice in Wonderland quality of Pakistan affects the voters, too. When people tell pollsters they want Sharia law, for example, it’s easy to miss the point that most of them would be equally happy with military dictatorship — or Western-style democracy come to that — as long as it would enable them to make a living and practice their religion in peace. And it really is the case that the victims of a bomb demonstrably planted by the Taliban will, more often than not, blame it on America rather than the militants.

Faced with such counterintuitive complexities, a fair number of the journalists who have covered Pakistan over the past decade have resorted to writing a book, and their tomes have generally fallen into two categories. Those written in the years immediately after 9/11 tended to stress Pakistan’s instability and state failure. The more recent contributions have wondered why, for all the crises and chronic chaos, Pakistan has turned out to be surprisingly resilient.

In “Playing with Fire,” Pamela Constable, a correspondent for The Washington Post, finds room for both points of view. She does not shy away from describing the gross inadequacy of the state institutions, especially the courts. But she also provides the context that helps explain why the country has not fulfilled some of the dire predictions made about its imminent collapse.

‘Playing with Fire: Pakistan at War with Itself’ by Pamela Constable (Random House)

Her book lacks an overarching argument or thesis. But that, perhaps, was not Constable’s intention. Plenty of rooftop journalists, policy wonks and Western politicians are all too ready to proffer their theories about what’s happening and what will happen in Pakistan. This book offers something different.

It consists of a series of essays loosely organized into thematic chapters on many of the key social and political issues the country faces, such as sectarianism, honor killings, the blasphemy law, the wealth gap and the feudal elite. But at the heart of book is what Constable describes as the war for Pakistan’s soul.

Constable understands Pakistan. She can write with assurance about people’s attitudes toward Islam and how a spectrum of religious views feeds through to people being devout or secular, conservative or moderate, militant or just downright confused. She can explain that, even as Pakistan is becoming more religiously conservative, that does not mean the Taliban are about to win power.

The Pakistan state is uncertain how to deal with militants. While the army fights some jihadi groups, it cooperates with others. The courts, meanwhile, routinely let vicious religious leaders out of custody, and the newly liberated independent TV sector veers between portraying the militants as selfless bandit-heroes and murderous villains. “Playing with Fire” manages to show how anxiety about India, short-termism, feudalism, ideological uncertainty about Pakistan’s national purpose and simple, inglorious fear allow the militants to pull off the unlikely trick of simultaneously terrifying people while maintaining a romantic image as selfless holy warriors.

The book sometimes strays into inconsequential, extended accounts of recent history. And there are some omissions: There’s virtually nothing on Balochistan and the factors feeding the sustained tribal insurgency there. Indeed, while Constable provides an admirably clear explanation of how the Taliban are in part a revolutionary movement trying to empower the masses, she has little on how Punjabi, Pashtun and Baloch nationalism both complement and contradict the religious ideology used to justify the insurgency.

But these are quibbles.

The West went to war with Iraq on the basis that Saddam Hussein was trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Pakistan actually has a nuclear arsenal, and there are whispers from time to time of an American preemptive strike. Pakistan matters. And that’s why one can only hope that some of the West’s foreign policy-makers find the time to read Constable’s engaging, reliable account of a highly complex society.

Owen Bennett-Jones is a freelance reporter based in Beirut and the author of “Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.”


Pakistan at War with Itself

By Pamela Constable

Random House. 326 pp. $28