When there are no people in Pakistan

August 8, 2011

Rarely does a story reveal so much so unintentionally as this month’s article in the New Yorker by Nicholas Schmidle reconstructing the May 2 raid by U.S. forces who found and killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. The article, beautifully written in the genre of Black Hawk Down, purports to tell the inside story of the Navy SEALS on the raid, right down to what they were thinking, or indeed, in the case of one of them, what he had in his pockets.

The problem, as reported initially by The Washington Post, was that Schmidle had not actually spoken to any of the SEALS involved in the raid but relied on the accounts of others who had debriefed the men. That, along with his failure to disclose this fact in the article, has prompted a vivid debate on Twitter and elsewhere, both about journalistic ethics and the accuracy of the story.

C. Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University in the United States, complained that the lack of transparency on the sourcing of the story was an “egregious exercise of incaution”  that left it impossible for readers to judge its credibility.  It was an issue, she said, that went beyond journalism, but played into conspiracy theories about American policy and particularly about whether bin Laden was dead at all.  That those theories are alive and well was highlighted by this story in Pakistan’s The News, claiming that all witnesses to bin Laden’s death were killed in a U.S. helicopter crash in Afghanistan on  August 5. Actually, although members of SEAL Team 6 were among the dead, none of them had been involved in the raid.

As a journalist writing about Pakistan, I would be wary of taking too strong a stance either way – the expression “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” springs to mind. I would probably split the difference and say that the more transparency on sourcing the better when it comes to Pakistan. We are all subject to manipulation and propaganda when we rely on unnamed sources, so much so that a journalist friend in Islamabad made the case to me that we should collectively decide to use only named sources. (For the record, I would try to counter that manipulation by seeking out two or more sources, preferably of different nationalities in different countries, to corroborate a story.)

At the same time, unlike a news story, a magazine article like this one is closer to book form where the demands of stylistic coherence require a huge effort of imagination, not of invention, but of empathy. It requires laborious questions about the kind of details we would not normally have time to ask – like the contents of someone’s pockets. We cannot entirely judge it by the same standards as we would apply to daily, or even weekly news. 

That said, what we do have in front of us with the New Yorker’s reconstruction of the bin Laden raid is a text. We know it exists since we can link to it (primary sourcing). Where we will differ is over interpretation.

In a post over the weekend which prompted me to re-examine the New Yorker story, Jakob Steiner at RugPundits complained about Orientalism. That in turn led me to look at how small a role Pakistanis play in the story. Pause here, and consider that Pakistan is a country of some 180 million people of diverse religious, social, linguistic and cultural backgrounds. People who fret about their children’s education and grieve for their parents like the rest of us. People who in the office will bitch around the water cooler, and over dinner  talk about the weather. And yes. I simplify people’s lives, because those of us who live them (signpost irony here) know how simple they are.

Then start perhaps, by noticing the dog has a name and a breed. He (she?) is called Cairo and is a Belgian Malinois.

Now scroll down to what seems to be the first clear reference to Pakistani civilians. It was in the context of whether President Barack Obama should consider an air strike on bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound or a helicopter raid.

“He (Defense Secretary Robert Gates) and General James Cartwright, the vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs, favored an airstrike by B-2 Spirit bombers. That option would avoid the risk of having American boots on the ground in Pakistan. But the Air Force then calculated that a payload of thirty-two smart bombs, each weighing two thousand pounds, would be required to penetrate thirty feet below ground, insuring that any bunkers would collapse. ‘That much ordnance going off would be the equivalent of an earthquake,’ Cartwright told me. The prospect of flattening a Pakistani city made Obama pause.”

The helicopter raid decided, the assault plan was fine-tuned. “The SEALs and the dog could assist more aggressively, if needed. Then, if bin Laden was proving difficult to find, Cairo could be sent into the house to search for false walls or hidden doors.”

And of the people who lived in Abbottabad? What of their reaction? Linguistically, they are described in three letters – a “mob”.

 “After describing the operation, the briefers fielded questions: What if a mob surrounded the compound? Were the SEALs prepared to shoot civilians?” wrote Schmidle.  

The first person to comment publicly on the raid did so on Twitter, a resident who asked what a helicopter was doing in Abbottabad so late at night.  He is a man with a full name, a profile and an online identity, who I and thousands of others found and followed easily enough on the day bin Laden was killed.  In the New Yorker article, he becomes merely “one local”.

So how did the people of Abbottabad, the “mob”, these people without names, react when the raid was underway?

