“Orientalism” in Afghanistan and Pakistan

October 22, 2010

dust storm twoIn his must-read essay on the debate about the state of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Amil Khan has one of the best opening lines I’ve seen for a while: ”Much is said about Pakistan, but I’m constantly saddened that so many innocent pixels are lost without good cause.”

Much the same can be said about the recent flurry of stories on the war in Afghanistan, from upbeat assessments of the U.S.-led military offensive in Kandahar to renewed interest in the prospects for a peace deal with Afghan insurgents.

There is a shade of “Orientalism” in all this, a modern-day equivalent of Edward Said’s 1978 argument that the collective understanding of the Middle East, South Asia and Islam was skewed by the vested interests of European colonial powers.

Scroll forward to the 21st century and we have the United States keen to end a war that is increasingly unpopular at home, with a president who has committed to starting to bring home troops by July 2011.   That framework would be best suited by military success in Afghanistan, peace talks which would begin to show fruit by – let’s choose a random date, July 2011 – and a willingness by Pakistan to stick to the U.S. timetable when it comes to tackling militants on its own territory.

Hence the “received wisdom” in the media – or perhaps more precisely, the consensus you would find if you averaged out all the stories on Google News – tends to fit neatly into that framework. 

The problem is that just as Said complained the “Orientalist” world view distorted the facts to suit European interests, the current U.S.-inspired narrative tends to overlook the very real people and countries which get in the way of its own deadlines.

Start with Afghanistan.  We have heard from non-U.S. sources that all insurgent groups are engaged in tentative “talks about talks” to try to agree the ground rules under which all Afghan factions could be brought together into “reconciliation” talks. The United States and NATO have meanwhile been talking up a separate effort  to win over individual insurgent fighters or commanders through “reintegration”.

It is not even clear that these two processes – reconciliation and reintegration - can work alongside each other. Arguably an aggressive drive to break the insurgency through reintegration undermines any chances of reconciliation by increasing mistrust.

But more to the point – at least on the subject of this post – why is anyone assuming the Afghans – insurgents or otherwise – will stick to the U.S. timetable? Afghans have a reputation for being fiercely independent; negotiations have a history of being long and protracted, and undercut by broken promises on all sides.  “Let’s get this sorted out by July 2011,” may be boardroom language, but it is not a sentence you would expect to hear about Afghanistan. Or as one Afghan-watcher said to me: “We should avoid writing Afghan history to suit our convenience.”

Then there is Pakistan – a country of nearly 180 million people who on the whole are somewhat reluctant to follow the American narrative.

As Amil Khan writes: ”Pakistan’s problems with extremism will not end with the U.S.-led involvement in Afghanistan because the problem did not start with 9/11.”  Regardless of any peace deal in Afghanistan, the United States still has to figure out how to manage its relationship with Pakistan to ensure Islamist militants no longer pose a threat either to the outside world or to Pakistan itself.

The country has been struggling to work out its identity, and the role of Islam, not just since independence in 1947, but even before, when the idea of a separate nation for South Asian Muslims was first raised.  Tackling the many issues that confront Pakistan will be a complex and lengthy process, and not one that can be answered by the simplistic narrative (and I’m doing a Google consensus here) that it just needs to send its army into North Waziristan and all will be well.  Sending the military into North Waziristan to destroy a safe base for al Qaeda and Afghan militants may help the United States stabilise Afghanistan, but many Pakistanis argue – rightly or wrongly – that it will not help Pakistan stabilise Pakistan.

And finally there is India, which increasingly hates to be hyphenated with Pakistan as it pursues its own trajectory as a growing economic power, but  which is also intimately bound up in Pakistan’s idea of itself. 

No Western leader, with a struggling economy at home, can afford to ignore India’s economic potential – as British Prime Minister David Cameron made clear in his visit to India in July. The administration of President Barack Obama – who according to Rob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” was very clear about the centrality of the India-Pakistan relationship in determining the outcome in Afghanistan - very early on dropped the idea, under Indian pressure, of appointing a special envoy for Afghanistan, Pakistan and India/Kashmir.

Yet how much of our understanding of the relationship between Pakistan and India is “true” in some kind of objective sense, and how much is it influenced by the changing attitude of Western countries in their enthusiasm for tapping into Indian economic growth – so much so that they dare not even utter the word “Kashmir”?

I should wrap up now and end with two more questions. What will the 21st century equivalent of Edward Said tell us about the period between 9/11 and July 2011 that we should have understood but did not see? And at what points did that blindness undermine policy decisions?

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