May 20, 2015

Pakistan: With Friends Like These…

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It ...

Seymour Hersh’s LRB scoop on the execution of Osama bin Laden – too hot, apparently, for the New Yorker to handle – is a persuasive and unnerving re-write of the Obama White House account. It was Pakistani spooks, not our CIA, who ran Osama to ground – more than five years before American intelligence learned he was under a comfortable sort of house arrest in Abbottabad. The Navy Seals who carried out the raid that killed Osama in 2011 probably didn’t know that Pakistan’s top brass and spymasters were helping in the shadows, to the extent of dropping their usual air alert against swooping US helicopters.

The sharpest point of the Hersh account comes in the demonstration of Pakistan’s “double game”– which must always be “plausibly deniable”– with its US patron. Pakistan’s army intelligence was in effect holding Osama bin Laden for trade with the Americans when the price was right and the politics was urgent. But what a strange stink comes off this misalliance – this miserable marriage – between the US and Pakistan.

1203342641_8919“This is an absurd relationship on both sides,” says our in-studio authority, Adil Najam, trained in Lahore, now dean of Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Affairs. “The Sy Hersh story is the perfect metaphor for the US-Pakistan relationship and the absurdity of it. Why? Because nothing that can be said or heard about it can or should be believed… It’s not about the details. What he’s really pointing out in stark ways…is: This is not a friendship. It is not an alliance…”

I would question whether any of [the US’s anti-terror partnerships] are alliances. The real imperialist powers – the British! – never called India their ally… They were much more honest about it. They said, “you’re a dominion.” And in some ways, I think maybe we need a little more honesty in this….

carlottaCarlotta Gall, the long-time New York Times correspondent between Kabul and Islamabad, is telling us that much of Hersh’s alternative history checks outs. Osama bin Laden regarded Pakistan as friendly territory and, in Abbottabad, a safe haven. He had to beware of official betrayal sooner or later, but admonished his followers not to attack “the mother ship.” Pakistan’s military returned the courtesy, Ms. Gall observed on our air:

One intelligence officer, years ago, told me [bin Laden] was a protege of Pakistan….I think the Pakistanis perhaps didn’t mind that he was always aiming his attacks to America. They saw him as something useful for their own reasons. And that’s what’s astonishing, that they could be an ally — a major non-NATO ally after all — winning billions of dollars over this last decade from America and yet they could be hiding the top target of the American war.

…America knew Pakistan was playing a double game… And at what cost? Thousands of Western soldiers died, over 2,000 American soldiers died there, and, by my count, tens of thousands of Afghans have died since 2001. The length and the horror of this war in Afghanistan was not necessary, and I think a lot of that happened on America’s watch when they knowingly were not confronting Pakistan about its involvement and stopping it and, meanwhile, were funding billions to the Pakistani military. And that very strange double-handed policy is very weird and to be condemned.

Fawaz Gerges, our biographer of terrorism, says that drawing American military forces into the back of beyond was the core of Al Qaeda’s strategy and its incredible success:

When the history of the global wars on terror is written…the question is not going to be why the United States invaded Iraq, why the United States invaded Afghanistan. The question that will basically fascinate historians is why the American system of checks and balances failed after 9/11? Why? Because the American perspective was blinded by dust, by pain, by fear, by pride, and by revenge. And you have a small group of ideologues…hijack American foreign policy that basically brought us to today.

There’s more here from our friend Muhammad Idrees Ahmad on the pain for Pakistan, which has taken more casualties from the war for Afghanistan than any other nation. Also, from Ayesha Jalal of Tufts University, the master historian of the India-Pakistan partition. She joins us from her hometown Lahore to speak of an almost empty “operational relationship” between the US and Pakistan. The better future for Pakistan, she suggests, will be with investment-ready China.

Leave a comment and let us know what you think.

This Week's Show • August 7, 2014

Andrew Bacevich: America’s War for the Greater Middle East

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a "vital" focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

How do you end an endless war? Thirty years ago Jimmy Carter declared the Persian Gulf a “vital” focus of American foreign policy. Since then, U.S. forces have invaded, occupied, garrisoned, bombed or raided 18 nations, absorbing thousands of casualties and getting little in return in terms of peace or goodwill.