“Eventually, a few curious Pakistanis approached to inquire about the commotion on the other side of the wall. ‘Go back to your houses,’ Ahmed said, in Pashto, as Cairo stood watch. ‘There is a security operation under way.’ The locals went home, none of them suspecting that they had talked to an American.”

The Americans had brought a translator, Ahmed. He spoke to the “curious Pakistanis” in Pashto, a language, we are told, that they don’t tend to speak in Abbottabad.  It is hard to escape the idea that the people of Abbottabad are extras in a Hollywood movie, a passive audience whose language we are neither required to understand nor to label accurately.

 It was, according to the New Yorker article, a whole day later before the leadership of Pakistan reacted. “After the raid, Pakistan’s political leadership engaged in frantic damage control. In the Washington Post, President Asif Ali Zardari wrote that bin Laden ‘was not anywhere we had anticipated he would be, but now he is gone,’ adding that ‘a decade of cooperation and partnership between the United States and Pakistan led up to the elimination of Osama bin Laden.’ The rather complicated engagement between the United States and Pakistan over how to handle the news about the raid, the telephone calls made within hours of bin Laden’s death, are lost. Pakistan’s own leadership – political and military – in this version have no agency.

I don’t know what really happened that night from May 1 into May 2. I don’t know, and none of us know, how its repercussions will play out in Pakistan over the months and years ahead. But I would guess that any version of U.S. policy, based on the same thinking behind the New Yorker’s story, that there are no real people on the ground, is unlikely to succeed.

By the way, to return to the subject of Black Hawk Down, my Pakistan army minder when I went to Siachen had been in Somalia at the time the Americans left. His version of what happened was  quite different from the one I had seen in the film and read in the book.  He remembered thousands of Somalis clamouring at the airport for food and being shot at.  But he was telling me that story in 2004, soon after the Abu Ghraib scandal when not one person I met in the Pakistan army had a good word to say about the Americans. All those stories – Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, 9/11, the bin Laden raid –  had many sides to them and many versions.

Whether, and however much, we might disagree with them, we should however, know what they are. For me as a reader (and less as a journalist since there is always a value in telling a story from different perspectives and rarely room to fit them all into one piece), I personally am troubled most by one aspect of the New Yorker reconstruction. There appear to be no people in Pakistan.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Many thanks for a very thoughtful piece. I hope it gets a wide readership. FWIW, I’ll post it to my own blog. [Chippshots]

Posted by JohnFRobertson | Report as abusive

[…] When there are no people in PakistanReuters Blogs (blog)That those theories are alive and well was highlighted by this story in Pakistan's The News, claiming that all witnesses to bin Laden's death were killed in a US helicopter crash in Afghanistan on August 5. Actually, although members of SEAL Team 6 …Seals had intruded into Pakistan 12 times before Osama raidThe News InternationalNavy seals, Seal Team 6 lose 25 men, Urdu newspapers in Pakistan rejoiceTimesWireServiceEditorial – We must never forget the humanity of each fallen servicememberStarNewsOnline.comTimes of Bombay -Wall Street Journal -Cryptome.orgall 88 news articles » […]

Posted by When there are no people in Pakistan – Reuters Blogs (blog) | pakistan news | Report as abusive

History is always written from the eyes of the conqueror. Charlie Wilson’s war is yet another example of dramatizing events and burying facts to project the whole mission as some Divine service. All the lies told to the Congress by the US President about Pakistan’s nuclear bomb building, retro-fitting by Pakistan of F16 fighters to deliver nukes etc were completely window washed in that book. If someone who does not know anything about South Asia read that book, he or she can be entirely be misled into believing that everything done was some kind of a holy mission against the evil. The fact that evil was created and used to destroy a relatively lesser evil was completely hidden in that book. But that one was presented as a novel based on historic events. Joann Herring in that book says Zia Ul Haq was not involved with the murder of Bhutto. Religious fanatics were projected as some disciplined and devout angels. Haqqani, who the US now is trying to hound out is called as a good man by Wilson. Media can be manipulated to project anything any which way. But the NY times article made a thrilling reading, just like Charlie Wilson’s war. I wonder what Gust Avrakotos is doing now.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Only a fool could ignore the 180 million people, military, Air Force, intelligence agency of Pakistan. Yes, people here gossip, talk, share ideas and information, criticisize, appreciate, express opinions. It is when these centiments are ignored where problems arise. Same is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ordinary Americans are told their troops are in Iraq to ‘liberate’ the ‘oppressed’ people of Iraq from the ‘tyranny’ of a ‘dictatorial regime’. Lies always remain lies.
As with Afghanistan, the SEAL chopper crash resulted in loss of life, which is regrettable. More regrettable is there seems to be no end to the pointless war in Afghanistan.

