The words of war: why it’s easy to write on Pakistan

Dec 28 2014


RAZESHTA SETHNA is a journalist
RAZESHTA SETHNA is a journalist

WHEN the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture was released this year there was talk about the explosive nature of its revelations and the likely backlash in countries that housed black sites where prisoners were kept in custody, interrogated and tortured. Early next year, the 528-page PDF — now in the public domain and easily accessible on the Internet — will be published in paperback and e-book editions by Melville House.

The New York Times has called the report “a portrait of depravity that’s hard to comprehend,” while a senior editor in charge of its publication, when commenting on its ‘literary merit,’ noted, “The more you read it, the more you see that there’s a literary intentionality to this.” The report is packed with footnotes, written with attention to detail, and adheres to a readable style of narration though perhaps not with the urgency of the 9/11 Commission Report. As a finalist for the National Books Awards, the 9/11 publication coincided with the report’s official release and was provided in a formatted version to the publishers, unlike the torture report.

More importantly, what does the torture report tell about Pakistan? It is well-documented that Pakistani intelligence authorities interrogated Al Qaeda operatives and provided leads that helped disrupt plots and locate other terrorist leaders. However, the torture report indicates that information leading to Bin Laden was obtained from arrested militants before they were first tortured by the CIA. The case of Ammar al-Baluchi (as the torture scenes in Zero Dark Thirty, where he is referred to as the financial facilitator for 9/11, also depict) cited in the report explains how he gave up Bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, that finally led the Americans to the Al Qaeda leader in Abbottabad. A footnote in the report notes al-Baluchi was arrested along with another Yemeni Al Qaeda operative, Khallad bin Attash, by Pakistani authorities on April 29, 2003. For anyone who has an interest in the details of the ‘war on terror’ and the Bush administration’s use of torture and renditions of high-value detainees such as al-Baluchi and Ramzi bin al-Shibh — the latter was picked up in Pakistan in 2002 and sent to a CIA black site — this report is comprehensive as a primary source of detailed information.

Homer said war “would take a god to tell the tale.” It also takes a writer with independently verified and well-researched material and, of course, stylistic skills in the contemporary age of riveting frontline journalism. Wars often change literary traditions when writers emerge out of a particular conflict. This reminds me of Marie Colvin, a passionate veteran reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012. She broadcasted the history of human tragedies of wars and other events that shaped the world, stories found in a collection of her finest work, On the Front Line.

Pakistan fulfils the function of being a library of many such stories, especially during the 9/11 wars. It makes for attractive, lucrative and complex political writing as the games of war and peace are played out in a region which rests historically at the crossroads of civilisations. Experienced as frontline research ground, more so since it was notoriously billed the epicentre of global terrorism, this region unveils the best war stories as its politics become more maddening, its violence more relentless, its people and places more deprived.

There’s a story to be found in every shattered life from the megacity of Karachi as it faces endemic political and criminal violence (Laurent Gayer’s Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City has recently been published) to the volatile Waziristan region where ordinary lives have suffered the consequences of war and militancy (wait for Pir Zubair Shah’s Waziristan, forthcoming in 2015). This allows for ambitious writers to gravitate towards stories that will remain far from finished in future years, and are populated by political characters and spaces and developments entrenched in religious extremism and related linkages.

Pakistan and Afghanistan’s newer war stories documented through the lens of experienced writers and researchers — whether histories of politics, art and culture, explorations of religious and political divisions, or direct reportage bracing the top leadership for

shocking revelations — has been the cause of displeasure among certain stakeholders in the Pakistan military and the Inter-Services Intelligence. The latter’s failure to recognise the severity of the threat from militant Islam, and the need for a holistic national approach and of severing ties with ‘good’ militant proxies have become obsessive considerations for counter-terrorism analysts.

In the years after 9/11, the appearance of publishing triumphs worldwide, including fiction, that found inspiration in political changes in this region has altered the nature of (and demand for) writings coming out of Pakistan. However, we have yet to read the Pakistani war veteran’s version of events — something like Iraq war veteran Kevin Powers did in his debut, The Yellow Birds.

International publishers are interested in taking on authors and researchers who are looking beyond present scenarios in the region. The contemporary writer using the historical and the political combined with first-hand insight — in the case of journalists writing on regional politics and war — makes the narrative edgier and more convincing. Expected next summer is The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan by Rafia Zakaria that tells the story of Karachi’s increasing conservatism and political instability through the eyes of its women.