Andrew Bacevich, the military historian, veteran and professor of international relations at Boston University calls it America’s War for the Greater Middle East and says there’s no end in sight. This fall he’s teaching a twelve-week online course on the history of that long war: he begins it in the Iran hostage crisis during Jimmy Carter’s presidency, through stages of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the first Gulf War, then September 11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Jump into our timeline and suggest your own alternative policy approaches or argue the premise.

Podcast • April 3, 2014

Phil Klay: Redeployment

Phil Klay has assembled a remarkable group of fictional short stories in a collection called Redeployment. A Dartmouth alum with two brothers in the military, he joined the Marine Corps, serving as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq's Anbar Province between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Redeployment explores the horrors of the battlefield, and the shaken veterans that struggle to escape them.

 

Phil Klay has assembled a remarkable group of fictional short stories in a collection called Redeployment. A Dartmouth alum with two brothers in the military, he joined the Marine Corps, serving as a Public Affairs Officer in Iraq’s Anbar Province between the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. Redeployment explores the horrors of the battlefield, and the shaken veterans that struggle to escape them.

“Growing up,” Jessie says, “Sarah spent a lot of time at our house, and she still spends some holidays with us. Her family is a mess. And last Thanksgiving we were talking with my grandpa about how nobody remembers Korea, and he said the only way to do it right wasn’t to do a film about the war. Do a film about a kid, growing up. About the girl he falls in love with and breaks his heart and how he joins the Army after World War Two. Then he starts a family and his first kid is born and it teaches him what it means to value life and to have something to live for and how to care for other people. And then Korea happens and he’s sent over there and he’s excited and scared and he wonders if he’ll be courageous and he’s kind of proud and then in the last sixty seconds of the film they put them in boats to go to Inchon and he’s shot in the water and drowns in three feet of surf and the movie doesn’t even give him a close-up, it just ends. That’d be a war film.”

An excerpt from “War Stories”

 

Phil Klay’s Reading List on the Iraq War

Matt Gallagher – Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War

Jessica Goodell & John Heam – Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq

David Finkel – The Good Soldiers

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War

Adrian Bonenberger – Afghan Post

By the Way • March 17, 2014

The Armor You Have

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the door of a giant armored truck, you'll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America's lurch into and out of what's sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace. Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck.

This piece is a follow up to our March 13, 2014 show, “Will We Ever Get Over 9/11?”

If you come to see the emblem of the police department of your small town on the large door of an armored truck, you’ll have seen the end of a long story — the story of America’s lurch into and out of what’s sometimes called, in Pentagon jargon, the battlespace.

Consider the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected): in effect, an enormous armored truck. A typical model, the Navistar MaxxPro, weighs almost 38,000 pounds — not a tank, technically, but only thirty percent lighter than the Bradley Fighting Vehicles that charged down Iraqi highways in the Gulf War. You can tell an MRAP by its nautical-looking V-shaped hull, high off the ground, a small architectural change that diverts much of the force of explosions coming from below. (The innovation dates to 1960s and ’70s, to the colonial armies of southern Africa, of the 1960s and ’70s engaged in guerrilla warfare against rebels prone to laying mines.)

One Navistar MaxxPro now belongs to the police department of Madison, Wisconsin; there’s another in Watertown, New York. The Georgia communities of Waycross, Cartersville, Doraville, and Newnan each have their own large armored vehicles. In fact MRAPs and machines like them now appear in semi-official photographic tableaux on law-enforcement homepages across the country. Ohio State University has an MRAP; Virginia Tech has one that appears during athletic events, with the Nike “swoosh” logo and the words, “PREPARE FOR COMBAT” across the back. These vehicles look like bigger versions of the ones that gathered redundantly around the Arsenal Mall during Boston’s post-Marathon manhunt last April, and that roll back and forth down Storrow Drive on the Fourth of July.

We may forget that many of these vehicles were built for a military purpose: to endure the kind of explosive that is never detonated in the United States, to win the sort of war that we are supposed to have left behind.

The U.S. Department of Defense called a new wave of MRAPs into being in 2007 in an attempt to counter the improvised explosive device, or IED, which was still wreaking havoc on American forces in Iraq. This was fully two years after a frustrated army specialist—one of thousands who had been asked to prepare for IED attack by, at worst, affixing plywood and sandbags to his Humvee—confronted Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during a town-hall meeting in Kuwait. His question: “Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up armor our vehicles, and why don’t we have those resources readily available to us?” Rumsfeld’s reply may serve as the epitaph of the entire war.

