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Counting the miles to Islamabad —Rafia Zakaria

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rafiazakria1Counting miles and expressing concern about the incursions of the Taliban may well sound the alarms bells in Washington but if the United States truly seeks a solution, it must make an effort to go beyond catchy phrases and monolithic perceptions that suggest that Pakistan is simply a territorial extension of Afghanistan

On April 22, 2009, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan took over Buner, which is located approximately sixty-five miles from Islamabad. This distance has now become the focal point of the world’s attention. Nearly every story emerging from Western media sources paints the spatial proximity of Buner as an indicator that Islamabad is about to fall to the Taliban any day.

The frenzy surrounding the counting of miles to Islamabad was heightened by statements made that very day by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expressing her dismay at the government of Pakistan’s decision to cede increasing swathes of territory to the Taliban. Her concern was echoed by Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that relations between Pakistan and the United States depended on the civilian government’s efforts against the Taliban. A statement issued from the White House on April 23 emphasised that President Obama himself was “deeply concerned” by the worsening situation in Pakistan.

For all the “concern” over Pakistan, however, there is little effort to construct either a coherent picture or a far-reaching strategy regarding the country. Evidence of this can be found not only in the catchy terms used to refer to the regional problem but also in the superficial means used to evaluate the threats to the Pakistani state.

Take, first of all, the term Af-Pak; conveniently shortened and thus easy to roll off American tongues unused to names of faraway places, it situates Pakistan as the secondary afterthought to American strategic interests in Afghanistan. The “Pak” in Af-Pak comes second not simply in resource mobilisation but also in expertise development on the region.

Currently, there are no more than a handful of regional experts working on the country within the Obama Administration. Many of these were actually trained in India or the Middle East and have conveniently shifted their expertise owing to market demands. Few have ever actually visited the country and most cannot read and write Urdu. In the words of one US government official who had the onerous task of rounding up Pakistan “experts” for a Congressional hearing: “it’s really difficult to find people who know anything about Pakistan in the government…and Ambassador Holbrooke is too busy to attend every briefing.”

The situation is in fact alarmingly similar to the run-up to the war in Iraq. At the time, the post-Cold War US State Department had many experts working on post-Soviet states, Eastern Europe and Russia, and had little or no expertise on the Middle East.

In the years since, middle cadres of US government agencies have been filled with college graduates with two or three years of Arabic who have been able to successfully market themselves as Middle East “experts”. Arabic courses at universities have been full, requiring increased sections, and every course on Middle East politics at American universities has a long waitlist. Many more such mass produced experts are thus still in the production stage in American universities on their way to jobs at the Department of Defence or the State Department.

But all this newfangled expertise on the Middle East does not provide much help when it comes to Pakistan. Only a handful of research universities in the United States offer Urdu as a language. There are in fact only three committed Pakistan Studies programmes in the country. Most study of Pakistan takes place in South Asian studies departments that are unsurprisingly dominated by those working on India. Those who do work on Pakistan (even those writing dissertations on the subject) have often never been to the country and have at best second-hand knowledge gained from (English) newspapers.

It is therefore little surprise then that the evaluation of the nature of the Taliban threat is based on calculations like the mileage of Buner from Islamabad and demands asking the government of Pakistan to “dismantle terrorist camps”. It is impossible not to balk at the simplistic reductionism of such statements, especially if one recognises that their naïveté comes from a lack of expertise. If the headlong American stride into Iraq by the Bush Administration bore any lessons, then it must make clear that the costs of such obstinacy, of not recognising the impact of a lack of understanding, are immense and cataclysmic.

And yet, despite a new administration in the White House with a much-touted conciliatory and accommodating outlook, there is much of the same in Washington. The anti-war lobby that was so effective in pointing out the incompetence of the Bush Administration’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq has been silenced with the advent of the Obama Administration.

With the American left co-opted and the American right always willing to give the go-ahead to incursions abroad, there is likely to be little critique within the United States regarding the mangling of Af-Pak in the immediate future. Even less likelihood exists of a debate within the American public sphere of treating Pakistan, a country demographically, politically and ethnically very different from the “Af” that it is being attached to only by virtue of geographic proximity.

The threat of the Taliban creeping ever closer to the capital is undoubtedly a real one, but the emphasis on geographic mileage at the expense of understanding the many structural denominators and strategic concerns that are leading to Taliban successes suggests a disturbing lack of understanding of the situation. Evidence of this can also be found in the insistent failure of those within the Obama Administration’s policy circles to recognise that they can never gain Pakistan’s trust without addressing its concerns about India.

Counting miles and expressing concern about the incursions of the Taliban may well sound the alarms bells in Washington but if the United States truly seeks a solution, it must make an effort to go beyond catchy phrases and monolithic perceptions that suggest that Pakistan is simply a territorial extension of Afghanistan. Unless the diversity and complexity of Pakistan are understood, its particular historical and political challenges acknowledged and a policy constructed on the basis of knowledge rather than conjecture, there is little chance for a better future for either American or Pakistani security interests.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

Reproduced by permission of DT and the author\04\25\story_25-4-2009_pg3_2


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