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Where have Pakistan’s America experts gone?

September 13, 2012

In recent weeks, numerous Pakistanis — and several Americans, including myself — have decried Washington’s lack of Pakistan expertise. This is indeed a troubling deficiency. Little is said, however, about Pakistan’s lack of US expertise.

I’m not referring here to expertise on US policies. I would actually argue that the level of knowledge in Pakistan about US foreign policies — and particularly those in South Asia — is deeper than in America. Rather, I’m referring to expertise on the United States itself, and particularly its political system.

Take the bizarre obsession with Dana Rohrabacher, the California Congressman who has called for an independent Balochistan. Many Pakistanis, and particularly media outlets, have pounced on this proclamation — seemingly not understanding that as just one of 535 elected officials on Capitol Hill, he has little power to shape policy on his own. True, Congress did hold a hearing on Balochistan earlier this year. Yet Congress holds plenty of hearings, most of which — like the Balochistan one — are quickly forgotten. Rohrabacher’s rantings are largely inconsequential.

Remarkably, Pakistan’s Foreign Office formally expressed its concerns about the Balochistan hearing to the US State Department. The National Assembly even sponsored a resolution against the hearing, warning that it could undermine US-Pakistan ties. Both responses seemed to suggest that the US State Department supported, or was involved with, the hearing. In fact, just because Congress convenes a hearing doesn’t mean it involves, or is endorsed by, the State Department (or any other government agency). The US Constitution’s system of checks and balances certainly restrains the powers of each government branch, but doesn’t keep the legislature from independently planning and holding hearings.

For sure, there are Pakistanis — many of them diplomats, journalists, academics, or others who have lived in the US — who understand the country’s internal intricacies quite well. Many Pakistani students are genuinely curious to learn about America; after all, few countries — if any — have more people studying in the United States on Fulbright grants.

Nonetheless, I’m confident that just as very few Americans understand Pakistan beyond the realm of militancy and nuclear weapons, very few Pakistanis understand the United States beyond the realm of drone strikes and Raymond Davis (notwithstanding the distorted portrayals of America gleaned from Hollywood and other vehicles of US popular culture). I know of a few academic institutions or research centers in Pakistan dedicated to study of the United States, and am aware of no Pakistani equivalent to the American Institute of Pakistan Studies (that the AIPS has an office in Islamabad, however, is encouraging).

Let me be clear here: It’s not the lack of knowledge about America that bothers me (after all, very few people truly understand countries that are not their own, and they certainly are under no obligation to gain this knowledge). Rather, it’s the double standard at play. Pakistanis complain that Americans don’t understand their country — even while they themselves don’t understand America.

This dynamic extends across various dimensions of the US-Pakistan relationship. Consider, for example, Pakistani criticism of US anti-Pakistan rhetoric. Citing the notorious “most dangerous nation in the world” label (among other comments), many Pakistanis (along with several Americans, including, once again, yours truly) have denounced the demeaning language Americans use against Pakistan. This narrative, however, conveniently ignores the daily condemnations of America from various corners of Pakistan — from talks show hosts and lawyers (recall how the head of the Lahore Bar Association branded Barack Obama as a terrorist?) to Imran Khan’s denunciations and the jeremiads of militants.

This double standard spills into the security realm as well. Pakistani officials demand that US forces in Afghanistan do more to stop cross-border attacks into Pakistan, yet these same officials refuse to go after those on Pakistani soil who stage the majority of the cross-border raids into Afghanistan. And then there’s the curious tendency of many Pakistanis (and politicians in particular) to condemn drone strikes (which target militants) more vociferously than Taliban attacks (which target innocent civilians).

Fortunately, there’s a potential silver lining here. By acknowledging this double standard, an important reality can be crystallised: For all their differences, the two nations (as I’ve written previously) actually share much in common. Let’s admit that the United States and Pakistan understand little about each other, and spew hostile rhetoric about each other — just as both nations are former colonial subjects of the British (and enjoy cordial relations with their former coloniser); suffer from natural resource crises; display high levels of religiosity; and boast powerful and polarising mass media. And that’s just a start.

I’m not suggesting the US and Pakistan are soul mates. I’m simply saying that in this troubled relationship, double standards can telegraph convergences. It’s a conclusion worth remembering, because it is the divergences — of policy, interest, and expectation — that so often bedevil US-Pakistan ties.

 


The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at michael.kugelman@wilsoncenter.org

 


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.