Memos from the weeks following show Rumsfeld worrying aloud about armored trucks to Pentagon brass, but quickly he was reassured. No one, he was told, was going to be asked to travel around Iraq without sufficient armor: “They are simply going to change the tactics… That issue ought to be eliminated, one would think.” Two days later, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army Chief of Staff, followed up: the Army would stick with the (supremely vulnerable) Humvee, while it considered whether to buy MRAPs and which ones. Over the next two years, IEDs would continue to kill and maim soldiers — 993 dead, more than 11,000 wounded — unless they were riding in MRAPs. According to one manufacturer, Force Protection, Inc., its model, the Cougar, was hit 3,200 times over five years, but only five of its passengers were killed. It is unclear who to blame for the slow trickle of these vehicles into the warzones through the end of 2006, but it is clear by now that many parties — Secretary Rumsfeld’s office, the contracted manufacturers, and military leadership — share responsibility for the protracted vulnerability of Americans at war.

It was Rumsfeld’s replacement, Robert Gates, who openly embraced the MRAP, ordering more than 15,000 vehicles by the end of 2007 and jumpstarting production. $44 billion was earmarked for the vehicle program in total. This allotment was for the most part separate from the more than $20 billion spent on the Joint IED Defeat Organization, the search for a durable high-tech solution to the roadside-bomb problem which is considered one of the wars’ great sources of waste. Together, the initiatives amounted to at least $64 billion spent in response to a weapon, the IED, that costs around $30 to make.

Across 2007 and 2008, IED and other violence dropped across the board in Iraq, following the surge in troop levels. It is not clear to what extent the late-coming MRAPs played a role, or what good effect they might have had on veterans’ lives or on the course of the American adventure in Iraq if they had been available in sufficient numbers from day one. There are now 10,000 and more of the vehicles in Afghanistan, the graveyard of Soviet tanks.

***

Now we are witnessing the transfer of these specialized, heavy-duty war machines to domestic law-enforcement agencies of varying size. Under the Defense Department’s 1033 Program, more than 13,000 MRAPs, once sorely needed and now denoted as “excess property”, have been offered to sheriff’s departments, prisons, and campus police for free or for the price of shipping. (Business Insider likened it to buying a preowned luxury sedan with 100,000 miles on the odometer.)

The acquisition program has alarmed both the ACLU, which began a “Towns Don’t Need Tanks” campaign last year, and a more extreme libertarian set online. When the website Infowars reported (erroneously) last year that the Department for Homeland Security was going to acquire 2,700 MRAPs for itself, some posted strategies for disabling the vehicles if they were ever put to use on American citizens in what’s called the “S.H.T.F.” contingency. Recommendations include tipping them over (they have a high center of gravity), leading them into holes hidden under leaves, and blowing them up using homemade IEDs.

Many of the officials acquiring the MRAPs admit the vehicles’ overkill aesthetic. But they’re also clearly pleased, both by their power to intimidate and by the fire-sale price. If they cost nothing, if they were going to be reduced to scrap metal anyway, they are post-consumer material. There can be no complaint of waste no matter how, or whether, the MRAPs are ever needed by the small-town police forces that inherit them. Sheriff Wayne Gallant of Oxford County, Maine (pop. 57,481), whose office received one Navistar MaxxPro, gave a shrug to the Bangor Daily News: “It’s just going to be a safety tool, it’s not going to be used as a patrol unit or anything like that… Maybe it will never be used.”

As soldiers waited in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we wait here — not for the armor-plated rescue vehicle, but for the emergency that could warrant its place in our lives.

— Max Larkin.

Podcast • July 1, 2013

Qais Akbar Omar: What We Owe the Afghans

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood ...
Qais Akbar Omar's view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes.  The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 2006, in flight from the fighting in Kabul.

Qais Akbar Omar’s view of the Bamyan plain in Central Afghanistan, from one of the caves behind the ancient Buddha statutes. The author and his family took refuge here for a couple of months in 1993 When he went back and took this photo in 2006, the Buddhas were gone.

qais omar akbar

Qais Akbar Omar might persuade you that “poetry is the essence of Afghanistan,” and that story telling is still the soul of the place. He is giving us a young Afghan writer’s impressions of boyhood in Heaven and a civil war in Hell. In the most exciting days of his life, we’re sharing his idyllic view of the Bamyan valley from the eyes of the giant Buddha statues, before the Taliban blew them up. Then come the breakdown years of holy gangsterism and grotesque cruelty. Alongside young Qais, we’re staring down mad dogs who mean to tear him apart — and a man, believe it or not, making ready to bite him to death.

