Thursday, January 15, 2009

Strangers in the Night

Yesterday, at her Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Clinton faced a number of questions about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her most detailed conversation was with Senator Kerry - who will head the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Kerry spoke about his trip to South Asia, in the immediate aftermath of Mumbai attacks.

We do not live there. We don’t live in the community, in a hamlet, in a small town, pocket, whatever you want to call it. And so we’re not there often at night. They are. And the night often rules with the insurgencies.

It is a profoundly illuminating statement. The interplay of light and dark, day and night. The reference to hamlets and pockets. Insurgency - the lexical contribution of the Iraq War which continues to hold sway. They live there. We don’t. That language of globalization which rules the pages of Wall Street Journal and New York Times is distinctly absent. These are not interconnected communities that stretch across national borders, these are inwardly focused, pre-modern histories. To further explain, Senator Kerry mentioned that he has been doing a lot of reading recently - readings that impressed upon him the importance of “tribalism”, "We honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven’t adequately since." He recommended that Senator Clinton read Rory Stewart’s travelogue of walking across Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Places in Between. And also Janet Wallach’s biography of Gertrude Bell entitled Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia. Let that title wash all over you. Luxuriate in it.

Senator Clinton responded warmly to Kerry’s literary suggestions.
Sitting here today, when I think about my trips to Afghanistan, my flying over that terrain, my awareness of the history going back to Alexander the Great and certainly, the imperial British military and Rudyard Kipling’s memorable poems about Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, which put in more troops than we’re thinking about putting in — I mean, it calls for a large doze of humility about what it is we are trying to accomplish.

The historian in me is fascinated by these teleologies at display: Alexander to the British to the Soviets to US. A timelime of invaders and conquerors who, I assume, only abided the day, and not the night. There is the unapologetic emphasis on the romantic and the Orientalist - a vocabulary of time and space that does not mesh, at all, with our own. I do not know if our Senators realized that this is also, explicitly, a teleology of failed imperial enterprises. Not the precedent, I am sure, they'd want to invoke.

But the tribalism espoused by Senator Kerry is also part of this now-defunct mode. It stands for those "others" every colonial power has ever imagined into being. To fight their wars. The burden of tribalism is the burden of violence on colonial subjects – be they the Hindus and Muslims under British colonial rule in the early decades of the twentieth century, or the Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad under the surge. The colonial histories are written in that particular language of violence. These are the violent colonial solutions to political problems, to be exact.


Reading the US Press, Senator Kerry and Clinton, on Pakistan is to know that Pakistan does not exist as a coherent nation-state. It seems to comprise of undifferentiated security actors (Musharraf/Kayani, Karzai, Northern Alliance, Taliban, Pakistan military, ISI) operating in a volatile soup. It is constantly claimed that the state - whether civil or military - does not control its own western and south-western territories. A claim that enables US to conduct drone attacks, as well as military incursions into the country. In the first seven months of 2008, there were five drone strikes inside Pakistan. Since August, there have been over thirty. Some as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory and deadly - killing 50 people in four attacks in September, alone.

But Pakistan does have a history as a nation-state, in fact. And it is not the history of Alexander’s arrival to the Indus. Let me give you a brief recount. From 1999 - 2008, we supported the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf - he was the devil we knew and liked. From 2002-2008, the same devil presided as vast swathes of his country converted into a war-zone. In 2005, to suppress the proto-nationalist uprising in Baluchistan, he used the same tactics that were being practiced across the border in Afghanistan: bombing over civilian enclaves, missile assassinations, heavy military foot-print. As he methodically destroyed the claimants for an engaged and equal partnership for Baluchistan in the federal regime, he created the political space for the emergence of new actors - the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan. As a result Pakistan, by the end of 2008, faces several civil wars - in the north-west, it faces the development of self-declared taliban regime which is hoping to enforce Shari’a. In the south-west, it faces the proliferation of both proto-nationalist and terrorist groups. In the city of Karachi, there is the systematic effort to expel Afghan/Pakhtun immigrants by the ethnic party, MQM.

