Oh, Fisk It!

Posted by sepoy on March 17, 2009 · 5 mins read

Re: Patrick French. "Touting Religion, Grabbing Land." New York Times, March 17, 2009.

It has been a while since CM had a rant post. I have matured, you know. Elevated discourse and all that. But, fuck it. This Patrick French "opinion piece" just fills me with that oft-familiar feeling.

First off, does Patrick French meet our criteria of having access to NYT Op-ed. Yes, he does. He is qualified because he is "the author, most recently, of “The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V. S. Naipaul.” Excellent.

Next, does he know some really important people? Like, personally? Yes, he does. I flew to Islamabad with Nawaz Sharif. More excellence. How about native informants? my brother-in-law, Sana Ullah. Hooked up!

Further, does he have the requisite millenarian, apocalyptic understanding of Pakistan? Is he convinced that the End Is Nigh? Yes he does! Notice that in his very first line, "the demonstrations across Pakistan last week that forced President Asif Ali Zardari to reinstate the nation's former chief justice, following the attack by militants on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, were simply the latest phase in the broad destabilization of the country," he manages to put a broad-based populist movement on equal footing with a terrorist attack and have _both_contribute to the doom. Well played, French. Well played.

It is a dispiriting read. In French's view, 18 months ago was a rosy-paradise when Mush ruled the roost and he could sip bubblies with Mian ji. But, a dinner conversation and a teenage boy changed all that. Note the burden of proof he has to muster for this piece to get published in NYT: a dinner conversation with the in-laws, and an un-named teenage boy. Bravo, NYT. But, this absurdly low bar exists only when one is talking about those brown people over there. I bet if some Parisian soul submitted a broad jeremiad on US financial meltdown after exchanging a few sentences with her waitress, she'd get rejected. Well, maybe, if she was the author, most recently, of Living with Jonathan: That Littell Shit, they'd consider it.

The "analysis" goes beyond being hackneyed (according to my estimation, the first use of "failed state" in reference to Pakistan was used in 1953) and into complete and utter cluelessness. Take a look:

Pakistan's slide toward anarchy is similar to the conditions in Afghanistan in the 1990s: it was easier then for the Afghan elite to pretend that the political situation was likely to improve than to face the truth and do something about it. The bickering factions in Kabul allowed the Taliban to take control of large areas of southern Afghanistan, refusing to see that this would only embolden the Islamists to march on the capital.

Count the ways in which this is patently absurd. Afghanistan in the 1990s was a decade after a foreign occupation and pitched battle in every "hamlet" (to use Senator Kerry's formulation). Is he seriously comparing the current state of Pakistan to Afghanistan? By that equivalence, is Musharraf's period akin to Soviet occupation. Hey, I can dig it, but that does clash w/ his previously "Oh how nice things were 18 months ago" scenario. I won't even point out how patently wrong he is in reading Afghanistani history, alone. It wasn't "bickering" that led to the fall of Kabul at the hands of the Taliban in 1996, that's for certain.

The sheer hyperbolic madness of "killing fields" "radical sunni groups are more powerful than ever", "deal with Taliban represents most serious blow to the country's territorial integrity since the civil war of 1971" numbs the mind. However, here is what I think is the gem. The one pure insight that he gets so completely wrong that it circles around one's logic and becomes right again: The army has limited skill in counterinsurgency tactics or in winning hearts and minds; its main achievement over the last two decades has been training militants to fight Indian troops in Kashmir. So the army which trained and equipped and marshaled hundreds of thousands of Afghanistani counterinsurgents over a decade of fighting the Soviets has limited skills? The army which spread a hardline, fundamentalist, aggressively confrontational religiosity across the nation-state for more than a decade doesn't know about winning hearts and minds?

What a crock.


Conrad Barwa | March 17, 2009

I read that article he wrote when he was on that flight with Nawaz Sharif - it was god-awful and there was just no defending it. This is a shame, I liked French's book "Liberty or Death" which I think took a relatively balanced view of the Indian independence movement and partition. I have heard him speak and talked to him a few times; he is one of the few people interested in the region who isn't Indo-centric in his approach - what struck me at the time was his insistence that Pakistan was the most interesting country in the region and the one he wanted to concentrate on/spend time in. It is a shame that it led to this, since he is one of the relatively small number of sympathetic external observers Pakistan has.

Qalandar | March 17, 2009

Re: "...this absurdly low bar exists only when one is talking about those brown people over there." Who can forget the NY-based Pakistani investment banker this or that channel would dredge up to offer commentary some years ago. And to think people say said's theory is played out...

Zack | March 17, 2009

I haven't read the op-ed but I have to defend Patrick French who wrote Liberty or Death, a very decent account of subcontinental independence and partition.

aamir | March 17, 2009

Zack why don't you read it first. Its like defending 'Beyond Belief' because you have read 'Miguel Street. Who is he really warning when he predicts/ wishes pakistan as a nuclear-armed Afghanistan? Today it would be the least of an afghan's worries if his country had the bomb. And can anybody tell me Kristen L Rouse's qualifications. Did Dyer get chance to show his soft side in The Guardian.

Neena | March 18, 2009

Patrick French's account is quite right and logical except the part below where I think he was smoking something when he wrote it. The only way forward is for the government and those opposition politicians, such as Mr. Sharif, who still have popular support to unite with progressive elements inside the Army, and to recognize the real and immediate danger of the Islamist threat.

bilal | March 18, 2009

everyone is an expert on pakistan. even deepak chopra. http://watandost.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-to-win-pakistans-culture-war.html good job on french.