Qais Akbar Omar was studying business at Brandeis University when we started our conversations a year ago. Since then he has entered Leslie Epstein’s graduate program in novel writing at Boston University. Rug making is the link, as it also underlies the “strategic patience” he is recommending to Americans in the world. His grandfather was a rug trader, but young Qais was the first in his line to learn the rug-maker’s knots. When he started writing his personal history, he started noticing “how words are like knots in a carpet. One connects to the next until several make a thought, the way knots make a pattern.” He speaks now of this first book, A Fort of Nine Towers, as “the most complex and difficult carpet I have ever woven.” Of the post-American Afghanistan emerging, he says: “I know it will take a long time. I am a carpet weaver. I know how, slowly, one knot follows another until a pattern appears.”

In all his adventures and in his cathartic recounting of horrific fear, pain and loss, Qais has absorbed and adopted the stoic voice of his beloved grandfather. Old man and teenager are held together at one point in a ditch filled with dead bodies, under a sign promising “you will not walk out alive.” His grandfather tells Qais to write an answer in charcoal on their cell wall: “Death only breaks the cage, but it does not hurt the bird.”

There’s a challenge in this tempered memoir of a people, a culture and a U.S. warzone we barely got to know: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart,” Qais writes. “Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.” For American readers the particular challenge, as I take it, is to look inward at the presumption and folly of our faraway military interventions. In this case: our appropriation of Afghanistan as a key battlefield of the Cold War.

Of the Americans’ long half-trillion-dollar engagement, direct and covert, for 30 years (his own lifetime) Qais Akbar Omar writes scathingly: “We are waiting to see what they will build, besides their military bases.” What Americans have not helped Afghans build is sewers, a electrical grid or clean-water systems. What we have not learned is the double lesson dealt to Alexander the Great in the 4th Century B.C.: that the Pushtun tribesmen of the Central Asian mountains are not to be dominated by outsiders; and that they have their own venerable shuras and the loya jirga, or grand council, for managing their many differences.

“One thing Afghans talk about,” Omar is saying, “is that Europeans and Americans owe Afghanistan this much — to bring peace to this country for defeating the Soviets and ending the Cold War.”

The way it works in Afghanistan is that with the local shura or jirga you invite the head of the town or the heads of each tribe and you sit together in a big mosque. Whether it takes one day or one month you talk about things and you come to solutions, and go on to the next thing… Militarily you fight with them for centuries. And they fight back. Afghanistan is 75 percent mountain, and every Afghan who fights back believes he is a child of the mountain. How do you fight the mountain and its children? It just doesn’t work that way. The best way is the tradition of the jirga or shura. Where is the problem? Where is the solution everyone benefits from? And then let’s go for that.

Qais Akbar Omar in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, June 2013.

Podcast • May 12, 2013

William Dalrymple: Lessons Too Late on Afghanistan

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in ...

For President Obama, William Dalrymple inscribed his history of Britain’s First Afghan War (1839 – 42), “I wish I’d written this ten years ago.” In truth it might have made no difference at all in 2003 to the Bush team, then diverting its military fire to Iraq. But for the rest of us this gruesome tale, Return of a King, might have clarified the clichés about Afghanistan the graveyard of empires — and the abounding cruelties, waste, hatred and blowback that come with invading it.

For American readers, Dalrymple’s bloody, brilliant narrative of Britain’s greatest imperial catastrophe asks anew why our governments have followed the same arrogant course — how Britain can still be used to represent the lure of empire, not the sorrows and the price of empire. What if the rule had been: “wherever the US finds itself embroiled in a place with an English cemetery: go home!”

Podcast • January 25, 2011

David Rohde’s Taliban Captivity

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones ...

David Rohde

What can Taliban captivity do to a man’s judgment, even to his soul? It made David Rohde root for the CIA’s drone missiles buzzing on the horizon, even when his captors assured him the drones were hunting for them and him, and were going to take his life with theirs:

DR: At first you’re sort of afraid because you don’t know when the strike’s going to happen. There’s no warning. The missile comes down faster than the speed of sound, so you won’t hear the missile that kills you. After a while you sort of get used to them and you don’t pay as much attention to them. But it’s a devastating weapon, and you have no idea when a strike will come. It sort of haunts you.