Previously, we supported two other decade long military dictatorships, General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) during whose tenure we fought our hot Cold War in Afghanistan and during whose tenure we excused a rampant policy of Sunnification and militarization. And Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-1969) whose tenure saw the effective killing of democratic institutions and the highlighting of Kashmir as the central issue of Pakistan. We supported all three men. They came to our capital, spoke to the Congress, enjoyed days and nights as our esteemed friends. Overall, in the 61 years of existence, we supported 30 plus years of military rule in Pakistan. Let me restate this: The United States has consistently supported the elimination of any democratic development in Pakistan since 1947. During the civilian administrations, we routinely ignored Pakistan or imposed sanctions. If Pakistan lacks coherence as a nation-state to Senator Kerry and Clinton, they can look to these specific histories for explanation. Alexander the Great cannot help them.


In the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, the world has found yet another reason to doubt the sustainability of Pakistan, doubt the intentions of the people and the State, doubt their commitment to being a peaceful global citizens. These doubts, those proclamations, some of the harsh denouncements of the Indian media were heard loudly and clearly across Pakistan. The bellicosity - apparent even in the flyer for this panel - generated its own predictable response. The military, which had finally lost all credence, is slowly coming back in business. It is the protector. It is the sustainer of the national myths.

The Pakistanis are also attuned to the silences. They note that in the teleology of modern terror - NYC, Madrid, London, and now Mumbai - there is no mention of Lahore and Islamabad. The September 20th blast at the Marriott, Islamabad is a clear precursor to the tragedy at Taj, Mumbai. It, too, was a site where the local elite gathered for daily mingling. It, too, catered to the foreign visitors. It, too, was a sign of Pakistan's growing economy. Yet, while NYC and Mumbai are forever linked, the victims of Islamabad and Lahore find themselves on the other side of history.

The Obama administration will need to stop reading Rudyard Kipling and start reading even the wide-circulation daily Urdu and English press from Pakistan. It is quite easy, they are all online. It will have to know Pakistan’s hopes lie with civilian institutions, civic bodies which protect women and minorities, elementary and secondary education for all, strengthening the judiciary, invoking land reform. It will have to know that the military is the largest land-owning entity, one of the biggest business entity and the greatest consumer of US AID. The Obama administration needs to focus on the people of Pakistan, in the PRESENT and not in some distant past surrounded in unknown terrain, if it hopes to combat escalating extremism in the region. Collectively, there are over 200 million inhabitants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are mega-cities like Karachi with populations over 19 million. We are not dealing with hamlets and pockets. And the global context is certainly clear to the terrorists in Mumbai. In the violence they spread, over three days, and their targets and their statements, they drew upon this language of political violence. Nariman house to Gaza, Kashmir to Taj Hotel are not teleologies of tribalism and we make a grave error if we read them wrongly.

Ironically, 2008 began with one of the greatest moments in the history of this nation. After a year-long civic protest, led by the Lawyers Movement, the people of Pakistan democratically voted out this military dictator. The February elections in Pakistan were a resounding dismissal of a decade of military dominance, as well as the religious parties. Yet, we failed to engage with this flowering of democracy. And we need to engage with the civilian government of Zardari – however flawed that particular person is.

There are no military solutions to a decades old political problem. Because military solutions mandate that the language of political violence be the only language left (be it in Kashmir or Islamabad or Mumbai).

x-posted at Chapati Mystery


Anonymous said...

Remember, we must all cheer the 30,000 American soldiers Obama is sending to Afghanistan. How long is the guess till the bombing of Pakistan begins again?

Anonymous said...

Great article -- thank you.

Anonymous said...

Isn't it a giggle that the domestic opposition to a foreign occupation is called an "insurgency."

And east is west and west is east and never the twain shall meet.

Anonymous said...

Well said! Let this serve as a reminder that while military force may be necessary, absent cultural understanding and an intimate knowledge of history it will eventually revert to futile imperialism, and end up shooting off its own feet.

Long live well-researched expertise!

Ian said...

thank you, very informative, would you be able to list some of your prefered pakistan online papers, i was able to locate,

Anand said...

