Five challenges faced by Washington’s Pakistan analysts
In Washington, Pakistan analysts enjoy a charmed life. We are sought out by the media, invited to join the lecture circuit, and called upon to enlighten the general public. As students of what is alternately described here as the most dangerous, strategically vital, and perplexing country in the world, our expertise is constantly in high demand.
Of course, it’s not all fun and fame. To be a Pakistan specialist in this town — and in America on the whole — one must navigate numerous challenges.
If your writing is critical of Pakistan, many Pakistanis will brand you as an all-around dimwit with few redeeming qualities. You will also be labeled a hypocrite for criticising Pakistan’s corruption, violence, and poor leadership even while the US suffers from the same problems (my reply — my job is to analyse Pakistan, not the United States — is typically met with silence).
Conversely, if your writing is complementary of Pakistan, many Americans — and, most vociferously of all, Indians — will brand you as an all-around dimwit with few redeeming qualities. After I suggested several weeks ago that Pakistan has no immediate desire to nuke India, multiple respondents denounced me as a clueless dolt.
It’s not the criticism itself that bothers me (anyone who expresses their opinions publicly requires thick skin). What is frustrating is the tone of this criticism — vitriolic and personal, not reasoned and constructive.
Allegations of government ties
I am constantly accused of being a shill for the US government — whether in the form of a CIA agent, a propagandist, or a paid flunkey. “Michael, is this once again a State-Dept-assigned-let-me-explain-America’s-intentions article?” queried one interlocutor regarding a piece that innocently points out the unlikelihood of Pakistan completing a gas pipeline to Iran. Additionally, I am often informed that my employer is a US government stooge — a curious accusation given that the Wilson Center is strictly nonpartisan and does not take positions on any policy.
The challenge for Washington’s Pakistan analysts is to convince Pakistanis that we do not necessarily support our government’s policies simply because we are Americans. The knee-jerk reaction among many Pakistanis is that we analysts all adore drone strikes, are hell-bent on getting Pakistan to launch a military operation in North Waziristan, and are paid handsomely by the US government to make these cases in our writings and presentations. Alas, it’s not true — but it’s a tough myth to shatter.
The “been to Pakistan?” litmus test
Many Pakistanis will not take American Pakistan specialists seriously unless they have visited Pakistan (fortunately, I pass this test). I wholeheartedly agree that there’s no substitute for knowledge and experiences amassed in Pakistan. However, I think holding Americans to this standard is too harsh. For one thing, there’s a double standard at play — I’m sure many Pakistanis claiming to be experts on America have never visited the United States. Additionally, with the proper contacts, and through vehicles such as Twitter and Skype, Pakistan specialists in America can instantaneously gain access to insights from inside Pakistan.
One may retort that such insights come courtesy of the Internet-savvy, cosmopolitan Islamabad/Lahore/Karachi crowd, which bears little resemblance to the “real” Pakistan. Fair enough. Still, US-based specialists do have opportunities to interact with visiting Pakistanis from the “real” Pakistan — from low-level civilian bureaucrats to rural-based youth. One of my most rewarding professional experiences was meeting with a group of high school students visiting from Fata on a US government-sponsored exchange.
Pock-i-staan vs. Pack-i-stan
Pakistanis frequently point out how often their country’s name is mispronounced by Americans. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton correctly say Pock-i-staan. Yet George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and most of the general population (including celebrities with a demonstrated interest in the country, such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna) erroneously say Pack-i-stan. (The majority Pack-i-stan adherents are a feisty lot and denounce the Pock-i-staan pronunciation as pompous and exotic.) I try to say Pock-i-staan, but confess to occasionally getting sloppy and reverting to awkward hybrids such as Pock-i-stan or Pack-i-staan. Either way, the line has been drawn: If you say Pock-i-staan, you’re a legitimate authority on Pakistan. If you say Pack-i-stan, you’re a fraud. Slip up before a large Pakistani audience, and your reputation could take a significant hit.
The dominance of security issues in policy discussions
I have written previously that traditional security issues — militancy, violence, instability — dominate policy debates about Pakistan, to the detriment of topics such as natural resource constraints that affect millions more Pakistanis. The most credible and sought-after US analysts of Pakistan are those who can wax eloquent about the root causes of radicalisation, not health care crises, water shortages, or deforestation. In effect, the voices of prescient US specialists focused on Pakistan’s most serious — and perhaps even existential — long-term challenges are marginalised, and unable to rise above the din of security-related chatter.
The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him @michaelkugelman.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.