Pakistan: why the US must think outside the 'military' box

Three very different books about Pakistan have one thing in common: they all fail to give anything like a satisfactory account of that powder-keg country.

US President Barack Obama makes a statement on Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building of the White House in Washington,DC on March 27, 2009 as (from L to R), presidential interagency policy review on Afghanistan and Pakistan chair Bruce Riedel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen, National Security Adviser former NATO chief General James Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and policy review co-chairs Michelle Flournoy and Richard Holbrooke look on. Obama vowed to wipe out terrorists from Pakistani safe havens, warning al-Qaeda was plotting catastrophic new attacks, as he unveiled a sweeping new Afghan war strategy.          AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

“Can you name the general who is in charge of Pakistan?” In November 1999, the question stymied the US presidential hopeful George W Bush. “The new Pakistani general, he’s just been elected – not elected, this guy took over office. It appears this guy is going to bring stability to the country and I think that’s good news for the subcontinent,” he replied, blanking on the name. The oversight was quickly brushed away by an electorate generally uninterested in global foreign policy.

A few months later, in March 2000, President Bill Clinton landed in Islamabad for a brief five-hour visit and gave a televised address to the Pakistani people, wishing them a speedy return to democracy. However, the United States had by then held Pakistan under sanctions for nearly a decade – no aid had been extended during that period and, further, a refund of nearly $700 million (Dh2.6bn), put down by Pakistan as payment for undelivered F16 fighter planes, had been consistently withheld by the US – and Clinton’s words fell on unreceptive ears. The president could offer no incentive to the military regime.

The “chief executive” of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, who had deposed Nawaz Sharif in a military coup, met Clinton, promised elections in another year and shrugged off the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as part of a “people’s dynamic” that operated on tribal affiliations. In 2000, Pakistan was unknown. And what was known about it was severely restricted.

On September 12, 2001, the White House, now under Bush as Clinton’s successor, reportedly informed Musharraf that Pakistan must either cooperate with the US against the threat of the Taliban and Al Qaeda or “be bombed back to the Stone Age”. This, of course, was the day after the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, and Musharraf acquiesced and quickly became one of Bush’s closest allies and a key global voice in the “war on terror”. By 2008, the US had given Pakistan more than $10bn in military aid alone, but the romance would soon sour.

When US forces killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad in May this year, Pakistan was once again a recalcitrant ally (at best) and a serious obstacle for US and world security (at worst) and faced both congressional sanctions and the suspension of aid.

Pakistan is now the epicentre of the US war effort under the Obama administration. This is a war consisting largely of drone attacks – targeted assassinations of Taliban operatives, leaders and others. It is a technique that has yielded a number of high-value targets (such as Baitullah Mehsud in 2009), but has also resulted in significant civilian casualties (most recently last March, when a gathering of tribal notables was mistaken for a Taliban confab). The drone war has increasingly destabilised the nascent civilian state, even as the military establishment continues to behave in incongruous fashion. Since June, the city of Karachi has been engulfed in ethnically informed civil conflict, which in large measure reflects the presence of new refugee populations fleeing the western regions, where the majority of the drone attacks take place.

The coverage of these recent happenings – especially the killing of bin Laden – has revolved around questions of “knowing” and “understanding”. Did the Pakistanis know about bin Laden? Will the Pakistanis understand that this is their own war? Can the Americans understand Pakistan? Should the Americans know more about Pakistan or has the remote-controlled drone war made such territorial knowledge largely passé?

There is anger in US discourse about Pakistan – an anger coupled with defiance. Many in the US Congress openly declare that Pakistan has betrayed them. The White House believes that if Pakistan cannot or will not move against those it sees as terrorists, then the US has every right to do so – unilaterally. In the meantime, war rages.

Given the centrality of Pakistan to the war on terrorism and the fact that US troops have now been engaged in military operations in central Asia for a decade, it is worth asking if means of understanding the region have also progressed. After all, the economies of war contain within them vast segments for production of primary and secondary knowledge. The crucial question is whether there are any capacities for understanding as well.

The most frequently used clichés for Pakistan continue to invoke some degree of fundamental unknowability – sometimes this is expressed as a mystery, sometimes as unpredictability and often as anachronism. These clichés have dominated both the political and cultural frameworks of understanding Pakistan. Bruce Riedel, in his recent book Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad, calls Pakistan "fickle" and "duplicitous" and notes that facts about Pakistan "are often far from clear and much about Pakistani behaviour remains a mystery". Riedel has more than 30 years of service with the CIA and the defence department for the Near East and south Asian desk. He is also the man to whom the newly elected Barack Obama turned to formulate his policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. Riedel's book provides one dominant perspective – mystery – of the past decade.