Posted by Umairpk | Report as abusive

The absence of Pakistani citizenry serves both America and Pakistan (well, the kleptocracy of Pakistan, anyway). I noted in my years in Lahore that despite daily violence, nobody was ever named unless they either a. carried out the attack, or b. were wealthy/influential. It has always been in the interest of an aggressor nation to minimize the humanity of the ‘enemy’, and it’s genuinely distressing that the US media so often fails to acknowledge the full scope of emotion and tragedy of Pakistanis, Afghanis, Iraqis and others in our ongoing conflict. But in Pakistan, most of those 180 million mentioned in the article are not really citizens at all, but rather property of the ruling classes, and THAT’S the real tragedy.

Posted by MarkValdas | Report as abusive

[…] Reuters asks what happens when reports out of Pakistan assume that there are no people in that country. Read that analysis here. […]

Posted by Is this how they got bin Laden? « Asian Window | Report as abusive

Pakistan is the undisputed “conspiracy theory capital” of the world. So, the story (about all witnesses of the OBL dying in the recent copter crash) floating in Pakistan does not surprise me at all. Anyways, the piece in the New Yorker by Nicholas Schmidle, is quite gripping.

Posted by Mortal1 | Report as abusive

[…] been considerable criticism of Schmiddle’s account based on journalistic principles, but a great analysis is the one by Myra MacDonald, a journalist who has lived in and covered Pakistan. MacDonald notes: […]

Posted by Pakistan: The land without people « Action for a Progressive Pakistan | Report as abusive

[…] the most piercing critique was made by this Reuters blog, aptly titled, “When There Are No People in Pakistan.” It’s been making the […]

Posted by Four on Friday: The Violence Report « EST / IST | Report as abusive


I’ll take exception to your view of Charlie Wilson’s war. It was written from his perspective. It’s not meant to be some universal view of how the US political class as a whole saw the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc.

For him, he was convinced by a rather religious socialite he was sleeping with to help the Afghans through Pakistan specifically because she thought the “godless” communists were far more dangerous than what was viewed to be as very-religious Muslims.

You can state that you consider that a greater evil was used to destroy a lesser evil. It’s amazing how much clarity people have when staring in the rear view. But from the point of view of the US and the rest of the West, which doesn’t share too many borders with Muslim countries, the “godless” communists were far, far more dangerous than Islamists in a far-away land.

This is why it was so easy for the US Congress to be lied to. They weren’t going to dig too deeply about far away lands. And given other missions, the budget was actually relatively small. What was spent on keeping the Soviets tied down in Afghanistan was a pittance.

But people forget that Charlie Wilson never called for an end to engagement with South Asia. He did call for aid to Afghanistan and for disarmament. The world might have turned out to be a different place, if all his policies had been followed through on. Unfortunately, those calls fell on deaf ears.

Indians also forget at the time, how Soviet aligned India was at the time. It was non-aligned in name only. Sitting in the West, India pretty much seemed like a paid-up member of COMECON.

My Indian friends and relatives always have similar comments. They seem to lack the ability to see how India and Pakistan and the conflicts in South Asia appear to the rest of the world. They are important to you because you are in the thick of it. Unfortunately, they aren’t of the same importance or even the same understanding to somebody in another part of the world. Nor is opinion uniform in the West. For example, in today’s conflict, Canada and Australia have held a much tougher line on Pakistan and Afghanistan than the USA and the UK. But then, our countries don’t have the same history in the region that the Americans and Brits do.

All this to say, that your black and white portrayal of the world, does a serious disservice to a world that is full of shades of grey.

Posted by kEiThZ | Report as abusive


No denying of your viewpoint here. I understand your logic that we Indians see global matters from our local perspective. However, if our local issues had been left to ourselves, we could have handled it better. Unfortunately, the global power interference in the region to settle their global rivalry has caused tremendous imbalance and drag to our efforts. Because of the US involvement against its counterpart, the USSR, Pakistan was allowed to steal technology and get the knowhow for making nuclear bombs, which their military and its supporters have been itching to drop on our infidel population.

Though we are a nuclear armed nation, we have not engaged in bold activities of proxy wars and subterfuge using the nuclear barrel as our backing. We developed our nukes to create a deterrence against the Chinese and once that was done, we have not tried to create tension and strife inside China to unsettle them. They have become a huge power without much interference from their neighbors. The US and its allies turned a blind eye to Pakistani military’s post Afghan war Jihad in our country. This was entirely a result of what the US had done in this region.

