I AM often asked by Pakistani friends and colleagues why Pakistan is perceived negatively in Washington. Some also question why people like me, Pakistanis situated in Washington’s policy world, don’t do much to change this.
To be sure, the supposition cannot be that just because of one’s origin, one should give up objectivity and analytical rigour. Then what is this concern getting at?
At its core, I think, it relates to the frustration many Pakistanis feel at what they see as a mischaracterisation of their country in the popular Washington narrative. Serious minds in Pakistan are not necessarily questioning the efficacy of the analyses coming out of Washington. Instead, they wonder why disproportionate focus is put on a small set of issues, all of which project negativity about Pakistan.
This is a fair observation. So let me explain why this may be the case.
Foremost, Afghanistan is where US troops are based and so, Kabul, not Islamabad, is Washington’s number one short-term priority. Therefore, over the past decade, the US government and most experts who have studied the region have focused primarily on American efforts in Afghanistan. Most public, and more importantly private, forums discussing the regional situation are about ‘Af-Pak’, not about Pakistan as a country that could promise much for the US in the long run in its own right.
And as soon as one seeks to study Islamabad through Kabul’s lens, Pakistan cannot but stand out as a troublemaker that has cost America dearly in its Afghan campaign.
Next, Washington is short on individuals who have had the opportunity to ‘immerse’ themselves in both the Pakistani and US contexts sufficiently to be able to play down the middle, i.e. comprehend and explain each side’s perspective to the other as a relatively neutral observer.
‘Immersion’ implies that individuals have been contextually and culturally grounded in a particular environment deeply and long enough so that the nuances of a state’s and society’s behaviour stand out naturally to them.
This is needed for two reasons. First, such experts are able to see situations as the country they are immersed in would; they are no longer ‘foreign’ to the context. If experts can do this reasonably well for both Pakistan and the US, they could play a critical role in enhancing each side’s appreciation for the other: they can explain Pakistani policy behaviour and rationale to Washington, and Washington’s approach and logic to Islamabad — but both from an ‘inside-out’ (rather than an outsider’s) perspective. Ideally, this should lead to a deeper understanding of the ‘other’ for policymakers.
Second, the problem with not having a large pool of ‘immersed’ experts is not the quality of their analysis. Insinuating that would be denying the exceptionally high quality analyses of non-immersed experts on a variety of subjects over the years.
However, more often than not, such experts tend to focus on the narrow set of issues most prevalent in the common narrative and often do it from an outsider’s perspective. This is so since research based on secondary sources or a narrow set of primary contacts — these usually tend to be the elite of Islamabad in Pakistan’s case — naturally gravitates towards issues that have already been written about extensively in the public domain. At some point, such works become self-referential and thereby end up iterating and reiterating the same conclusions on the same topics.
To be sure, there is nothing wrong with ‘non-immersed’ analyses. But the need for ‘immersed’ policy experts is felt dearly in some cases. For countries like Pakistan, where ties are crucial, but acrimony is acute and mistrust deep, ‘inside-out’ viewpoints are essential as they can most naturally produce and promote counter-intuitive thinking. This, in turn, would allow for more wholesome analyses and policymaking, the space for which may otherwise be limited due to the disproportionate visibility of a particular line of focus and thinking.
So why aren’t there many ‘immersed’ experts on Pakistan in Washington’s policy scene?
For American scholars of Pakistan, there is a generational gap in terms of expertise. Till the late-1980s, scholars took advantage of the Fulbright and other programmes that allowed them to invest time and effort in understanding Pakistan. Thereafter, the lull in the US-Pakistan relationship during the 1990s led to disinterest and the number of Americans studying Pakistan declined drastically. Interest spiked overnight after 9/11 but for the better part of the past decade, American Fulbright scholars have been unable to travel to Pakistan for security reasons.
As for Pakistani-American experts in the US, the reason for their virtual absence is simple: hardly any Pakistanis who came to the US from the 1950s onwards went into the policy field. They preferred to become doctors, engineers, lawyers, bankers, etc. And their children have been slow to change tack, much slower than other comparable diaspora communities.
The end result: the overwhelming majority of the analysis on Pakistan emanating from Washington today is led by those who haven’t had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the Pakistani context. And so, it is hardly surprising that the focus has been on exceptionally narrow, terrorism-related issues. Pakistan’s importance often seems reduced to a basket of concerns revolving around this menace.
The few Washington-based voices who have gone through the immersion on Pakistan do confirm my thesis: they tend to focus on issues broader than just Af-Pak, terrorism, Fata, etc. and their take on Pakistan is often quite different than the prevalent view (not to say that there are not notable exceptions: a number of immersed experts who choose not to play ‘down the middle’ or whose take on issues likens to the predominant view; or experts who do not fit the immersed category but attempt to comprehend broader issues from an inside-out perspective).
The current dynamic shrinks the space for alternative explanations as overwhelmingly predominant views tend to become inviolable. Voices seeking to broaden the debate and explain the ‘other’s’ rationale are quickly drowned out.
To be sure, even though my focus has been on Washington, the very same concern exists on the Pakistani side. In fact, predominant narratives of the US in Pakistan go even less challenged. More on that later.
The writer is South Asia adviser at the US Institute of Peace, Washington, D.C.