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Manan Ahmed on the Politics of US “Hysteria” over Pakistan

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As a truce between the Pakistani government and the Taliban collapses, clashes between the two sides have forced tens of thousands to flee Pakistan’s Swat Valley. We speak to University of Chicago historian Manan Ahmed about the distinction between legitimate and overblown concerns about Pakistan’s internal unrest. While US political culture has focused on the Taliban, it’s taken for granted the legitimacy of the US-backed Zardari government and US drone attacks that have killed hundreds of Pakistanis. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Our top story today is Pakistan, where tens of thousands of people continue to flee the Swat Valley area of the North-West Frontier Province along the Afghan border following a major offensive by the Pakistani military. Pakistani helicopter gunships and warplanes have been bombing sites in the area as clashes intensify. The military claims to have killed eighty militants, alongside reports of rising civilian casualties and the Red Cross warning of a growing humanitarian crisis. As the Pakistani government prepares to set up temporary shelters for up to half-a-million people it expects will be displaced in the fighting, the peace deal with pro-Taliban groups in the valley appears to be over.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani and Afghan presidents are in Washington for a second day of talks with President Obama. Following Wednesday’s talks, all three leaders emphasized their linked futures and their shared commitment to fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. President Obama thanked his counterparts for attending the summit, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the recent steps against militancy in Pakistan.

On the eve of the meetings, Richard Holbrooke, the special envoy to the region, testified before the House Foreign Relations Committee to assure lawmakers of continued US support for Pakistan.

    RICHARD HOLBROOKE: We do not think Pakistan is a failed state. We think it’s a state under extreme test from the enemies, who are also our enemies. And we have, Mr. Chairman, the same common enemy.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Obama administration, however, was not so sanguine about Pakistan last month. Tensions have been growing since the Pakistani government signed a ceasefire deal with the Pakistani Taliban three months ago that allowed the Taliban to impose Islamic law in the Swat Valley.

Amidst reports that the Pakistani Taliban were gaining new ground and nearing the capital city of Islamabad, Secretary of State Clinton warned of a, quote, “existential threat” to Pakistan. She told the House Foreign Relations Committee that Pakistan was, quote, “basically abdicating to the Taliban and the extremists.”

    HILLARY CLINTON: I think that we cannot underscore the seriousness of the existential threat posed to the state of Pakistan by the continuing advances, now within hours of Islamabad, that are being made by a loosely confederated group of terrorists and others who are seeking the overthrow of the Pakistani state, which is, as we all know, a nuclear-armed state. And I don’t hear that kind of outrage or concern coming from enough people that would reverberate back within the highest echelons of the civilian and military leadership of Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Pakistani President Zardari sought to calm Western fears of his country’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of the Taliban.

    PRESIDENT ASIF ALI ZARDARI: I want to assure the world that the nuclear capability of Pakistan is under safe hands. It’s not a Kalashnikov. Nuclear technology is a huge subject. So it’s not that one little Taliban can come down and press a button. There is no button.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, expert commentators and journalists continue to raise alarm bells about the dangers of the Taliban in Pakistan and the alleged threat they pose to the country’s nuclear facilities. This is a sampling of their voices in recent weeks: Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations, Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria, former CIA Officer Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, and David Sanger of the New York Times.

    DAVID SANGER: What the President was asked was whether or not he believed that Pakistan can and will protect the arsenal itself. And he expressed confidence and then went on to say that his confidence was in the army, the Pakistani army, which is one of the few institutions in the country that actually works. But that confidence is based mostly on the assurances they have been given that this is the army’s number one priority.

    ROLF MOWATT-LARSSEN: The most important concern is any possibility that instability might lead to a security breakdown, where they might lose either material or parts of a weapon or, in the worst case, an entire weapon.

    WALTER RUSSELL MEAD: The Pakistani army really has been developed for fighting a conventional war against India. It is not a very good counterinsurgency army. This is a campaign they’re not likely to have a lot of overwhelming success with. So they don’t have the capacity to do this well, even if they had the will.

    FAREED ZAKARIA: And the problem in Pakistan is, we don’t have anybody there. We don’t have any US troops there. We don’t have a UN mandate there. They don’t want us there. The anti-Americanism there is incredibly high.

    JON STEWART: But we gave them $10 billion. Didn’t they build some kind of non-permeable structure at the border there?

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Oh, no, no, no.

    JON STEWART: What did they do with our $10 billion?

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Used it to prepare to fight a war against India.

    JON STEWART: But now the Taliban is — aren’t they sixty miles outside of Islamabad?

    FAREED ZAKARIA: They now claim to have won a great military victory, and they’re now a hundred miles away.