CL: But what was your fundamental response to the sight and sound of these things in the sky? Was it, “Whew, help is on the way,” or,  “Holy shit, this could take me out too” ?

DR: It changed with time and as my view of my captors changed. I want to be honest: I came to just despise them. I hated them. I hated them for what they were doing to my family. I hated them for the fact that they were essentially making my wife and my parents and my siblings feel like they were just cheap people, and if they could somehow just come up with the millions of dollars they wanted, that my family could save my life.  Kidnapping’s really an incredibly personal crime.  As time went by, if drones were killing Taliban it frankly made me happy. I saw them [my captors] as hypocritical criminals who were doing horrible things to my family. We tried to escape because we were basically ready to die. And we wanted them to get nothing. We wanted our families to not have to suffer like this, and we just completely despised them. So my view of the drones changed over time…

David Rohde, with Kristen Mulvihill, in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 25, 2011.

New York Times reporter David Rohde was a prisoner for seven months in 2008 and 2009 of the Haqqani network in the Taliban-run Tribal Areas of Pakistan. This is the same Haqqani network that a generation ago (pumped with Saudi money, Wahhabi theology, American Stinger missiles and CIA generalship) led the charge of the mujahedeen against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The late Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson (as in Charlie Wilson’s War) pronounced the Haqqani patriarch, Jalaluddin, “goodness personified.” What should it tell us that a generation later, the Haqqani sons, Badruddin and Sirajuddin, are the point of the Taliban lance against U. S. forces in the region and both seem to have enjoyed overlordship of David Rohde’s kidnapping ordeal. In David’s account with his wife Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer, and in many other versions, I take the large arc of the story to be about the killer mix of fanaticism and firepower that came back to bite us on 9.11 and ever since, and how it is still tearing up the home grounds where the US helped plant the virus thirty years ago. David Rohde knows the details of that story — of our “Frankenstein’s monster,” as he puts it — far better than I do. And still I have to say his thematic question in this book strikes me as stunningly wrong. First with smoke in his nose in Lower Manhattan in September, 2001 and on to the last strokes of this book, he is asking himself “how can religious extremism be contained?” He thinks those drones might actually be part of the answer.

I am presuming in this conversation not just to differ on the drones, but to suggest he “buried the lede” of his own story. He lets me get away with it, perhaps because I’ve watched his work with affection, often with awe, since he interned as a Brown undergraduate with our Ten O’Clock News on WGBH, public television in Boston.

Podcast • November 16, 2010

Najam Sethi: A Pakistani Prescription for Af-Pak Peace

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3) Photo: Juliana FriendNajam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Najam Sethi (36 minutes, 18 mb mp3)

Photo: Juliana Friend

Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we might like — on a very brave day — to be. He’s got the voice of a reasonable Pakistani patriot, also of a free-wheeling American sort of peacenik and liberal. Standard bearer of independent elite journalism in Pakistan, Najam Sethi has been arrested and jailed in the 70, 80s and 90s by Pakistani governments of different stripes. In the last few years he’s had death threats from Taliban thugs, too. Always his “offense” is that gabby critical openness we like about him.

There are people, oddly enough, who call Najam Sethi a stooge for the US and India, but listen here to his denunciation of American ignorance, neglect and hypocrisy; and consider the most appealing case I’ve heard directly for Pakistan’s interest. What Pakistan needs is a friendly “good Taliban” regime in Kabul, Najam Sethi is saying. What it cannot abide is an Islamist trouble-maker, or a foothold for Indian mischief.

I am asking my American question: why not bug out of an Afghanistan war we wouldn’t want to win; and, while we’re at it, end a dysfunctional affair with Pakistan that has produced mainly white-heat anti-Americanism. It’s a thought that doesn’t tempt him — to leave a failing democracy of 180-million people in an anti-American frenzy, with nuclear weapons and a mostly young population. “If you leave that,” he says, “… you ain’t seen nothing yet.” The American exit from Afghanistan will be slow and drawn-out. A good withdrawal will depend on a joint American-Pakistani mission to isolate “good” and “bad” Taliban from “bad” Al Qaeda — and then shoo-ing Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan — dead or in flight to Yemen.

