Pakistan: A Hard Country, By Anatol Lieven

After the briefest of interregnums between suicide bombings and factional assassinations, the world returns its attention to Pakistan. More specifically, to one high-walled house in the garrison town of Abbottabad, where Osama bin Laden spent his last moments.

Bin Laden did not, like Saddam Hussein, creep out of a grimy bolt-hole like an unkempt hermit but was found in a fortified mansion surrounded by poplar trees, which was raided by an American ambush team, not by the Pakistani armed forces stationed less than half a mile away at Kakul Military Academy, the nation's equivalent to Sandhurst.

Anatol Lieven, a professor of international relations and a former Times journalist in South Asia, was, the morning after the raid, among the more temperate voices in the media giving early appraisals on the extent of contrivance there may have been on the part of Pakistan's army and intelligence agency (ISI) in keeping Bin Laden in his comfy hideout.

Salman Rushdie was far less equivocal - "The old flim-flam ('Who, us? We knew nothing!') just isn't going to wash" - while Christopher Hitchens held a Janus-faced army firmly to account.

Pakistan has become such a fast-rolling news story that Lieven might privately have wished his book, a finely researched blend of the nation's 64-year history with keen analysis of its sectarian, regional, climate and military structures, had been published a few weeks later, allowing for a swiftly updated preface. Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani High Commissioner in Britain, has also brought out a collection of essays, Pakistan: Beyond The Crisis State, this week.

Yet Lieven's penetrating study is more relevant now, in the light of knee-jerk rhetoric emerging in Abbottabad's aftermath. Pakistan might be a near-failed state, but we need it to keep existing, he argues - as does India, for the stability of the subcontinent. The central argument, not to go in guns blazing, is in itself a mature antidote to the neo-conservative "cut them adrift" policy.

He does not exactly contradict the Hitchens and Rushdie schools of thought, as far as army allegiances go, but gives a far more textured, complex portrait of the military and ISI. They are, he suggests, perhaps a little too sympathetically, stuck between a rock – the fear that Pakistan must protect itself against the threat of Indian encroachment, and so weigh in behind the Afghan Taliban to that end - and a hard place: the war against the Taliban into which they have been conscripted by the Allies, who might have been Pakistan's protectors but who now show a clear "tilt towards India". Another complicating factor is the army's campaign against the Pakistani Taliban, who are a direct threat to the nation, though officers are reluctant to wage violence on fellow-Muslims on the orders of the West.

The army is the one Pakistani institution that works. It is organised, disciplined and defined not by Western antipathy per se, but by its post-Partition insecurity towards India. This is certainly not a new line of thought, but one that is fully investigated. Pakistan's anti-Indian agenda is still confused for a radical Islamist agenda in the West and Lieven forensically unravels the strands. Pakistan's paranoia over being swallowed up, or surrounded, if India begins to involve itself in Afghanistan's affairs has led to the army's collusion with the Afghan Taliban. Yet off the home front, the ISI has helped to defeat the threat of terror in the Western world, its assistance "absolutely vital" to preventing more attacks on Britain, US and Europe.

Lieven's feat lies in his remarkable, flesh-and-blood portrait of the nation, ranging across demographic swathes and including a chorus of voices from farmers to intelligence officers. The picture is one of a semi-anarchic nation mired in police savagery, institutional corruption, population bulges, water shortages and the risk of catastrophic environmental disaster following last year's floods. The latter challenge, he says, poses the largest long-term threat, though the statement sounds rather clunky, as does his assertion that Pakistan is not so different from its neighbours - Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka or even India.

Tiny niggles apart, this nuanced analysis should be read, and learned from, even in the absence of an updated preface.