COVER STORY: Review of Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination
Reviewed by Razeshta Sethna
AN assortment of political blog posts and published essays, Manan Ahmed’s first collection, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, cleverly dissects events in the South Asia region spanning April 2004 to May 2011. It might often become tedious reading a collection of blogs, especially when a 24-hour news cycle and the internet present varied political analysis. But this collection reminds us that detailed, incisive and intelligent blogging is about a free-flowing style. Ahmed makes regional politics easily accessible, reaching out to readers who perhaps may have no idea about the history of the political relationship between Pakistan and America. While his writings, selections from his blog Chapati Mystery, read as comments and analysis of popular political news stories from Pakistan, Iraq and the US — and such opinion essays lose their originality at some point — Ahmed works as a “historian of the present”. He documents socio-political happenings, almost like a historian frantically archiving for the future (ironically, Ahmed writes rather condescendingly about Niall Ferguson as the uber-historian in a January 2006 post, “Contra Niall,” dissecting his take on American hegemony.)
Ahmed reveals “the unique mixture of ignorance and hypocrisy that marks US foreign policy in the subcontinent,” Amitava Kumar says in the introduction to the book he says “disturbs our expectations, making us sit up and take notice of the assumptions that shape our thinking”. In a May 2005 post titled “Softer Side of Freedom”, Ahmed writes about what people say about General Musharraf and his amicable relationship with his western supporters: “Freedom, as they say, is growing by leaps and bounds. And one of the places it is leaping right over is Pakistan. … The general is good for Pakistan. He keeps the jihadists in check. He is good for the United States. …He is good for the economy. He is good for peace with India. …He promises Enlightened Moderation. …Here is what I say: Bullshit, Give the Pakistani people what they deserve: democracy.”
Ahmed is distinctly part of the world of blogging which doesn’t require that he censor his voice. Success depends on whether your readership respects your analysis. He began his blog as a non-tenured academic living and studying in America, often writing about contemporary imperial western interventions: “We have programmed forgetfulness in our civic and political lives,” he says.
When Ahmed writes about how the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report stated that America suffered a failure of imagination, unable understand the threat of terrorism, he feels it’s because it focused on the failures of the Muslim world (accused of creating jihadists) without giving space to the history of America’s role in the Soviet war in Afghanistan. History shows how ground was prepared for nurturing future freedom fighters in the CIA-funded war of the 1970s and ’80s in Afghanistan and it is critical to examine that period to study contemporary militancy in the South-Asia region. Ahmed describes the illusion regarding America’s foe: “The myopia we extend out to the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan, exists in North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma.”
As a blogger, Ahmed is able to castigate certain regional players for abuse of political power. Musharraf, for one, is no favourite with Ahmed, who questions why he was lavishly courted by both Blair and Bush governments for his support in the ‘war on terror’. Other Pakistani military rulers, Generals Ayub and Zia are labelled “warrior-kings”. Charting how Bhutto’s flirtations with the religious right set the stage for Zia’s militancy and Islamisation, Ahmed is critical of Pakistan’s past political headmen who failed to allow democratic institutions to take form. He doesn’t perceive most local and global political patrons, from George Bush to Barack Obama to the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf chief, Imran Khan, as able to revert the fortunes of their people.
In a 2007 post titled “Wild Frontiers of Our Localised World”, Ahmed begins by asking, “How can Barack Obama be just as wrong as George W Bush?” As a presidential candidate, Obama had made a speech promising that the US would get “out of Iraq and on to the right battlefield in Afghanistan and Pakistan.” According to Ahmed — an early Obama supporter — this meant he would sanction an invasion into Pakistan if it didn’t do more to curb terrorism despite the country suffering hundreds of thousands of casualties in the ‘war on terror’. Many similar rants maybe read as intelligent pieces of writing but the analysis is often simplistic in its critique of western governments, failing to comment on the other side of the problem: the Waziristan safe havens, the rise of the Taliban in Swat, and the ISI-sponsored proxy groups attacking Nato forces across the border.
If Pakistani rulers post 9/11 and their undemocratic policies are scrutinised by Ahmed, then so are the ‘experts’ invited into the corridors of power for their policy strategy and report-writing. According to Ahmed, who clearly loathes these “non-expert” insiders, “an ‘expert’ is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major news-paper.” Writer and founder of Kabul-based TurquoiseMountain, Rory Stewart (I’m not sure I agree with Ahmed here even though Stewart is guilty of having produced two books, one a detailed study on how the Americans failed to institute their model structures in Iraq and the other on his travels through Pakistan and Afghanistan) and the Three Cups of Tea author, Greg Mortensen, are examples of that type of expert.
Ahmed wants to emphasise that Pakistan is not what America seems to have created in its imagination — it is not a country where Islam and extremism have driven out liberal forces, a narrative oft repeated to suit American imperial interests and something he questions when looking at US-Pakistan ties through the decade. When suggested to his faculty that they should write op-eds to deflate the Fox News narrative of the Iraq War, for example, Ahmed is advised that he should wait for tenure before engaging with public opinion. At some point in this collection, Ahmed acerbically comments that American newspapers refused to publish his opinion pieces; he assumes he isn’t an established author so was turned down. A debilitating pessimism seemed to have set in, a sense that the public space had already been lost to the wrong types. For Ahmed, convinced that “those who stay silent before tenure will remain silent after tenure,” political blogging made it easier to engage within a public space, without restraints of language and content that op-ed writing would hardly tolerate. It was a way to critically watch governments, the ‘liberal west’, and scrutinise Pakistani history while looking for participatory democracy.
Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination
By Manan Ahmed
Just World Publishing, 2011