From the US policy angle, it is hard to see why Riedel finds Pakistan so mysterious. The relationship with the military – and, indeed, the aid – determines both the limits and the landscape of this relationship. Riedel points out that when the aid was present and the US was supporting Pakistan, there was a lot of cooperation – from President Ayub Khan to General Zia ul Haq to Musharraf.

When the civilian regimes came, there was less political clarity, and no aid – from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto to Asif Ali Zardari. With that basic template, Riedel tells us about the various war-gaming scenarios that he has presented to the White House, the key one being the “Islamic Emirate of Pakistan”, where a “Zia-like” general takes over and gives power – and control of nuclear assets – to jihadi organisations.

With a deft turn of phrase – a critical skill in war-gaming – the population of Pakistan is suddenly transformed into Sunni jihadists ready to wreak havoc on distant shores. Riedel, with an undue fondness for describing the rooms in which he has chaired meetings about Pakistan, relies heavily on polls, on personal communications from esteemed political leaders and military officers.

In a telling anecdote, he breathlessly reports that one afternoon, Obama abruptly summoned him to the Oval Office to impress upon him the need for an “out of the box solution to the problems of Pakistan”. After consulting his closest colleague, Shuja Nawaz (a journalist and author), he told Obama that this solution might be helicopters, saying: “It may not be out of the box but it is the right answer.”

One cannot help but note that helicopters are of little use to a Pakistani civilian and not much help in what Riedel himself identifies as the three central problems facing Pakistan – rampant population growth, a diminishing water supply and a curtailed democracy. But they do solve a military problem – and the US-Pakistan relationship over the past 64 years is all about military solutions being offered as an answer to every problem. At least, that is the view from the mahogany conference tables in and around Washington.

Another official view comes via Maleeha Lodhi's edited volume Pakistan: Beyond the Crisis State. Lodhi is a former Pakistan ambassador to the US and collects a number of experts – academic, policy and business – to argue that Pakistan is not about to turn into the Islamic Emirate of Pakistan as Riedel fears. That assurance comes via a long list of GDP-growth specific essays as well as recommendations for growth of civic bodies and governance ­issues.

The authors are all Pakistani, so the volume arguably acts not only as a corrective but as a representative voice from inside Pakistan. Yet, in an unsavoury echo of Riedel, this volume’s central audience is also the Washington elite, whose particular concerns hinder any clear-eyed examination of Pakistan’s immediate past or future. The editor, for example, suggests in the conclusion that Pakistan ought to foster closer ties to the Arabian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia. Still the central tenet of the volume, that Pakistan is not a failed state, is amply borne out by the evidence presented by the various contributors from the economic and public policy sectors.

Anatol Lieven is also convinced that Pakistan is not a failed state and that it can survive. But in his book A Hard Country, Pakistan is a "highly conservative, archaic and sometimes quite inert and somnolent mass". Lieven teaches at King's College in London and his perspective is a stark change from the insider-Washington accounts of Riedel and Lodhi.

Lieven has travelled widely in the region and brings a sly wit, an eye for the grotesque to his account and peppers it with quotes and thoughts from Pakistanis – mostly military or civil elite but often ordinary businessmen, taxi drivers and shopkeepers. The effect of these quotes livens up the narrative and at least gives a sense that the state of Pakistan is populated with human beings. Lieven focuses on the notion of "kinship" – a "horribly complex subject" that nonetheless is the "most important force in [Pakistani] society". He demonstrates this by means both silly ("Bhai-Sahib or Brother-Lord" as an everyday term) and profound (his discussion of the Sindhi landowning pir ­families).

But where Riedel is concerned with war-gaming and the collapse of Pakistan caused by the Islamist presence in the Pakistan military, Lieven provides a vigorous defence of the armed forces. In a book in which almost every segment of Pakistani society gets a ribbing (the lawyers are dubbed “penguins in hell”, Pakistani middle-class homes resemble “third-class cabins in the bowels of a cruise ship” because of tube lights), there is only one body that Lieven finds worthy of praise: the military. It is a “striking institution”, he says, with discipline, efficiency and solidarity, and which provides “opportunities that the Pakistani economy cannot” by having their subsidised factories “ploughed back into its industry and not simply stolen”.

