Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sidelining the Army


Just got wind of an article published last week in the Guardian by Simon Tisdall about the Kerry-Lugar bill.  It may sound like old news but there are some key arguments still to be made about all of this.  Mr. Tisdall is very critical of Kerry-Lugar, suggesting that the U.S. is acting like a colonial power by trying to force reform down the throats of Pakistani authorities.  "The rumbling row over a $7.5bn, five-year US aid package is a case in point," he writes.  "Imperious conditions attached to the bill by a Congress reluctant to send more unaccounted billions "down a rat hole", as Democrat Howard Berman charmingly put it, were condemned as insulting and colonialist in Pakistan."  The underlying thread of his position is that Pakistan, as a crucial ally in the war on terror, must be dealt with gently, that the U.S. is to blame for the nation's instability and therefore the U.S. should be prepared to adopt any means which will achieve the desired end of defeating the militant threat there. 

I've written elsewhere about Pakistan's complicity in creating the situation it now finds itself in.  Well before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistani military was setting the stage for the militant threats it faces today.  Going further back in history, we see the role the U.S. played also, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the support it provided to the military regime of General Zia ul Haq.  Mr. Tisdall's argument, perhaps unknowingly, supports that same failed policy - of backing self-interested military leaders in the pursuit of narrow, and ultimately destructive, national interests.  It is Bush policy all over again.  And we know how that turned out: $10 billion handed over to the Musharraf military regime; $10 billion that disappeared into the "rat hole."

President Obama's administration appears less inclined to trust Pakistan's military (we should keep in mind the current Chief of Army Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, was hand-picked by Musharraf).  It is a bold move to try to sideline the army in Pakistan, fraught with dangers, not the least of which is another military coup.  But it is a necessary step.  The war in Pakistan will only be won if and when civilian authorities are the dominant, trusted institution in Pakistan, not the army.   

"By linking the cash to tighter civilian control of Pakistan's military, Washington was trying, clumsily, to strengthen Asif Ali Zardari's government. But it achieved the exact opposite. The president was accused of failing to defend the country's sovereignty, much as he has failed to halt escalating American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion, on targets inside Pakistan."

The alternative is rather less palatable - a nation perpetually run by a military deep-state.  "Clumsy" though it might be, Washington's desire to strengthen civilian governance in Pakistan is the right thing to do.  Keeping watch over how that government spends U.S. taxpayer dollars is necessary considering Pakistan's shady track record with donated funds.   The "opposite"effect was  inevitable in light of the over-arching ground realities inside Pakistan: the public opinion backlash, based on my own discussions with Pakistani journalists, was manufactured by the army.  They pursued a vigorous media campaign during the weeks and months after the proposed bill was made public.  Most Pakistanis have never read the bill so their opinion was easily swayed by the negative media coverage.  I have read the bill and what it sounds like to me is that the cat is now out of the bag, claws drawn; the U.S. has sent a message to Pakistan's military: no more games.

Still, it is an incontestable fact that distrust of the U.S. since the invasion of Afghanistan has skyrocketed.  And as Mr. Tisdall points out, U.S. drone strikes have contributed to the negative perceptions.  But rather than look at these as isolated events, we need to view them as trends.  In a blog post on the Threat Matrix, Alexander Mayer points out that in 2009, the trends appear to be reversing:  while anti-American attitudes have remained unchanged, support for the Taliban and al Qaeda in Pakistan has plummeted.  Mr. Mayer correctly says that it is perceptions which guide attitudes so while the facts behind U.S. drone strikes are hard to come by (actual civilian casualties, etc), the facts of the threat to Pakistan posed by the Taliban have come into clear focus over months of violent attacks and mounting civilian deaths.  Moreover, Pakistanis don't question who the U.S. is targeting when it fires hellfire missiles from unmanned aircraft; they question the collateral damage these strikes cause.  And incidentally, the Pakistani government and military are fully aware of "American cross-border air raids, and the occasional covert ground incursion"; in fact, they quietly support those actions.  The issue here has less to do with sovereignty, in the eyes of everyday Pakistanis as well, as it does with the loss of innocent lives.

