Where the Wild Frontiers Are: America comes up short in South Asia

The Islamic historian Manan Ahmed aims to take apart "the unique mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy that marks US foreign policy" in South Asia.
A US soldier stands guard as a boy and his sheep pass in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Romeo Gacad / AFP
A US soldier stands guard as a boy and his sheep pass in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Romeo Gacad / AFP

Manan Ahmed's first book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, is almost as much about form as content. An annotated collection of posts from his blog, ChapatiMystery.com, along with some essays he's published in this newspaper and others, the book spans April 2004 to May 2011, offering Ahmed's reactions to conflicts in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq and the US role there.

Through Chapati Mystery, Ahmed has, in the words of Amitava Kumar, who wrote the book's foreword, been "functioning as a historian of the present", taking apart "the unique mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy that marks US foreign policy in the subcontinent". Ahmed "disturbs our expectations, making us sit up and take notice of the assumptions that shape our thinking". Not every good writer can pull off this role. It requires one to couple quickly formed analysis with a measured introspection.

A historian of Islam who earned his PhD at the University of Chicago, Ahmed started his blog as a non-tenured academic, which could have damaged his job prospects. But he wasn't swayed: "The effort to be ethical in the world we inhabit cannot wait for better times and milder risks." He was disgusted by the media in both Pakistan and the US, which "were filled with spurious history or decontextualised information".

Into this breach steps Chapati Mystery, which seeks to "[inject] history - however complicated or contradictory it may be - into our public lives". This history, in Ahmed's view, is essential not only to understanding the world's ongoing conflicts, but also to solving them.

He's unforgiving towards western media and government officials who use vague language to crudely summarise geopolitical conflicts - by describing Pakistan's western provinces as "restive tribal regions". This is a concern that Ahmed shares with Orwell: the corrupting power of language, its capacity to elide or mislead or, at its worst, to overwrite necessary parts of history.

His style can be charmingly eclectic: in the span of one post, he quotes Derrida, the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz and the Hollywood film The Big Lebowski. A February 8, 2008 post puts forward the thesis that all Pakistani military chiefs-of-staff with moustaches have conducted coups, "while those without moustaches or with slight or ineffectual moustaches were pliable to civilian regimes".

Being an academic, Ahmed has an expert grasp of Pakistani and Afghan history, but he also takes advantage of the blog post's inherent informality, interrogating his own assumptions and allowing for the kind of uncertainty rarely tolerated in an op-ed. While some pieces are traditional essays, others take advantage of blogging's free-form nature.

To Dream a Man, a post from June 6, 2007, is a masterpiece of collage. Opening with an epigraph from Borges ("He wanted to dream a man; he wanted to dream him in minute entirety and impose him on reality"), the post begins with a US State Department telegram, dated September 8, 1970, detailing the US ambassador's conversation with President Yahya Khan, who explains his decision to postpone elections, claims he wants to restore civilian government and derides Pakistan's politicians as "spoiled kids". The remarks are instantly recognisable as redolent of comments by another dictator, 30-odd years later: General Pervez Musharraf. But Ahmed goes further, offering six more extended quotations from Bush administration spokespeople, and from George W Bush himself, showing the administration's shifting attitude towards the general.

Beginning on June 21, 2001, Philip T Reeker, then a deputy spokesman in the State Department, criticises Musharraf for undermining "Pakistan's constitutional order" and ruling "by decree". Fourteen months later - after September 11, which is key to Ahmed's implied thesis - Reeker has begun to excuse Musharraf's dictatorial behaviour.

This process of accommodation and evasion continues in subsequent passages, taking us through 2007, as Bush and his spokesmen find increasingly ham-fisted justifications for Musharraf's antidemocratic "reforms". A darling of the Bush and Blair governments for his co-operation with the "war on terror", Musharraf receives unvarnished contempt from Ahmed. So too do past Pakistani rulers such as Mohammad Ayub Khan and Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. He labels this group "warrior-kings" and charts how Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's Islamisation programme and Zia ul Haq's subsequent Sunnification hobbled the country's democracy, allowing Islamism and militancy to flourish in the tribal areas that lacked access to municipal services and democratic institutions.

Ahmed's other villains include members of the conservative University of Chicago brains trust, George W Bush's inner circle, Thomas Friedman, Rory Stewart, Greg Mortenson, Ahmed Chalabi, Robert D Kaplan and Robert Kagan. They are not equally criticised. Stewart and Mortenson come under fire for their exemplifying how amateur experience has replaced academic rigour and expertise as a criterion for government advisors. Ahmed demolishes Friedman and Kaplan ("a studious neophyte") for their reductive analysis. The other aforementioned luminaries take their lumps for their participation in the disastrous neoconservative project.

Ahmed's heroes are few; he approaches the world with a jaundiced eye. He expresses periodic admiration for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and is almost bemused that Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan hasn't been able to transmute his tremendous popularity into political success. (It seems he's a flip-flopper, courting too many divergent interest groups.) Ahmed exults at the success of the Lawyers Movement, whose protests helped to remove Musharraf from power and whose achievements he sees as evidence of the potential of Pakistani civil society. It is this broad, educated middle class that Ahmed claims is repeatedly overlooked by western officials and commentators, who fallaciously claim that Pakistan isn't "ready" for democracy or that its government, backed by more than 600,000 active military personnel, verges on collapse.

He expresses exasperation at how some US leaders condescend towards Pakistan. An August 7, 2007, post titled Wild Frontiers of Our Localized World begins by asking, "How can Barack Obama be just as wrong as George W Bush?". Obama, then a presidential candidate, had made a speech in which he pledged that the US would get "out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan". In Ahmed's reading, this amounted to a promise to invade Pakistan, a sovereign nation that had already "deployed 100,000 troops across its northwestern borders", "suffered thousands of casualties - army and civilians - carrying out the global war on terror", received hordes of refugees from the Nato campaign in Afghanistan - and still was criticised for its perceived intransigence.

It has become a commonplace among the disenchanted left and elements of the right, who express a self-satisfied vindication, that Obama has preserved or expanded many of the national security policies of George W Bush's administration. But to many early supporters of Obama the candidate - and Ahmed was one - it was difficult to anticipate this eventuality. Many hoped that Obama's posturing on performing unilateral operations in Pakistan was a result of the exigencies of the campaign trail, when Democratic candidates are required to tack right, offering the occasional chest thump and soupçon of jingoism in order to appeal to independent voters. But we are far enough along to say that Obama was a man of his word: he has boosted US drone strikes - to pick just one Bush-era innovation - from 35 in 2008 to 53 in 2009 and 117 in 2010. This is hardly inconsistent with the kind of promises Obama made on the campaign trail, but Ahmed was one of the rare commentators of the time to see that. It is easy in retrospect to award points for Ahmed's powers of clairvoyance, but more credit should be given to him for the quality of the analysis he displays here. He assessed Obama on the content of his speeches - not the rhetoric behind them, nor the optimistic divinations common among Democratic voters.

A worthwhile political blogger doesn't have to always be right, but he or she should be able to remain sober in the emotional maelstrom of politics or amidst national trauma. Ahmed repeatedly does this, particularly when he summarises the problems with the commentary appearing after Benazir Bhutto's assassination. "There is never a hint of any legislative or political legacy, any economic or social accomplishment," he writes. "She is being remembered for who she was." Potentially unpopular, this analysis is also shrewd and penetratingly precise. Our world could use more of it.

Jacob Silverman is a contributing online editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The New Republic.

Published: September 2, 2011 04:00 AM


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