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 Friend Najam Sethi is the man any of us would want to know in Pakistan. He’s the man we ...

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 • September 18, 2008

Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us. Click to listen to ...

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.