My main concern is not patriotism or nationalism. It’s that Pakistan should not fall victim to imperialist policies by Pakistan’s military or by the Pentagon in the region. I’d like to see a prosperous, safe, secure, secular Pakistan. I’d like to see a rollback of radical political Islam. I think if you don’t give the Pakistani military a certain degree of security, it is capable of adventures in the area ruinous for Pakistan and for the region. I’d like Pakistan to build peace with India. I’d like the Americans to withdraw from Afghanistan. I don’t mind if the Taliban rule Afghanistan. But I would mind very much if they began to export their ideology to Pakistan. I’d certainly like to see the Pakistani military taking its rightful place beneath the civilians, not above the civilians. And I’d like to see the civilians in Pakistan flourish and prosper. The good news here is that civilians now across the board want to redress civil-military relations. They’re not happy with the Pakistan Army’s military adventures in India and Afghanistan. The civilians want to build peace in the region. They want to aid and they want to trade, and they want to build an enlightened country. And I want to be part of that process.

Najam Sethi with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, Brown, November 4, 2010

Podcast • November 9, 2010

Pakistan 3.0: The "CIA Jihad" and the Whirlwind Today

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3) It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Pervez Hoodbhoy (34 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

It is well known that the term ‘Pakistan’, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind and the ‘tan’, they say, for Baluchistan… So it was a word born in exile which then went East, was borne-across or trans-lated, and imposed itself on history; a returning migrant, settling down on partitioned land, forming a palimpsest on the past. A palimpsest obscures what lies beneath. To build Pakistan it was necessary to cover up Indian history, to deny that Indian centuries lay just beneath the surface of Pakistani Standard Time. The past was rewritten; there was nothing else to be done.

Salman Rushdie, in Shame, his “modern fairytale” of Pakistan. (1983)

Pervez Hoodbhoy is among the eminent cosmopolitan Pakistanis who press two urgent points about today: (1) that the clear and present danger at home is truly scary; that nuclear-tipped Pakistan (not Stone-Age Afghanistan, nor youthful, half-modern Iran) is the epicenter of Islamic extremism; that as Salman Rushdie said in closing a talk at Brown last Spring, “if Pakistan goes down, we’re all f**ked.” And (2) that it might help if Americans and their government understood what most Pakistanis observe: that it was a “CIA jihad” in the late ’70s and ’80s that implanted the virus of killer-force fundamentalism in Pakistan and Afghanistan, in the last battle of the Cold War.

Physicist, film-maker and leading public citizen in Pakistan, Pervez Hoodboy is recounting how Pakistanis, “across the board,” came to hate intrusive America long before today’s drone missiles. 1979 was a turning point when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and then American arms and Saudi money constructed a counterforce in Pakistan:

You had the CIA bringing in the strongest and most ideologically charged of fighters from across the globe. It was billions and billions of dollars that got pumped into the creation of the mujahedeen, celebrated by Ronald Reagan and Charlie Wilson. You had the CIA distributing millions of Korans in the madrasas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It was this monster that grew so big that it was out of control. It ate up its master, the United States and now Pakistan… Osama bin Laden and Al-Zawahiri and all these people who are being sought after so eagerly by the United States — these were creations of the CIA.

And now the whirlwind:

PH: I’m tremendously worried about how Pakistani culture is being morphed into something that looks suspiciously like Saudi culture. We used to be taught about the world; we used to be taught about history, geography. Now … everything is regarded through the prism of religion—and a particular variant of the religion. And that is the Saudi, Wahhabi way of looking at things. It’s infiltrated our language. We used to say while parting, Khuda Hafiz, that is, God be with you. Now we say Allah Hafiz. Now there is a subtle difference over here. The Persian God, Khoda, has been replaced by the Arabic God, Allah… There are now burkas everywhere. So, when I teach my class in the University, physics classes, I cannot see half the faces of my women students.

CL: You have seen this face of Islamism that most Americans haven’t. What makes it so powerful, so threatening?