    JON STEWART: Oh, that’s forty miles right there. That’s at least a week.

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Exactly. I think maybe now they’ve finally gotten a wake-up call, and they realize, you know what? This problem isn’t going away. And it’s your struggle. This is not America’s struggle. This is not about — somehow, we became part of the problem. In a nice way, the Pakistanis are now taking some responsibility. I have some, you know, friends in Pakistan who used to always denounce the American drone attacks, you know, these Predator strikes —-

    JON STEWART: Right.

    FAREED ZAKARIA: —- on the al-Qaeda. And the last month, what I notice is, they’re all in favor of them.

    JON STEWART: Really?

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Yeah. They’re saying, “You know what?”

    JON STEWART: So now they’re afraid.

    FAREED ZAKARIA: Yeah, yeah. They’re saying, “You know what? If that’s the only thing that will work, kill those guys.”

AMY GOODMAN: Fareed Zakaria on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, among the many voices in the media echoing and amplifying the administration’s concerns about Pakistan’s ability to contain the Taliban.

Well, our guest today is University of Chicago historian Manan Ahmed, who blogs at, a historian of South Asian Islam and Pakistan and has been closely following recent events in Pakistan, as well as how they get talked about here in the United States.

Manan Ahmed, joining us from Chicago, welcome to Democracy Now! Your assessment of the situation right now?

MANAN AHMED: Thank you, Amy, for having me.

I think there are two parallel things that we ought to talk about. On the one hand, there is this hysteria, or at least a hyperventilating that’s going on in US media outlets, specifically Washington Post, New York Times, the sort of the mainstream top-of-the-line newspapers, and also coming from, as you played the clip from Secretary of State Clinton. So, there is a hysteria or hyperventilating that the army or the Pakistani state are not aware of or not acting appropriately towards the sort of threat of Taliban, who are forty, sixty, eighty, a hundred miles from Islamabad.

And what we have to sort of bracket that with is, you know, the Pakistani institutions, Pakistani army, which, by last count, was 500,000- to 700,000-strong, have sort of — it’s very hard to project a future in which Pakistan fails. Pakistan has megacities, like Karachi, Islamabad, populations of 12, 13 million, 18 million in the case of Karachi. It’s very hard to see how Taliban, who are estimated to be 14,000 to 18,000, are simply going to walk into Islamabad and take over the nuclear — you know, nuclear bombs and nuclear facilities. So there is a certain sort of level of hyperbole or hyperventilating that’s going on in the media.

But let’s leave that to where it is, and let’s turn our attention to Pakistan itself. There are approximately three major crises that Pakistan faces, internal crises. One is the civilian legitimacy of Zardari’s regime, Zardari’s government. This, as you might remember, is a result of a very, very populist movement to bring Pervez Musharraf’s military dictatorship out of power about a year ago. And since then, the Pakistan People’s Party, which is Zardari’s party, and the Nawaz Sharif party, the PML, the other opposition leader, have been really struggling to get a hold of what they think are the nation’s top priorities. The chief justice Chaudhry Iftikhar’s reinstatement was a big part of the PML-N, the Nawaz Sharif platform. And so, you saw another long march of lawyers and citizenry against Zardari’s regime this time to reinstate the chief justice, and that happened not too long ago. So there is a way in which the civilian government itself has legitimacy issues with the people of Pakistan.

Contributing to that are the drone attacks, which have been going on really ferociously since August of 2008. And by, you know, sort of Pentagon or related outlets themselves, the success rate is really abysmally low. Some estimates that I heard put the success rate at two percent. That is, two percent of al-Qaeda or Taliban or targeted people were actually killed, and 98 percent being civilian or collateral damage casualties. And what happens is that, since November of 2008, when the Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani promised on national television the Pakistani people that the new administration will stop these drone attacks and will work with the Pakistani government to have a sort of systematic strategy against — for fighting al-Qaeda or foreign elements — they call them “foreign elements” —- that obviously didn’t happen. Since the Obama administration has taken hold, the drone attacks have not only continued, but they have sort of increased in frequency.

So, on both fronts, both domestic politics front and foreign national front, the Pakistani regime, the Zardari regime, is facing big legitimacy crises. So -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: Manan Ahmed, I’d like to ask you — you wrote recently that there’s a rich vein of Pakistan-on-the-brink theorization that has dominated US foreign policy since the 1950s. And you mention that decades ago it was a fear of communist takeover; now it’s fear of Islamic fundamentalists taking over. Could you —-

MANAN AHMED: That’s absolutely right, yeah, sure. I mean, there is a -— if you think back to 1947, when Pakistan was founded, it sort of melded within the academic and administrative circles in Washington and with, you know, the real rise of modernization theory. This was when nations were going to become templates, where a Western idea of modernity was going to be implemented — infrastructure, big dams. We saw this across the world in many, many, many different sites.