I would point out that 87% of Afghans support the ANA. As long as NATO is seen as supporting the popular ANA, NATO will be welcomed by the Afghans. This is Afghanistan's war against the Taliban and AQ linked networks (Haqqani, Hekmatyur.) They will fight this war whether we (the world) help them or don't.

We should be careful to be respectful of the ANA and Afghanistan's elected leaders. This is the best single piece of advice we can follow.

Rojo said...

Anonymous asked: "How long is the guess till the bombing of Pakistan begins again?"

We now have the answer. Jan 23, three days into Obama's presidency.

Anonymous said...


Out of the other ethnicities, the Baloch people have suffered the most under an administration dominated by Punjabis.

The region of Balochistan is mostly waste land covered by deserts and uncultivable land. However this area is also rich in mineral reserves such as natural gas and petroleum.

In fact, 90% of Pakistan’s energy requirements are met by the natural reserves of the province of Balochistan.

But the irony is that this province does not even get 5% of the electricity produced from the land in this region. So much for Islamic/Pakistani brotherhood!

The per capita income of Balochistan is next to zilch when compared to Punjab.

Balochistan has hardly any schools or colleges except in the capital city of Quetta. The Baloch people have to travel great distances even to get basic necessities such as water and food supplies.
There are hardly any roads or major railway links in Balochistan. Most Baloch people have to work as migrant labourers in the more developed cities of Karachi and Islamabad.

The Pakistani Army rape women and young girls, kill non-combatants; in general terms, they spread misery amongst the Baloch population.

It is not as if the Civil or Military Administration is unaware of these facts. On the other hand, the Administration fully supports these cruel techniques used by the Pakistani Army to subdue the Baloch.

This is actually a return gift from the Pakistani Administration for the audacity of asking for the basic human rights by the Baloch.

There are no technical institutions where people from Balochistan can pursue education, which would enable them to achieve a respectable status. All the work in the various military or civilians are assigned to non-local labour.

This is not done because the Baloch people are lazy or unable to do work. Rather this is being done to add to the depravity of the already suffering people of Balochistan.

The Baloch people who are not so religious, but are however fiercely independent in spirit were ultimately fed up with the Punjabi-led administration decided to rebel against it.

Even though there is a long history of rebellion of the Baloch people against the evil Pakistani Administration, I will confine myself to a recent event that has become epoch in the history of Balochistan.

I will tell you the short story of Nawab Akbar Bughti. He was a man who once believed in the nation of Pakistan and even occupied several important positions in the Pakistani administration unlike most of his Baloch brothers who were not so lucky.

When he came back to his native place, he was really appalled to see the barbarity with which the Pakistani army treated the Baloch people. He could no longer tolerate the injustice and decided to fight the oppression.

He fought, to secure basic Human rights for his people. The Pakistani Administration decided that this impudent Baloch, who had the guts to ask for equal rights, should also be given a return gift. He was bombed in his house, which was actually a cave, in the middle of night.

This was a warning for the rest of the Baloch people to shut up or suffer similar consequences.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Now the Pakistani administration has found a new way of subduing the Baloch. They have started colonising the Baloch land in bits and pieces to establish colonies of Punjabi ex-army men in order to destabilize the ethnic balance of the area.

To add to the woes of the Baloch, Afghan refugees have also been provided habitations in the Baloch land. This was hardly done out of compassion for the refugees, why not house them in Punjab?

The real reason was to turn the native population of Balochistan into minorities. This way, they are being gradually subdued with ease.

While the Western Media chooses to cherry pick the events in Pakistan, we seldom get to hear the moans and cries of these unfortunate people, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

As I write this article, there might be a Baloch woman being molested by the Army of Pakistan, a child being beaten up for being who he is.

Nobody will ever be able to assess the exact extent of the atrocities the Pakistani Administration has committed upon the Baloch people.

I really don’t understand why the media of the free world chooses to ignore a Human tragedy which occurs everyday in a country as well known as Pakistan.

I also wonder why the Western leaders don’t ask the Pakistani administration as to why these people are suffering so much even after the billions of dollars in Aid.

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Sheraton Karachi said...

Its a nice article about Senator Kerry and his efforts to eliminate the terrorism and sharing of all matters Senator Kerry dealt with.

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