Raymond Turney | March 19, 2009

Hi, I suspect I fall into your category of people who are basically pro-Indian. Of course, some Indians have denounced me as pro-Pakistani, so who knows? That said, the New York Times has to find people whose positions can be understood without reading a fair amount about Pakistan. The situation in Pakistan is actually very confusing, with conflicts between big landowners and capitalists out of the Western early 19th century superimposed on conflicts between religious fanatics and the traditional landowning aristocracy right out of the Western late middle ages. To add to the confusion, Pakistan's army promoted, back in the eighties, a Saudi inspired form of religious fanaticism, because this form of Islam tends to set Pakistan apart from India. As I understand it, this form of Islam has continued to be the semi-official preferred form. At the same time, the army is in many ways an independent power, capable of vetoing decisions by other actors on the political stage, if one is to believe Ayesha Siddiqa. All of this is happening in a country that speaks four different languages, which seem at this distance to support four different political cultures. Both the Pashtuns and the Balochs seem to have substantial independence movements, with the Pashtun independence types allied to the Taliban. All this before you start to figure out India, the ISI, etc. Even Pakistanis have a lot of trouble figuring out Pakistan. I usually believe Tariq Ali, but that is just to provide me with a starting point in figuring things out. Which is to say that it is much easier to adopt currently fashionable attitudes in the US than it is to figure out Pakistan. So in a short piece, the NYT pretty much has to do that. If you're interested in my blog, it is at: http://www.rememberjenkinsear.blogspot.com/ but I must confess, I haven't figured out Pakistan yet:-). Ray,

Qalandar | March 19, 2009

Bilal, I see where you're coming from on the Chopra post (the irritating salman ahmed's a co-author), but on balance I would say this sort of piece is a lot more welcome than the sort that typically appears -- I think of Bernard Henri-Levi and his representations of Pakistan as a breathlessly insane place (where it's always night) as the patron saint of the latter sort of piece. At least the Chopra/Ahmed piece is trying to explore some nuances, for an audience that likely isn't going otherwise hear/read about them...

Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times « the mob and the multitude | March 19, 2009

[...] a sinister game of Chicken that might kill us all played by a cast smaller than the Sopranos. The apocalyptic narrative of crisis and crisis-averted is always the same, and it’s not limited to the NYT. See the [...]

M | March 19, 2009

I don't get the angst - is there anything factually inaccurate in French's op-ed. The Pakistani army does have limited counter-insurgency skills - look at how long it took them to crush Baluchi nationalism. Why don't they do the same in Swat - its because they agree with the basic philosophy of the Taliban.

Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times « Action for a Progressive Pakistan | March 19, 2009

[...] a sinister game of Chicken that might kill us all played by a cast smaller than the Sopranos. The apocalyptic narrative of crisis and crisis-averted is always the same, and it’s not limited to the NYT. See the [...]

Qalandar | March 19, 2009

M: I don't think that necessarily follows; the insurgency in Nagaland has continued basically from 1948; Mizoram from 1961 or so; surely we couldn't infer from this that the Indian army "agree(s) with the basic philosophy" of the Naga or Mizo secessionists, would we? Even far more sophisticated militaries than India's or Pakistan's, such as the US' or UK's, find it very difficult to tackle guerilla insurgencies (the relative success in Iraq is due in large part to the fact that the US is basically paying tribesmen in the "Sunni triangle" to not fight; i.e. it isn't just a function of military tactics; and even that stage took half a decade to reach. Afghanistan remains a mess 7+ years after the fall of the Taliban government in Kabul; heck even historically it took British forces a decade to tackle the Malay insurgency in the 1950s, and Indochina proved problematic for both France and the USA; Algeria was another one; I mean there are countless examples)...

Fahd | March 20, 2009

great job, French's article was utterly pathetic. there is no good reason that the NYTimes should give space to someone who does nothing but rehash the same tired old "conclusions" about pakistan. he offers no fresh analysis of his own, but just touts his own connections to pakistani elite... who themselves are not a reliable indicator as to the state of the nation.

SJ | March 27, 2009

I didn't understand one aspect of this post: "So the army which trained and equipped and marshaled hundreds of thousands of Afghanistani counterinsurgents over a decade of fighting the Soviets has limited skills?" Surely they created *insurgents*, not counterinsurgents?

Desi Back to desh Blog Archive I want to be a chapatti when I grow up, or, a middle class rejoinder, two | April 04, 2009

[...] Sepoy’s rant at Chapati Mystery on an NYT Oped by Patrick French on [...]

You were saying, a rejoinder four… | Desi Back to desh | April 05, 2009

[...] to think that you shouldn’t write off my home, on the basis of obnoxious and misinformed NYT Op-eds, WSJ commentary, CNN and FOX News hatchet [...]

What set Jawwad Farid off? | Tea Break | April 07, 2009

[...] half way across the world, Mannan Ahmed who goes by the name Sepoy, on the blog Chapati Mystery, reacted to a NY Times Op-Ed piece - a rant (certainly worth reading) that was equally responsible for inspiring Jawwad Farid into [...]

Pakistan: A Primer for the New York Times | Madiha R. Tahir | June 13, 2009

[...] a sinister game of Chicken that might kill us all played by a cast smaller than the Sopranos. The apocalyptic narrative of crisis and crisis-averted is always the same, and it’s not limited to the NYT. See the [...]