Lieven acknowledges the pernicious effects of the Inter-Services Intelligence and that the actions in Balochistan are self-destructive, yet there remains the wonder – at the cleanliness of military hospitals (which he thinks remain unmatched by their civilian counterparts), the smartness of the soldiers, the high-regard for their service. The Pakistani army is, to Lieven, “the only element of a great society that has ever existed in ­Pakistan”.

This romance would not be so unseemly if in his many interviews – and decades-long visits – Lieven had perceived the hundreds of thousands of grunt recruits who become orderlies, drivers, cooks, gardeners and nannies to the commissioned officers. With meagre salaries and near-bondage relationships to their “assigned officers”, this vast underclass of the Pakistani army keeps the cantonments clean, the major happy and the cars washed. Their silence makes just as much a lie out of Pakistan’s “great society” as the exploitative, self-immolating behaviour of the rest of the Pakistan military.

More broadly, both Riedel and Lieven, despite the differences between their expertise and their approaches to Pakistan, remain on the same page with regards to viewing the country as the sum of all its military parts. But there is a missing decade in these books. In the past 10 years, US foreign policy granted a military dictator unprecedented power by endowing him with billions of dollars and no strings attached. Musharraf and the military regime used this money to swallow more swathes of Pakistani land and economy, and impose further militarisation of civil and social structures.

The Lawyers’ Movement in 2007 did galvanise millions and force Musharraf from power – despite continued and vocal support of the White House. Yet, the military voice remains the only one that speaks for Pakistan. It matters little that Riedel and Lieven differ in their reading of the military – whether as an institution or as a politics or as a theology, the military is their central focus. But, insofar as this constitutes knowledge about Pakistan, is it enough to give us any understanding of the nation-state?


For all the claims to explain and demystify Pakistan, there remains a fundamental assumption in all three books: Pakistan is illegible outside of the military. Now, there is little doubt that this remains the case from a geostrategic point of view but does that really exhaust all manner of living in that corner of the world? No Pakistani in these books reads or thinks (other than about the Taliban and conspiracies) or paints or writes poetry or sets up a new shop or raises a family, or even walks in the park.

This absence of culture serves a dual role. It validates, in some respects, the primary focus on the military and it distances complexities that would potentially undermine the analysis. Take, just as an example, the poet’s voice – the reinvigoration of Habib Jalib or Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry in the past few years – which does explain something about Pakistan.

It explains the way in which a whole new generation (the majority are under 35) have discovered ways of understanding their cultural space and ways of reacting against both rank militarisation and Talibanisation. Or consider, the cultural effect of Coke Studio's musical series, which celebrates diverse musical traditions to almost universal audiences in Pakistan. Its popularity tells us as much or as little about contemporary Pakistani society as American Idol and Big Brother do about the US and UK. In either case, it remains an important cultural artifact to consider.

A decade after the events of September 11, we continue to know little and understand even less of Pakistan. This despite the fact that we are entering a golden age of production of knowledge on that same nation. But there is a critical distance between knowledge and understanding.

“They understand that they must not understand,” commented Robert d’Humières on British imperial troops back from the fronts of Africa and Asia in 1905. The British soldier, he mused, was wary of bad analysis, of ill-perceived contexts – best to act; best to focus on ways to act. Rudyard Kipling, the prominent commentator on all things imperial before and after the beginning of the 20th century, agreed with d’Humières (he was Kipling’s French translator) and wrote that “to understand everything may be to pardon everything, but it also means to commit ­everything”.

There is a flexibility of action and intention that is possible only in the lack of knowledge. To understand fully is to be constricted, imperially speaking. The empire must not understand for that understanding carries with it a price that is simply too dear. Therein lies the distance between knowledge and understanding at the core of all imperial ventures. Knowledge is created, in heaps and mounds, by the empire – this is clear. However, understanding is something quite different.

Kipling’s warning is apt – if the empire understands the position of the colony, the condition of colonialism itself, it cannot maintain any lie about either its civilising mission nor its emancipatory one. Hence, the must of d’Humières. Understanding Pakistan requires an empathetic move that remains outside the bounds of knowledge production by the empire.

Manan Ahmed is a historian of Pakistan at Freie Universitat Berlin. He blogs at Chapati Mystery.