Perceptions are changing.  Taliban suicide bombers are killing vastly more civilians than U.S. drone attacks.   The Obama administration is determined to keep the trend going, pumping hundreds of millions into "cultural understanding" programs at its embassy in Islamabad (see an earlier post for more on that). But distrust of the U.S. is not going to go away any time soon.  Rampant anti-Americanism in Pakistan is a complex affair.  It's fashionable to hate America these days.  But it's also fashionable to be American.  Millions of Pakistani Dr. Jekylls are battling the Mr. Hydes in them.  The tendency to blame the U.S. for all of Pakistan's ills is, I believe, a kind of psychological projection.  It is easier to blame the Other, that abstract apparition floating somewhere in the ubiquitous aether, than to turn the mirror inward.

What Pakistanis would see there is not a very pretty sight.  Their nation is in ruins, led by the same corrupt politicians who have for decades acted like sultans rather than representatives of the people.  But they are democratically elected leaders and thus are the political expression of the people's will.  What does that say about the people?  The Obama administration, rather than pandering to the military elite, has decided to deal directly with the democratically elected government.  Yes, it is corrupt, hence the strict conditions placed on aid.  But this isn't a question of sovereignty; it is a question of prudence.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Decisive Battle?

And so it begins.  The Pakistani army is finally going into its nation's Taliban heartland.  To put what they face into perspective, operation Rah-i-Nijat - meaning Path to Deliverance - is not dissimilar to Nato's push into southern Afghanistan back in 2006.  South Waziristan tribal agency is the hive, where the most diehard of Taliban fighters reside and where foreign jihadis, mainly Uzbeks, have claimed their own mini-fiefdom, injecting a toxic mix of brutality and suicidal determination into Pashtun society.  Altogether, they claim to have tens of thousands of fighters, not to mention thousands more suicide bombers.

Pakistan is sending in 28 000 troops.  That works out to approximately 2% of its total military, reserve and paramilitary personnel.  My question is: What do they expect to deliver?  Sweets?

It's of course much too early to say how all of this will play out.  Pakistani military officials have been in negotiations with some militant groups in South Waziristan, hoping to convince them to stay out of the fight.  They are also relying on technology, begged and borrowed from the U.S., to help them focus their operations.  U.S. drones will be flying reconnaissance missions, jamming and surveillance equipment is being rushed out to the front.  Quite frankly, it all sounds a little familiar: these are the same tactics employed by the U.S. in Afghanistan, which begs the question: Who is really guiding Pakistani military strategy?

And ultimately, Pakistan has its own interests in the region, and they are not always in line with American interests.  So while on the one hand, Pakistan appears to be taking cues from the U.S. on how to fight, they have their own reasons for why they are fighting.  It's certainly not, as the U.S. would like, to clear the region of militants.  The Pakistani military is determined to rid its territory of militants who pose a threat to its national security but it is not so amenable to ridding its territory of all its militants.  Some of them are an asset.

Funny that.  During the recent debate in the U.S. over Afghan policy, one of the big questions was why the American troops are there in the first place.  What is their objective?  Defining objective guides policy.  One of the arguments being forwarded, largely by the conservatives, was that the U.S. should limit its objectives to dealing with al Qaeda in the region, what they define as the real threat to America's national security.  Fixing Afghanistan is not our problem, these hawks bemoaned.  These are the same hawks who quietly support violent dictators in other parts of the world, who have nurtured violent revolutionaries of their own in the pursuit of American interests.  Funny that.  They're not so different than the Pakistanis.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Obama and the Nobel

