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Where have Pakistan’s America experts gone?

Published Sep 13, 2012 12:45pm

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


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.

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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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Comments (38) Closed

Sep 14, 2012 02:05pm
these jigsaw pieces dont go together.
Sep 14, 2012 11:45am
Sridhar ver well said. But I would like to add one thing, don't blame just Media; most of Pakistanis (may be it it true for USA too) also doesn't have any appetite to digest the truth. Media is just like Walmart they put only those merchandise that sells (Not trying to protect the Media).
Afzal A. Neseem
Sep 13, 2012 05:08pm
A thoughtful,objective,analytical and balanced write up.The unfortunate fact is that in spite of extensive people to people contact,there is very little understanding of what is positive in the relationship between the two peoples even at the level of the people.
Sep 13, 2012 06:10pm
The writer has a valid point but I think Pakistanis are suffering from perpetual insecurity where we haven't quite grown out of receiving handouts from other countries. The hangover of partition isn't over yet and just like we expect US or Saudi or Chinese aid we expect others to understand us as well. Being dependent on foreign aid has prevented us from striking out on our own although for the first time it appears to be changing. Perhaps it is this insecurity that prevents us from seeing America in a different light. Or perhaps we just needed a writer like yourself to point it out to us.
Sep 14, 2012 05:50am
"Pakistanis complain that Americans don
Sep 13, 2012 03:48pm
Michael, The is a huge difference between the literacy rates of Pakistan and the United States. In Pakistan, not everyone has access to the internet or can read and write in English. Therefore, we expect people to be ignorant in Pakistan regarding the U.S. However, this not the case in the U.S, where there is access to all kinds of electronic media, as well as a very large Pakistani expat community. Then why do a lot of Americans continue to view Pakistan in a certain way or along certain narratives? To suggest that both Pakistanis and Americans should be equally open minded towards each other ignores the influence of education and literacy on an individuals mindset.
Sep 13, 2012 11:06pm
Many say much about each other but when official statements to another country is given that is the most important and debated alot. If arrogance is shown in official statements typical school politics starts and it is so dangerous to see ths happening at times. One wonders where are experts of these countries. Does anyone ever think before giving an official statement that this is going down in history and can even give an echo after 40 year as well. An official statements means talking about destiny of millions of people of a atleast two countries.
Sep 14, 2012 05:15am
Good Analysis, I am a Pakistani who studied in US and is working in US. I undertsand your point. I appreciate your article, both of us nations should come together for better understanding.I see a lot of common ground for both nations
Sep 14, 2012 04:43am
Its nothing but love and hate relationship going with the flow of the wind. Love me today , hate me tomorrow, hate me today , love me tomorrow.
Aizaz Moin
Sep 13, 2012 02:46pm
I fail to understand where you are going with this argument. Whilst it may be pertinent to say that neither Nation has the desire nor the inclination to learn about the other, the very fact that we are mired in this situation, we need to consider where the other is coming from before addressing their problems. There was a time once when you could ask a school child in either country about the other and get an intelligent reply but not so today. Clearly we need to focus on education don't we?
Sep 14, 2012 05:28am
I tried to make the same point a couple of months ago when Pakistanis media was going viral over some statements made by Texas Congressman Louis Gohmert. Judging by the coverage in the Pakistani media one would think Gohmert and Rohrbacher were two of the most important people in the United States. Those of us who live in America know the truth. These guys are back benchers, who have Zero influence on US policies. Nobody outside their own district cares a bit as to what they say. These two are among congressmen who can often be seen on C-Span late at night speaking to an empty chamber. I was similarly astounded by the importance attached by Pakistanis to Raymond Davis. The fact is, if you stop 10 guys on a street of any American city and ask them if they have ever heard of Davis, 9 would say no, and the 10th would guess that Davis