Charlie Wilson couldn’t care a rat’s ass when it came to Indian concerns. And Indian concerns finally became a global concern because the ignorant Western leaders assumed that the fire they set in South Asia would just stay there. Now they are on the brink themselves trying to put this fire out. I know a lot of understanding has occurred over the years between us and the Western powers of late, by seeing things from the same perspective. We welcome that. However, I cannot help looking at things from our point of view because we have had to lose a lot from all this. A lot. This is something you may not care much about.

Our leaning towards the Soviets happened not because of choice, but because of geo-politics. And the Soviets never tried to turn us into a banana republic. I am still wondering how they let us be and evolve into a nation on our own efforts. In this regard, I am thankful that we did not align with the US during the cold war era. We probably would have had brutal dictatorships ruling us now.

My comments here were about dramatizing an event to provide a skewed perspective of what happened. The author here has criticized the NY times article for that reason. Fiction more than facts can sometimes tilt perspectives. I agreed with that view and quoted Charlie Wilson’s war which did the same thing.

Posted by KPSingh01 | Report as abusive

Just to add to kpsing01’s comments, Most Indians at that time wondered why a Democratic West and its political counterpart in South Asia did not become natural allies after 2nd world war, but it seems West at the time thought more of Geo political game play to be more important than assisting a vulnerable and fledgling ally in the form of India. For them, it seems Human Rights,Democracy, Liberalism or multiculturalism didn’t matter what mattered was their single purpose of defeating soviets and in their obsession they may have created a cure worse than a disease.
The Reason we now know is Geo-politics and everything was turned into this binary view of ‘Us against Them’ attitude of the US. US believed Pakistan was a better bet because it was in a much worse position and desperate to bow before western demands than a large and independent minded India.

KP Said:”And the Soviets never tried to turn us into a banana republic. I am still wondering how they let us be and evolve into a nation on our own efforts”.

They did not try to make their poodles because we were from the beginning too big a nation to be nudged in any direction the super powers deemed fit. And the Soviets know of it.
Later in early 70’s America aligned with China with single purpose of diverting the attention of Soviet and to open a front with the help of china. They didn’t mind supporting a Genocidal military in pakistan as this military was a friend of China and was an arbiter to their first attempt in improving their bilateral relations. Well this is all known history.
And in hindsight, The soviet state would have withered away in any case even without a afghan front to wage a war against soviets. Soviet-Afghan war had only hastened the process a bit and nudged the Soviets off the cliff.

I hope we have cultivated enough tolerant attitudes to take criticism about our nation’s policies. I am sure just like Average Americans didn’t care about South Asia (what mattered, in fact the only thing that mattered was soviets defeat) ,they didn’t care for South America which helped in bestowing strong power in the hands of CIA which resulted in alienating entire South America whose results you can see. Can Americans say it is not important because South America is relatively distant to say Canada. And I agree that we Indians made an ass of ourselves by not condemning the soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It ended in strengthening the hands of pakistan in the end.
Finally KP is a normal Guy like any of us and his opinions doesn’t affect anybody, but the case is different with America and its policy makers. These people must have taken decisions after a long thought because it had affected the world in profound ways. And its really really sad that charlie’s suggestions for Afghan aid after war was completely disregarded.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Nehru followed socialistic policies because, he was either a dreamer, or he feared communist resurgence in India and believed a soft socialistic state or welfare state serves the purpose, or he feared that becoming a blind ally of west would reallow the colonialism India suffered in preceding centuries.
He maintained equal distance from Soviet and US. His political philosophy was that of west, while his economic philosophies were based of USSR. And the most important reason he took a strong socialist route was because America (with tacit support of Britain) refused to transfer technology in low end labour technolgies like manufacturing steel. Soviets offered it to us and one pre-condition was to follow their policies. Nehru understood Geo-politics was more important and building enough industrial and defense infrastructure (and for that Manufacture of steel was pivotal in nature) was essential. India Gandhi prior to 1971 war went ahead with Indo-Soviet pact only after it was abandoned by US who was mindful of its own interests regarding China.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Nehru understood that sadly Geo-politics has become more important and building enough industrial and defense infrastructure was important in case of confrontation with China than anything else.

Posted by sensiblepatriot | Report as abusive

Beautifully written.

Posted by American213 | Report as abusive

[…] Source: http://blogs.reuters.com/pakistan/2011/0 8/08/when-there-are-no-people-in-pakista n/ […]

Posted by When there are no people in Pakistan « The Richard Reynolds Blog | Report as abusive

[…] of others, while being well aware of local situations and their histories. One piece looked at how reporting on the country can be void of people. Whether, and however much, we might disagree with them, we should however, know what they are. For […]

Posted by Rug Pundits | Pakistan Redux | Report as abusive