Has the Nobel Prize always been a political affair?  Am I missing something?  Admittedly, I am not a Nobel groupie.  Ask me who won the Literature prize last year and I'll scratch my head for a while before shrugging my shoulders.  Not that I don't respect the institution.  It is an important forum in which humanity recognizes the achievements of individuals working toward a better, more peaceful world.  The key word here is "achievements", meaning what has been accomplished.  Scientists, for example, aren't awarded the Nobel for the discoveries they make.  They win the Nobel when those discoveries begin to contribute to society in a positive way, when, in other words, the theory is used in practical applications, proving itself a valid contributor to the Nobel ethos.  This is why a physicist might only win the prize years after the theory he's winning it for was discovered (one of the winners of this year's physics prize, Charles K. Kao, made his award winning discovery in 1966).  Similarly, in the more abstract realm of Peace and Literature, awards should not be given based on the ideology (or theory) an individual holds, regardless of his potential to turn his ideas into concrete action.  It's the action that matters.

Obama's ideas about a nuclear-free, multilateral world based on cooperation is noble, but it's not Nobel.  In fact, many of us subscribe to the same ideology; it's not a new concept.  The hope we place in Obama is important, necessary, but it is still an unrequited hope.  We are still waiting.  And the process of building him up as the next great hope has its negative space as well: we set him up for an even bigger fall.

In terms of the Nobel prize, what the Committee in Sweden has done is politicize the award.  They've stamped an ideology with Nobel approval.  They did the same thing in 2006 when they awarded Orhan Pamuk the Literature prize.  Like Obama, Pamuk might have deserved the honour one day but to award it to him when they did, the Nobel committee was more interested in recognizing another ideology: the modern, secular muslim, at a time when modern, secular muslim role models are so desperately needed. In Nobel terms, the value of that ideology to the promotion of world peace, while relevant, should remain secondary to the achievements of the individual receiving the award.

But perhaps all of this is just another reflection of the 21st-century zeitgeist: the Reign of the Ideologue.  The committee members selecting Nobel recipients are not unaffected by the currents of the age; they also hope and dream.  Regrettably, the net result is the devaluation of the Nobel Prize.  When the selection process becomes ideologically-driven, what does being a Nobel Laureate really mean?

Friday, October 9, 2009

More Hyphenated Controversies

Wow! Who'd'a figured an American law to increase funding to Pakistan would cause such controversy. Being the irreverent cynic that I am, I'm compelled to frame the overwhelmingly negative response to the Kerry-Lugar bill as petty whining. The opposition is pissed because, well, they're the opposition, that's their job. Plus, they won't see any of that money. The army is pissed because they are being more than sidelined, they are being reigned in (the bill places some serious conditions on the Pakistani government, the foremost of which is to put the army under civilian control).

Admittedly, I have to retract my scathing criticism of the U.S. in an earlier post; seems they're not as unmindful of Pakistan's raging self-interest and duplicity as I'd thought. Kerry-Lugar is a tightly-packed document of limitations and oversight. Pakistan will receive the money it needs but only if it fulfills what the U.S. expects of it. The only valid criticism I can see in this is the accusation that the American administration is trampling on Pakistan's sovereignty by placing so many "conditionalities" on the money. But let's face it: it's their money. If Pakistan wants it, they'll have to accept the conditions.

The counter-argument of course is that the war Pakistan is fighting is America's war; they started it by invading Afghanistan so they should be obligated to pay for it. I disagree with that line of thinking. It is narrow and self-serving. Pakistan nurtured the Taliban, Pakistan promoted militancy in the northwest so that it could be used as a proxy to serve its interests in Kashmir. The narrative that has Pakistan sitting innocently by while war was brought to them from across the ocean is pure fantasy. Musing on irrelevancies like what might have happened if the U.S. had not invaded is pointless. The way things were going in that region, the world would eventually have had to turn its attention there anyway. And not in spite of Pakistan, but because of it.

Nonetheless, some of the conditions Kerry-Lugar sets will be hard to swallow. In one section, for example, Pakistan is expected to dismantle "terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country, including Quetta and Muridke." But Pakistan denies terrorist bases exist in Quetta or Muridke. By accepting the bill as it is written now, they admit they have been lying.