was a NFL football player. The man was a low level CIA staffer, and is simply not on the radar screen for most Americans. Yet, judging by the coverage in Pakistani media, one would think 9 out of 10 Americans were eagerly discussing the Davis case over their Breakfast coffee. In my opinion, the problem lies in the way the Governments have brain washed the Pakistani public since 1947. There has been no diversity of thought and ideas in the Government controlled media. Even today's supposedly independent media speaks with the same voice on most issues. The average Pakistani therefore simply cannot wrap his or her mind around the idea of a diverse nation such as the USA. They automatically assume that the most extreme and idiotic statements by one or two back benchers in the US congress represent the views of a majority of Americans.
Sep 14, 2012 06:13am
The author truly acknowledge that US and Pakistan are soul-mate. When US possesses all the qualities of Pakistan may be Pakistan will be irrelevant for the World and for God !
Sep 14, 2012 06:02am
The only expert we had has fled to UK.
Sep 14, 2012 04:05am
You seem to be as confused about Pak-American relations as much as the relations themselves are.
Sep 14, 2012 12:13pm
When the Pakistanis themselves are embroiled in their own problems like religion misunderstanding,the Taliban and regional disagreements and so forth you want them to listen to America's problems with them?
Sep 14, 2012 09:29am
I really enjoyed reading that piece. This narcissistic attitude must change. I wont criticize America, I would fix my own house first. Its easy to point fingers and put the blame on others. That must stop.
Sep 14, 2012 01:51pm
Very well said.
Sep 14, 2012 03:30am
One more area of possible confusion is the recent film by an alleged Jewish fanatic.While the US has to answer for many wrong things ,why should the film be associated with Americans in general.Yes the producer etc should be taken up but these rabid demonstrations only bring a bad name to Islam .I hope Pakistan ( and India/ Bangladesh too) is spared from such violent demonstrations ( especially against the US)
Sep 13, 2012 11:38pm
Only thing i will add is, until USA admits that we are a Muslim country and stop backing secular entites in our country, there is no chance of moving ahead. What happened in Egypt? for years they had American backed dictator, first elections and a Muslim govt comes in to power. Islam is in our hearts and Americans need to understand this
Sep 14, 2012 01:56pm
The film, and several films on YouTube, has nothing to do with the American government, the administration, or even with most of the people. People in Asia just do not understand the concept of "freedom of expression". They also do not understand how debate does not have to degenerate into war, and that dissent does not have to lead to discrimination. Even idiots are free to express themselves, any which way. This professed love for the prophet by protesters in Egypt, etc. seems misplaced when it leads to violence or killing. How can dislike for any movie lead to killing and violence? How many people have time in the middle of the day to go for a protest and start burning things. Says more about these societies and the lack of perspectives and level of intolerance.
Sep 15, 2012 12:12pm
Brother Fatah, just like America interferes in other nation's interests, Pakistan also has done it. This causes so much mess in Afghanisthan. After the US walked out did the Pakistanis not continue to support the Taliban for political control of Afghanisthan? Also ask why Osama was living near Islamabad? Again ask why so many Pakistanis die and still no willingness to wipe out the militancy? May be still militant groups are seen are seen as 'assets' ! Pakistan and US, need to do much soul searching and mend their relationships;else more bloodshed is sure to follow.
Sep 15, 2012 07:40am
There are actually two very diiferent US. These are separated by closed loop of geographic boundary. One is inside and the other is outside. What most Pakistanis knows is the outside. And it is very hard for them appreciating that inside is very different. Whenever I tell my Pakistani fellow that the US is actually a religious society in its own style, they stare at me with a shock. Each society has to resolve its contradiction by itself. It is extremely important how it is done.
Sep 13, 2012 02:23pm
Agree with you..
Muneeb Irfan
Sep 15, 2012 07:54am
Micheal, I feel that you've made some excellent points. Recently, US-Pak relationship has been plagued by mutual mistrust. Recently, we have become a very, very nervous nation and so has America. Unfortunately, recent events have taken their toll on this deeply troubled relationship. I agree both of us need to act like real "allies". We need to come to common terms, knowing people in both countries you'll find that we like being upfront, let's do that lets be brutally honest and bury is aura of negativity. Additionally, we need to improve people to people contact across the board.