PH: I’m threatened because Islamism threatens to drag us back to the 7th century… After the 2005 earthquake, which affected many areas of Pakistan, there were the mullahs who came out and said: this happened because you were watching television. And so there were thousands of televisions that were broken. After I returned from those areas and went back to my class — I was teaching Atomic Physics and Statistical Mechanics — I said to my students: “You know I have been over there, seen this terrible devastation and we have two duties. One, as Pakistani citizens, is to help our brethren. The other is, as students of science, we have got to tell these people that is was not the wrath of god. It wasn’t that people were sinful that the earthquake happened. It happened because tectonic plates were moving on a fluid surface of the earth and this is how mountains grow… And there was outrage in the class, against me. They said: but Professor, don’t you know that it is written in the Koran that this is how God punishes doers of bad. At the next class, I got exactly the same response. A few students later on came to me and said to me: Professor, we are really sorry; we thought you were right, but we couldn’t speak up. kwame

Podcast • September 16, 2010

Arianna Huffington: who will change the conversation?

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America ...

Arianna Huffington is the fair, smart, brassy embodiment of a new conversation trying to happen. At a sold-out book party at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, I am interrupting her pitch for Third World America to ask her, as queen of the media transformation: why does our public chatter in a campaign year sound so idiotic? So full of mis- and dis-information, so full of untethered rage?

We got into it by way of Edmund Burke, the 18th Century’s great conservative English Parliamentarian who put the worst malefactors of the British Empire (the Cheneys, Rumsfelds and Bushes of his time) on trial.

CL: You mention Burke… I didn’t realize we were on the same fan-page, but Edmund Burke is to me the missing voice in America today. He believed in empire, but in responsible empire — empire that cared as much for Indian people and Indian prosperity and Indian welfare as it cared for the English…

AH: America is in many ways acting like a declining empire. If you look at Afghanistan for example, only a declining empire with a perverse sense of priorities would be spending hundreds of billions of dollars conducting a war which is unwinnable, which is not in our national security interests … I quote Arnold Toynbee in the book, who said that empires more often die because they commit suicide rather than from murder. Imagine what would happen if that 2 billion dollars a week that we’re spending in Afghanistan were brought here to help rebuild the country and get jobs for people and rebuild our infrastructure. You mentioned Larry Summers and Robert Rubin. There’s no question that the fundamental mistake the Obama White House made was to appoint people whose view of the world was so Wall Street-centric to run economic policy. It was a little bit like having pre-Gallilean people, who believe that everything revolves around the earth, produce navigation maps. It wasn’t going to work, the ships were going to sink.

CL: I want to ask you the media question. Who are we going to believe to tell us this story? Who’s going to confirm in a kind of fundamental American narrative that we’re in the gravest risk of facing a kind of terminal imperial moment?

AH: Well, it’s not a Who. You see that is really what is different. That’s a very important question, because what is different is that we’re not waiting for some Walter Cronkite voice to tell us this is how it is. This is what is new and what is exciting: we all have to tell the story. We all have to tell the story of our time, and people are saying it online. So our job is to collect these thousands of stories and create a mosaic.

CL: I do want Walter Cronkite in a way to announce this. I still want the gods of my youth — Walter Lippmann, and James Reston, and page one of the New York Times — to confirm what we all know, but know in isolation. I’m still looking for a figure that’s vaguely authoritative, in touch with the historical narrative, with a base broader than one, who also can write commanding prose. I want someone not just to tell a story on a video screen, but to change the overall narrative. The overall narrative that people say is going to prevail in the elections this fall is that we’re taxed too much, that the government takes our money and throws it away, or that Obama’s a Muslim, or that some guy in the South wants to burn the Koran. We are awash in these basically idiotic narratives that are fundamentally out of touch.

AH: Chris, Chris, Chris, let me hold your hand. Get over it. There isn’t going to be a Walter Cronkite to tell us how it is.

CL: There is one, and his name is Glenn Beck —

AH: No, that’s the point. Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement is responding to the incredible abuse of power by our establishments. Their response is potentially dangerous, but there is a lot of legitimate anger out there… If you scratch the surface of whatever the Tea Partiers are saying, underneath it is this incredible anger at the bailout. Right now, there are going to be two forces: the Tea Party response, which very often becomes anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, basically the scapegoating that we’ve seen throughout history. And then there can be a constructive response. Yes, the system is screwed up, we need to try and fix the system, while we’re fixing it we need to see what can we do in our own communities, in our own families, to turn things around. If we don’t do that, we are basically ceding the future to the forces of anger that are really creating these idiotic narratives to make sense of what has happened in their lives.

Arianna Huffington with Chris Lydon at the Brattle Theatre, Cambridge, September 13, 2010