I believe they have been lying. I've been to Quetta and met with the Taliban there. They told me in no uncertain terms that they use Pakistani territory, and Quetta specifically, to rest, re-group, and plan attacks across the border. "Our commanders work in shifts," they told me. "They work for four months in Afghanistan and then come to Quetta to rest and plan. A replacement is sent out from here with new orders." The only error the U.S. makes is in calling it a "base". There is no "base" in Quetta, not in the sense of a physical place that can be located and shut down. A better word would have been "network" but that's semantics.

Muridke is different as far as I know (I've never been there). My understanding is that a compound belonging to the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa (formerly the Lashkar-e-Taiba) is an ideological training ground promoting jihad against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Young men are indoctrinated there and then sent to training camps in other parts of Pakistan (primarily in Pakistani-held Kashmir and Swat).

The problem here is that the Pakistani military considers both the Taliban in Quetta and the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa crucial strategic assets. Being told by a foreigner to stop supporting them could be interpreted as a direct violation of its sovereignty. What Pakistan's military doesn't seem to understand is that when you use proxies to influence events in another country, you lose the sovereignty cover.

What leaves me scratching my head is why the Pakistani people still bow down so pliantly to the military. It's not as if they've ever actually won a war. It was under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq that Pakistan began its self-destructive slide into Islamic militancy, and the chaotic Musharraf legacy should still be fresh on their minds. If anything, the Pakistani army has become little more than an elite class, comfortably ensconced in plush homes on heavily fortified, prime Pakistani land, enjoying the benefits of unrestricted power. They gorge on what little money Pakistan has while the people starve and suffer. They send out young men to fight wars of their own making and then portray themselves as the guardians of the state.

So why exactly is the army so "insulted" by Kerry-Lugar? Wouldn't logic dictate that after so many years of trying to play god with people's lives, after decades of subterfuge and meddling in political affairs, they would lose the trust of the international community? They should not be surprised. But they counter that their current battle against militants, in which thousands of young Pakistani men have lost their lives, should be enough to convince the world they can now be relied upon. I'm in the process of putting together a story which undermines that argument. Suffice to say the Pakistani army is NOT turning a new leaf.

The more pressing question is why the Pakistani people still feel the army acts in their own interest. Perhaps it's a question of placing your trust in the lesser evil. Politicians have completely failed Pakistan, and they do it with much less grace than the army. At least the army is skillful enough to cover up their blunders; politicians parade their ineptitude openly. Against that backdrop, the army looks positively angelic.

But now politicians, especially Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has never had a good relationship with Pakistan's generals, sense an opportunity. My feeling is that Zardari would like to see military control transferred to his office, much as it is in the U.S., making him the Commander in Chief. Kerry-Lugar is a first step. As for the money, well, if the U.S. oversees how it is used as thoroughly as the bill lays out, then it shouldn't end up in the pockets of politicians. Nonetheless, I'm still skeptical. Pakistan's elite have been pilfering money for decades. They've become exceptionally good at it - masters of collecting cream. Their will to fatten up on foreign handouts is powerful so I don't doubt that they will find a way.

The key consequence of Kerry-Lugar is the wedge it has put between Pakistan's civilian government and the military. Now we have two self-absorbed groups battling for supremacy. Personally, I'm not about to pick a side. Both are distasteful to my palate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's possible

Given all the debate in the U.S. over what to do next in Afghanistan, I figure now's a good a time as any to throw in my two cents. When you strip the issue down to its essence, at least from the American perspective, one question remains: What is the endgame? It used to be creating a stable, democratic, and moderate Afghanistan. Before that, it was eliminating militancy, primarily the al Qaeda threat, to safeguard the U.S.'s national security. The two missions are intended for two different audiences: the first for the people of Afghanistan (and the world in general), the latter for the American people. The first requires a strategy to win hearts and minds - a culturally transformative approach - whereas the latter is by its nature militaristic.

Neither is achievable.