There has always been fascination for war stories and poetry but with a profusion of multi-media sources our knowledge is being updated all the time as wider politics mutate like quicksilver. World events cannot be restricted to reading a book alone to sum up a ten-year war when Twitter provides 140-character updates and live 24/7 television broadcasts developments. Political revelations — such as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden’s revelation of state surveillance violating basic democratic processes and human rights — over the past decade are gaining rapid readership interest because they directly unveil the often unsavoury inner machinations of governments.

In recent times, the workings of Pakistan’s army and its spy agency have been publishing successes (read Carlotta Gall, Christine Fair, Husain Haqqani, Aqil Shah, Ahmed Rashid, Pir Zubair Shah). It is not just for the breadth of coverage that readers want more; these accounts are becoming bracingly brazen which has caused some writing — and not just published books — to be censored and curtailed, if published locally. This is expected when you write on Pakistan today and want your narrative read widely within the country, although indicative of what is deliberately kept under wraps away from national consumption.

Anatol Lieven’s writings have caused a certain cluster of Pakistani analysts to claim he deals with the Pakistan military with kid gloves, rather than looking at it with a cursory lens as an institution responsible for disrupting democracy at various historical junctures. In an essay published in Pakistan’s Counterterrorism Challenge, he refers to the military’s relationship with the leadership of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jamaatud Dawa (JuD), noting the country’s role in the ‘war on terror’ as one of paradoxes: the system of local political patronage networks and the army’s predominance in Pakistan have both kept the state intact but limit change that can transform the country. This balance prevents Pakistan from being overthrown by militancy, he argues, saying that if the Pakistan army were to collapse through external action, the state’s survival would be at risk.

On the military-militant nexus, Lieven says: “On the one hand, the LeT appears to have been given a free rein to send its activists to fight against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan; more than that, in at least one major operation (the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in 2008), there seems strong evidence to suggest that the ISI helped the Haqqani network plan and carry out this attack with the assistance of special volunteers from the LeT.”

In the same volume, editor Moeed Yusuf writes about why Pakistan is perceived as a troubling ally in the global war against fighting terror, “given its ambiguous relationship with state-sponsored militancy, while considering itself to be troubled as a result of what transpired in its neighbourhood post 9/11.” Much has been published on the region by Pakistani and international authors, activists, politicians, retired American diplomats, war veterans and army generals focussed on the Af-Pak theatre of war: the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border regions; the Haqqani network and its historic allies; America’s counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan and its failure; and what war does to young men, women and local communities. Western and local experts are expected to continue publishing on these themes in the coming year with sharper focus now on the failures and successes of America and its allies in Afghanistan; the role of regional powers (Iran, China, Turkey, India) as the combat operation winds down; and the history of backchannel negotiations between the Afghan Taliban, the Kabul government and America.

At the same time, given the drawdown in Afghanistan and the rise of the self-styled Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, there is now developing interest for literature on the latter. As global media houses work to analyse the latest geo-political changes in the larger Middle-East, political writer Vali Nasr’s writings on sectarianism and its genesis in the region are back in demand. Few experts took much notice of the rise of Islamic State and the Iraqi army’s inability to retake Falluja from IS, but as its terror regime threatened to come dangerously close to Baghdad late in the summer, the world’s media lens took a rapid U-turn. And so Patrick Cockburn, who has covered the region as a journalist since 1979, has recently documented one of the first accounts of the rise of IS, its strategy, tactics, finances and reasons for territorial success, The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising.

Topics that could do with increased literary attention include human rights abuses in Pakistan against women and minorities; Balochistan’s lost generation fighting for their rights; and the development of women’s rights post 9/11 in Afghanistan and under the new Ghani-Abdullah government (Jenny Nordberg’s Underground Girls of Kabul, published this year, looks at what it means to be a girl in a patriarchal culture of extremes and is a solid read).

My best by far as the year ends, Mirza Waheed’s The Book of Gold Leaves, isn’t categorised in the above genre of writing, but bears scars of a war being fought for such a long while that it has ruined generations and traumatised families. Waheed’s intense love story set in 1990s’ Srinagar has political geography at its soul and can leave you stunned into silence and shame. With Pakistan infiltrating the valley with its proxy jihadi fighters and India sending in its army, Kashmiris are under siege in Waheed’s writing — no different to what is happening in today’s Afghanistan.