Pakistan had its brief moment of sunshine earlier in that transition period, in ’57, ’58, when the Harvard Advisory Group was at the forefront of sort of developing Pakistan. But very soon thereafter, in the early ’60s, Pakistan failed to meet the developmental matrix, you know, how they were to chart the progress. And since then, the notion that Pakistan is a failed state or a failing state or a collapsing state or on the brink, at a crossroads, has been a very, very sustained and deeply held sort of myth within both academic and governmental states.

At that point, in the ’60s and ’70s, it transitioned from the developmental vein to communist sort of domino theory, wherein Pakistan’s socialist/communist Prime Minister Bhutto was going to lead Pakistan into the arms of USSR. And part of that vein really crystallizes once sort of the Afghanistan invasion of — Afghanistan invasion happens by Russia.

And so, it isn’t just the fact that Pakistan is found to be failing or about to fail currently, but if you look through the literature and you look through the pronouncements of US sort of state and government entities throughout the fifty-plus-year history of US-Pakistan relationships, you’ll see a very, very sustained sort of presence of “Pakistan is to fail,” “Pakistan should be protected from failing,” and “Pakistan is failing.”

AMY GOODMAN: Manan Ahmed, you’ve got the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan in Washington now. What do you think the US approach to both countries should be?

MANAN AHMED: I think for — I mean, one of the things that I thought the Obama administration had a huge misstep was to link Pakistan and Afghanistan together, or their AfPak strategy, which I think they’re trying to de-link again. I mean, fact of the matter is that, you know, Afghanistan, 35 million-plus population, ravaged by thirty-plus years of war, without any infrastructure to speak of, one sort of very little urban presences, versus Pakistan, 175 million people, megacities, you know, at least some tradition of governance, a very fierce critical media. These are not countries that — whose fates are sort of — can be lumped in one basket.

So I think that the first step needs to be to recognizing Pakistan’s own realities. You know, how do you operate within that country itself? And within that, I think the primary task has to be to support the civilian government of Asif Ali Zardari, not because — I mean, I personally am not a huge fan, but the fact is that that is the elected government by the people after a, you know, twelve-year gap in elections. And I think they need — they explicitly need support, because if we are to give them the political will to act in Swat, to act in Waziristan, to act in Baluchistan, if we are to give them the political standing to go to the people of Pakistan and say, “This is a hard war. This is a tough campaign. There are refugees in these major cities. We need to support those refugees, and we have to support the civilian populations. And then we need to fight — in real military terms, fight — those elements who are not negotiating and not talking to us.” And that takes a tremendous amount of political will on behalf of a government that like, as I said before, has problems with legitimacy.

So I think that’s where the media hype in the United States press becomes a huge drawback. And I think that’s where the Obama administration needs to step up and sort of convince both itself and the Pakistani people that they are really partners in this together and that they will support the civilian leadership and not, you know, start talking nostalgically about the return of another — yet another military dictator.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, you raise the issue of yet another military dictator. Isn’t it — could the argument be made that Pakistani society is perhaps stronger now than it has been in many years, because of the success of the people in getting rid of Musharraf and ending the authoritarian rule and that it seems that the administration sees it as a failed state, when it’s not —- when the government is not strictly controlling its population?

MANAN AHMED: Absolutely. I think that one of the sort of untold and unheard story of Pakistan’s entire existence in the United States media was the lawyers’ movement that peacefully, I might add, and in large terms secularly, drove out of power a entrenched military dictator, both out of military power, but also out of civilian power.

And I think that that really speaks towards two inherent presences in Pakistani society. One is they have a robust, critical media that is not multi— — sort of multi-voiced. There’s Urdu presses, Urdu newspaper channels, English newspaper channels and other regional channels and newspapers, so very, very diverse media that has had a critical engagement with the state on many different levels. And secondly, the need of Pakistani people, in general, to — you know, as in any other citizenry of the world, to ask for security, to ask for safety, to ask for engagement with their government.

And I think that the rise of this sort of civil movement, the lawyers’ movement and its sort of student wing, really speaks to the articulation by the Pakistani people that they want to operate within a democratic framework and not within a sort of a military dictatorship that they had been under for the past ten years.

AMY GOODMAN: Manan Ahmed, we want to thank you very much for being with us, historian of modern Pakistan and South Asian Islam at the University of Chicago. His blog is at

MANAN AHMED: Thank you.

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