I've written a little about the challenges facing the transformative approach in the past couple of blog entries. People tend to be resistant to change imposed by outsiders, especially when that change affects the fundamental pillars of a society - namely, its language and culture. Transforming Afghanistan, or the Pashtun culture which is the epicenter of the conflict there, will take generations. It is possible but it has to happen from within. That's not to say western countries should simply walk away - we tried that after the Soviets left Afghanistan back in 1988 and look where it got us. Instead, we need to support the existing structures of the society, recognizing the elements of it that promote peace and strengthening them. That, of course, means understanding the culture first.

Walking away means abandoning Afghans and Pakistanis to the sharks. Pakistan may be able to handle it - they have enough firepower to solve their militant problem at any time, though they prefer to project an image of desperate need, to keep the foreign (i.e. U.S.) funds flowing in. Afghanistan on the other hand, will crumble, ironically because Pakistan, shedding its 'under siege' image, will go back to being the Taliban puppet-master.

What Pakistan perhaps doesn't realize, or underestimates the potential danger of, is how deeply militancy, in the form of global jihad, has made a footprint inside the country. It's as much a threat to them as it is to anyone else, which happens to be the crux of their argument for increased financial support. But I predict that if the U.S. and Nato leave Afghanistan any time soon, what will follow is a swift Pakistani "victory" over the militant groups in the northwest and a sudden re-emergence of what's now called the Quetta Shura (Mullah Omar's group) inside Afghanistan. Oh, and a civil war there, naturally.

Which brings us back to Pakistan's quandary: can it, as its military believes, completely contain its homegrown militants? I don't think so. They've managed it in the past only because the scale of the militant jihad didn't extend beyond Kashmir and Afghanistan - both regions within Pakistan's sphere of interest. Now it's gone global. Global jihadists - Uzbeks, Arabs, and a growing number of Pashtuns and Punjabis, have made the northwest of Pakistan their own base of operations. The Quetta Shura, Pakistan's ally, has gone down that road, though to what degree is still speculation. Nonetheless, if Pakistan supports the return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan it risks joining hands with an ideology premised on holy war. How that would play into Pakistan's own growing global jihadist dilemma is anyone's guess, but I'm guessing it won't be good.

So a military element to the Af-Pak puzzle is now inevitable. It needn't have been this way but it's pointless to pine over what could have been. Perhaps if the U.S. hadn't invaded Afghanistan, the spread of global jihad might have been kept in check. There were moderate elements in the Taliban regime at one time. After 9/11, some were calling for Osama bin Laden to be handed over to the U.S., others wanted him turned over to a neutral third-party, preferably an Islamic nation (fair enough considering the legal issues involved). Instead, they got an invasion. That act has done more damage to Afghanistan, and more critically to the Afghan people's perception of the U.S., than any occupation, no matter how long. It has strengthened the militants' hand. These are the facts of history. The facts of today are different: a disenfranchised people sandwiched between radicals (both of the Islamic and the western kind), a shattered Pashtun nation and a long, messy road of broken promises.

Ultimately, the problem now is trust. There isn't any. Pashtuns don't trust the west to keep its promise of lifting them out of poverty without at the same time destroying their culture. The west doesn't believe Pashtuns are capable of transforming their society on their own. To a degree, both are right, which is why it's so hard to convince either of them otherwise. But knowing a piece of the puzzle doesn't mean you're in a position to solve it. The west is right: the Pashtuns need help, in no small part because of how western countries contributed to dismembering their society during and after the Soviet occupation. But shoving western values down their throats is not the answer. Reciprocally, the Pashtuns make a point when they accuse the U.S. of neo-colonialism: they are being invaded - culturally and linguistically. But so is the rest of the world, something the Pashtuns don't realize.

The solution lies in letting go of the impossible - browbeating a society into accepting your ways or thinking you're doing your society a favour by isolating it from the rest of the world - and focusing on what is possible.

The U.S. and Nato need to accept that the Taliban will inevitably have a role to play in Afghanistan's future. It's up to them to decide whether that role will destructive or productive. Negotiating with the Taliban has been attempted, and it has failed. But I believe the problem was in the approach: even for moderate, nationalist Taliban (as opposed to the extreme, global jihadist variety) there are cultural redlines that cannot be crossed. We have to learn to accept those lines. Girls' education? Eventually. Eliminate purdah? In time. You cannot shatter these kinds of barriers; they must be disassembled, brick by brick.

