Pakistan’s Many Problems

by Joshua Foust on 1/28/2011 · 4 comments

Vice Magazine has produced their second video about Peshawar, Pakistan. And it’s not bad:

If I had any complaint about it, aside from it feeling kind of like a music video (their other Pakistan report, this one from the arms market in Darra Adam Khel, had the same feel), it is thinking, “yes, and?” Not that what Suroosh Alvi reported is necessarily wrong, but rather that it’s incomplete.

I’m glad they focused that the Pakistani Taliban is responding to genuine grievances against the government, and that the government can’t fully respond. But that also misses the many other things the Taliban does—they are not just crusaders for Islam or the downtrodden, they are also thugs and (by and large) sadists who take delirious joy in violently dominating people. I’m not sure they qualify as “principled,” the way his description seems to imply. Asking people still devastated by the floods and angry at the government what they think about the Taliban is not exactly a reliable gauge of how popular the Taliban actually is, for example.

The bit on drones is problematic, too. Research into their effects is not as universal as Alvi suggests. Several surveys of the area have indicated at least the Pashtuns in the FATA support the drones because they kill mostly Taliban (it is people elsewhere, mostly in the Punjab and Sindh, who seem to oppose the strikes so bitterly). There is also a small, but growing body of research that suggests the drone strikes are effective at killing militants, as well as disrupting al Qaeda’s ability to organize and launch attacks. None of that means the drones are an unalloyed good (and on balance, I suspect they do more harm than good, though I can’t prove that), but Alvi really does not do the topic justice.

This is still good to have out there, though. Given the scant attention Pakistan itself is given—it’s rare that the subject gets a few seconds on TV, much less the eighteen minutes Vice devoted—this is definitely better than nothing. Incomplete is not wrong, and it’s important to focus on the U.S. government’s curious insistence on gaining short term victories regardless of long term costs.

But blaming the west for al Qaeda and the Taliban, as Jamaat-e-Islami regional honcho Shabir Ahmed Khan does without challenge, is neither accurate nor revelatory. Of course it’s not the bad men’s fault, it’s those meddling white people doing it. It’s a way to sidestep the horrible lack of imagination of U.S. policy in Pakistan, which is purely reactive and seems to lag months or even years behind what is really happening there. Describing the Taliban as having abandoned its quest to impose strict Islamic law, as Alvi does, is beyond my ability to comprehend, considering how they treated Swat during their brief takeover of the district two years ago. Yes, the Taliban are young, and pissed off, and might even want revenge—but, to echo my earlier complaint, they are more than that.

The complexity of the challenges that Pakistan faces deserves a serious treatment, and this VBS report dances around treating them seriously. It just doesn’t quite get there. It is still, however, worth watching. What do you think?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jakob January 29, 2011 at 7:08 am

He is only touching upon different topics (drones, militancy, fashion shows, weapons …) to pick and choose to come to a conclusion that vaguely points somewhere – but then I guess his program was not meant to reveal new insights. People I talked to after the floods in Orakzai/Kohat area, around Pesh and flood stricken areas were little interested in talking about extremists. Their performance in relief was equally patchy as the government’s (flood victims pointed at both with their complaints of inefficiency, extremists just have the bonus that what they do they do with benevolence, while it would be the government’s duty to help) and people are pissed with both since the conflicts affect their daily lives, that is especially transport which directly hits costs of daily goods and makes travels to hospitals/schools etc. a nightmare or an impossibility. Those affected directly by drones will acknowledge it if a top-extremist-trouble maker dies, but are hardly going to cheer because it’s going to stir up the army-ttp hick hack in their area again in subsequent days, bringing with it all the headache they already have enough of. The “are you with or against us/them” thinking makes people there laugh. It reminds me of Europeans who would ask every American back in the days whether he voted for or against Bush and would subsequently despise or cheer him, ignoring that it’s not all just black and white as our media tried to portray it.

I agree, it’s a good thing to have at least some coverage and Alvi’s stories are not really doing any harm, that is he is not presenting his skimmed findings as the sole truth. His paranoid emphasis on the danger of his travels is a bit laughable.

Madhu January 29, 2011 at 12:32 pm

It’s a way to sidestep the horrible lack of imagination of U.S. policy in Pakistan, which is purely reactive and seems to lag months or even years behind what is really happening there.

I am curious about this phenomenon and why it should be so.


1. Current strategic drift. Our twentieth-century institutions are stressed: domestically, entitlement programs; on foreign policy; our aid regimes. Witness Egypt and Pakistan.

2. Poor quality knowledge of our politicians and policy-makers regarding the region.

3. Lack of regard for the strategic importance of the region outside the purely transactional: Cold War previously, and now GWOT.

4. Busy lawmakers, busy politicians, and busy staffers without much time to be anything other than reactive.

5. The messiness of democracy.

6. Cold War era nostalgia for institutions such as the Army.

“12.Unless an effective answer is found to end this complicity, the danger of the terrorists succeeding in another act of mass casualty terrorism will always remain. Only the US is in a position to find an answer to this complicity. The first step in the exercise to find an answer is to end its romanticisation of its relationship with Pakistan. The second is to end its dependence on Pakistan for the logistic supplies to the NATO forces in Afghanistan. “

If you look at comments from DOD officials of a Cold War era vintage, it is not difficult to see evidence of a kind of romaniticization of institutions that have, historically, been a negative force in terms of stable and peaceable self-rule by the people.

The romanticization of twentieth century institutions goes beyond Cold War era foreign aid regimes and expresses itself as nostalgia for things like manufacturing jobs of a previous era or entitlement programs.

I am not defending or criticizing. I am talking about an emotional viewpoint of Americans that is being stressed and will continue to be stressed.

Good series of posts.

Madhu January 29, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Sorry, the last italicized excerpt is from an Indian security analyst, B. Raman, but you can find the same sort of thing repeated in lots of places. The bonding between institutions that took place during that era has its residue in the military and DOD, etc.

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