Mohiuddin Aazim
Sep 14, 2012 03:47pm
Michael Kugelman, I think, is stating only the obvious. And as a scholar at Woodrow Wilson, he is understandably trained to look deeper into important issues like the one he has touched upon. I believe that there is a need both in the US as well as in Pakistan to understand each other like two responsible countries. Lack of political will or lack of resources sometimes often come in the way but the solution still lies in developing as much understanding about each other as possible. Media can play an important role in this regard. Not all American and Pakistani media outlets just toe the official line of their own countries. Some of them try to dig deeper into bilateral issues and global developments that affect Pakistan-US relationship. Let's hope that with the passage of time media of both countries would gradually become more objective and more professional in dealing with such issues. Mohiuddin Aazim
Sep 13, 2012 04:52pm
How many times is this author gong to write the same article? To be blunt the American's seem to have a decent grasp of the inter-workings of Pakistan, who has the real power and how they will respond to events -- Pakistan, on the other hand, doesn't seem to have a clue about America as demonstrated by their inept handling of the OBL, Dr. Afridi, Nato supply line debacles.
Mohammad Ali Khan
Sep 14, 2012 12:49pm
Kugelman, Even US Citizens have no control over US Congress.AIPAC,and corporate lobbyist control the agenda.
Paki dada
Sep 13, 2012 10:19pm
Its not really the lack of experts or understanding, but the Pakistan government, media and masses just love drama, after all if it doesnt make a big bang, then its not worth their time and effort. Sad but true!
Sep 14, 2012 01:01am
Lack of expertise on each other is mutual. So no harm done.
Sep 14, 2012 03:11pm
Pakistanis understand America - it is war mongering nation interested in exploiting other nations for their resources and geographic location
A. Salma
Sep 13, 2012 02:44pm
"For all their differences, the two nations (as I
Ali Sher
Sep 15, 2012 07:41am
Ali abbas
Sep 15, 2012 12:05pm
And do not forget their most important objective, they want to fully control Fatah's extremely brilliant and free thinking rational mind.
Sep 13, 2012 09:13pm
Beautifully written narration.... of our feelings. It is so unfortunate to see that the Pakistanis who are much more educated about international politics than average American citizen do not try to understand how US is being run. Obama has no influence what goes on Youtube (thanks God) and US congress is loaded with interest groups. If Pakistan wants to influence US policies they need to have a very strong interest lobby in US just like India and Israel. The billions they take from US could be invested back into US for long term interest. Just complaints won't help.
Sep 13, 2012 03:17pm
The problem is not the lack of Pakistanis with expertise and appreciation for American politics and and policy making. I have read some masterful analysis by Pakistani academics residing in the US. That group includes now defamed Ambassador Haquani. The problem lies in Pakistani media's refusal and reluctance to provide visibility for such scholarly and astute analyses. The Dawn is a glaring exception, and that is why, as an Indian-American, I am a regular reader. Much of the Pakistani media likes sensationalism and sound bytes. Much of the semi-literate readership/viewership is persuaded by simplistic slogans rather than by deliberate debate. It is the role of the media to connect with, and inform the populace on issues that matter. But that is hard work. Many in Pakistani media are in cahoots with the forces of de-stabalization. An unstable Pakistan is good for their business. Why educate when ignorance is more profitable? No wonder many Pakistani scholars with deep knowledge of international relations are well hidden from the masses and ignored by the Pakistani decision makers.
Sep 15, 2012 03:57am
BRR, wouldn't I get a hole in my head, if in USA, I started extolling the 9-11 incident? Where is the so called Freedom Of Expression now? The diabolical incident of 9-11 is something that Americans hold very close to their heart. There is no such thing as absolute Freedom Of Expression. Every society has its own set of tolerances and values. We hold our Prophet to the highest of the highest pedestal and that we respect their Jesus and values, so should they our's.
Sep 14, 2012 03:40am
Well written piece. Good and enjoyable
Sep 13, 2012 01:44pm
"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

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