And Pakistan? Dealing with Pakistan is necessary but should not be obsessive. Pakistan will always act in its own interest. Supporting the Taliban is in its interest because of how deeply India has penetrated into the chambers of Afghan politics. That is also an undeniable fact. One could try to fix the Indo-Pak problem first (i.e. Kashmir) and hope that will fix Afghanistan, but it's a fool's hope. And we are talking here about what is possible. By recognizing a Taliban role in Afghan politics, the west meets Pakistan's interest while at the same time ensuring that the more radical global jihadists are sidelined. That's a first step. Then comes the hard part: eliminating those global jihadists. That will be a long, quiet war, fought on multiple fronts, not the least of which will be political and ideological.

The Pashtuns will have a major role to play...well, actually, the central role. Engaging the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, engages the people, just as now, fighting the Taliban means fighting the Pashtun people. Supporting the Pashtuns will mean diverting much of the cash now flowing into the pockets of Pakistani and Afghan politicians, generals and bureaucrats into the infrastructure of Pashtun society. The existing tribal system, for example, is in desperate need of re-construction. Village halls for jirgas, equipment and know-how to codify and "modernize" what is currently a chaotic mix of ad-hoc edicts, recognition of village elders as a legitimate political institution. These are starting points. The downside is that success will not be measured in a few catchy headlines. Success will be like the hour-hand of a clock, moving imperceptibly toward the magic-hour. We probably won't even notice when it gets there.

But here's the thing: it will eventually get there. It is possible.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Love America

More on the theme of my last post. So is Pakistan changing too quickly? Is progress playing at conqueror rather than agent of change? Is there a difference? Maybe progress needs to be imposed, maybe it has to be stuffed down people's throats like broccoli and carrots. It's good for them, though they may not realize it just yet, those poor ignorant barbarians. But once they're enlightened, they'll understand.

Something tells me that's simply not true, call it intuition.

What if on the other hand, we let history play out on its own terms, at its own pace. We leave Afghanistan and Pakistan to their own momentum. They will develop will they not? It will take more time but they will progress in their own way. Isn't that the nature of civilization: to go from simple to complex, tribalism to monarchism to dictatorship to democracy? Isn't the revolution inevitable?

Somehow I doubt it, call it pessimism.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo lately in the Pakistani press over the expansion of the U.S. embassy in Islamabad. In 2009, the Americans are projected to increase their spending by 500% over 2008 on embassy enhancement activities. Pakistanis, demonstrating their brilliance for conspiracy theories, see in this an insidious takeover plan: "The U.S. is sending 5000 marines to Pakistan!" the more inspired among us warn. "It's an invasion!"

Well, not quite.

Invasion it may be, but not of the militaristic kind. The bulk of the money, according to the State Department, will be spent on promoting America, fixing its image and spreading its culture in Pakistan. The plan is to "expand English language programs, enhance communications and journalism training, support book translation, increase television and radio programming targeted to youth, and augment support of moderate local programs and organizations." The effort is not dissimilar to other efforts in other troublesome countries in the region, like Iran, where shaping the public's opinion is preferable to pugilism.

I have no qualms with admitting that I love America. I love its literature and its arts. I love its ability to re-invent itself, which is simultaneously the source of its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. I love the way it lets people speak their minds, or at least did so at one time and I'm confident under the Obama administration will do so again. I'm also in love with an American (it's a fatal kind of love but genuine); my brother is married to an American (she's a sweetheart). What I don't love is the prevailing belief in America that it has somehow struck on the Rosetta Stone of cultural perfection. Somehow, over its illustrious history, Americans have become enamoured with their own success, or the success of their forefathers, forgetting the reasons that made success possible in the first place. I'm of course talking about that ability to re-invent, not society as a whole necessarily - a daunting task - but rather the individual, the unique building-block of a society. The freedom to express oneself without the threat of official, or unofficial, censure lies at the very heart of American, and more broadly, Western advancement. It has produced some of the greatest writers, painters, composers, scientists and leaders the world has ever known (as well as some of its leading wackos, but that's the price one must pay).

Rather than draw on that history, America, and western countries broadly, are trending toward cultural reductionism. The trope reigns supreme, at the expense of plurality. I wrote something about it a while back:

"In this rapidly shrinking world, cultures are constantly being confronted with the reality of the Other. In fits and starts people are beginning to recognize the value of other cultures as a source of enrichment. And not only other cultures, but also the value of our own other selves. To take that thought a step further, singular identities don’t exist, a theme Herman Hesse explored so beautifully in Demian. They are a false construct, like God, the product of fear, a fear of the unknown, a fear of the Other. Singular identities, like God, become an object of worship, a source of dogma, and inevitably a source of conflict. Applied to current events, the wars we see around the world today are not a Clash of Civilizations but rather a Clash of Identities. As the world shrinks, as histories, and the languages that transmit those histories, mix and new identities challenge the old, established ones, societies in general and the people who specifically make up those societies will naturally struggle against what they perceive as a loss of identity.

So the challenge in the world today is to find a way to overcome the dogma of singularity, to create a space where multiple identities are accepted as the natural state of being. It will be a long and difficult road: to challenge the religion of the singular self is to oppose the power structures that derive legitimacy from that religion, those - like the Taliban, like the neo-cons - who reinforce the illusion of dominant cultures and superior modes of thought. Language is, at one and the same time, the lock and the key."

I'm sure the U.S. administration understands this: language is the key to understanding a culture, hence the emphasis on the english language in Pakistan. The unfortunate reality is that the linguistic exchange is unidirectional - very few people in the west are clamouring to learn Urdu. But alas, there can be only one global language (foreseeing the dilemma to come, some people have even tried to create one - Esperanto, for example, codified in the late 19th century to promote world harmony). In the Language race, English is running furlongs ahead.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not proposing another conspiracy theory here - some linguistic plot cooked up by a secretive cabal of Harvard Comp. Lit. graduates. I just think it's an inevitable consequence of globalization. The downside is that Pakistan - because of its own cultural diversity - isn't uniformly marching in lockstep into the 21st-century. Large swathes of it are being left behind, or choosing to stay behind. The conflict in the northwest is, at least in part, related to this:

"There is one thing I’ve noticed over the seven year’s I’ve been coming to Peshawar: the explosion of English language media. It’s everywhere now, on television and in DVD shops, over satellite feeds and in internet cafes. Back in 2002, when I first came, there was only a smattering of it, the odd satellite-equipped television at a better-than-average restaurant, beaming in Hollywood and MTV. But as the cost of technology has gone down, the ubiquitousness of it has gone up exponentially. Every home now has a DVD player, satellite dishes top high-walled mud compounds in the Tribal Areas like gifts from outer space, and cable television is all the rage."

The Taliban reject the culture accompanying the influx of the english language into their areas, the deeply conservative Pashtun regions along the Pak-Afghan border. They have no patience for intellectually-developed concepts like women's rights (they equate it with what they see on imported DVDs and CDs, or on MTV and Bollywood). So when the West obsessively (to them) demands girls be educated, they perceive ulterior motives.

I'm not sure if aggressively pursuing more "cultural understanding" will be in the best interest of the U.S., not if it remains so unidirectional. I admit, there is a need to dispel some of the more serious misconceptions about the west that Pakistanis hold. But equally, the reverse is true. Rather than approach a culturally proud people like the Pashtuns by towering over them in the charade of pseudo-superiority, wouldn't it be more prudent to approach them in an atmosphere of mutual understanding (with the emphasis on 'mutual')?

Or does loving America mean not asking these kinds of questions?


Copyright 2009 All Rights Reserved | Blogger template by Brian Gardner converted & enhanced by eBlog Templates