Strangers in the Night

Posted by sepoy on January 15, 2009 · 11 mins read

Below are the comments I gave at the Mumbai Panel, yesterday.


Yesterday, at her Senate confirmation hearing, Senator Clinton faced a number of questions about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Her most detailed conversation was with Senator Kerry - who will head the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Kerry spoke about his trip to South Asia, in the immediate aftermath of Mumbai attacks.

We do not live there. We don't live in the community, in a hamlet, in a small town, pocket, whatever you want to call it. And so we're not there often at night. They are. And the night often rules with the insurgencies.

It is a profoundly illuminating statement. The interplay of light and dark, day and night. The reference to hamlets and pockets. Insurgency - the lexical contribution of the Iraq War which continues to hold sway. They live there. We don't. That language of globalization which rules the pages of Wall Street Journal and New York Times is distinctly absent. These are not interconnected communities that stretch across national borders, these are inwardly focused, pre-modern histories. To further explain, Senator Kerry mentioned that he has been doing a lot of reading recently - readings that impressed upon him the importance of “tribalism”, "We honored tribalism when we dealt with the Northern Alliance and initially went in to Afghanistan. We really haven't adequately since." He recommended that Senator Clinton read Rory Stewart's travelogue of walking across Afghanistan and Pakistan, The Places in Between. And also Janet Wallach's biography of Gertrude Bell entitled Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Advisor to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia. Let that title wash all over you. Luxuriate in it.

Senator Clinton responded warmly to Kerry's literary suggestions.

Sitting here today, when I think about my trips to Afghanistan, my flying over that terrain, my awareness of the history going back to Alexander the Great and certainly, the imperial British military and Rudyard Kipling's memorable poems about Afghanistan, the Soviet Union, which put in more troops than we're thinking about putting in — I mean, it calls for a large doze of humility about what it is we are trying to accomplish.

The historian in me is fascinated by these teleologies at display: Alexander to the British to the Soviets to US. A timelime of invaders and conquerors who, I assume, only abided the day, and not the night. There is the unapologetic emphasis on the romantic and the Orientalist - a vocabulary of time and space that does not mesh, at all, with our own. I do not know if our Senators realized that this is also, explicitly, a teleology of failed imperial enterprises. Not the precedent, I am sure, they'd want to invoke.

But the tribalism espoused by Senator Kerry is also part of this now-defunct mode. It stands for those "others" every colonial power has ever imagined into being. To fight their wars. The burden of tribalism is the burden of violence on colonial subjects — be they the Hindus and Muslims under British colonial rule in the early decades of the twentieth century, or the Sunnis and Shias in Baghdad under the surge. The colonial histories are written in that particular language of violence. These are the violent colonial solutions to political problems, to be exact.


Reading the US Press, Senator Kerry and Clinton, on Pakistan is to know that Pakistan does not exist as a coherent nation-state. It seems to comprise of undifferentiated security actors (Musharraf/Kayani, Karzai, Northern Alliance, Taliban, Pakistan military, ISI) operating in a volatile soup. It is constantly claimed that the state - whether civil or military - does not control its own western and south-western territories. A claim that enables US to conduct drone attacks, as well as military incursions into the country. In the first seven months of 2008, there were five drone strikes inside Pakistan. Since August, there have been over thirty. Some as deep as 25 miles into Pakistani territory and deadly - killing 50 people in four attacks in September, alone.

But Pakistan does have a history as a nation-state, in fact. And it is not the history of Alexander's arrival to the Indus. Let me give you a brief recount. From 1999 - 2008, we supported the military dictatorship of General Pervez Musharraf - he was the devil we knew and liked. From 2002-2008, the same devil presided as vast swathes of his country converted into a war-zone. In 2005, to suppress the proto-nationalist uprising in Baluchistan, he used the same tactics that were being practiced across the border in Afghanistan: bombing over civilian enclaves, missile assassinations, heavy military foot-print. As he methodically destroyed the claimants for an engaged and equal partnership for Baluchistan in the federal regime, he created the political space for the emergence of new actors - the Mehsud tribe in Waziristan. As a result Pakistan, by the end of 2008, faces several civil wars - in the north-west, it faces the development of self-declared taliban regime which is hoping to enforce Shari'a. In the south-west, it faces the proliferation of both proto-nationalist and terrorist groups. In the city of Karachi, there is the systematic effort to expel Afghan/Pakhtun immigrants by the ethnic party, MQM.

Previously, we supported two other decade long military dictatorships, General Zia ul-Haq (1977-1988) during whose tenure we fought our hot Cold War in Afghanistan and during whose tenure we excused a rampant policy of Sunnification and militarization. And Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958-1969) whose tenure saw the effective killing of democratic institutions and the highlighting of Kashmir as the central issue of Pakistan. We supported all three men. They came to our capital, spoke to the Congress, enjoyed days and nights as our esteemed friends. Overall, in the 61 years of existence, we supported 30 plus years of military rule in Pakistan. Let me restate this: The United States has consistently supported the elimination of any democratic development in Pakistan since 1947. During the civilian administrations, we routinely ignored Pakistan or imposed sanctions. If Pakistan lacks coherence as a nation-state to Senator Kerry and Clinton, they can look to these specific histories for explanation. Alexander the Great cannot help them.


In the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, the world has found yet another reason to doubt the sustainability of Pakistan, doubt the intentions of the people and the State, doubt their commitment to being a peaceful global citizens. These doubts, those proclamations, some of the harsh denouncements of the Indian media were heard loudly and clearly across Pakistan. The bellicosity - apparent even in the flyer for this panel - generated its own predictable response. The military, which had finally lost all credence, is slowly coming back in business. It is the protector. It is the sustainer of the national myths.

The Pakistanis are also attuned to the silences. They note that in the teleology of modern terror - NYC, Madrid, London, and now Mumbai - there is no mention of Lahore and Islamabad. The September 20th blast at the Marriott, Islamabad is a clear precursor to the tragedy at Taj, Mumbai. It, too, was a site where the local elite gathered for daily mingling. It, too, catered to the foreign visitors. It, too, was a sign of Pakistan's growing economy. Yet, while NYC and Mumbai are forever linked, the victims of Islamabad and Lahore find themselves on the other side of history.

The Obama administration will need to stop reading Rudyard Kipling and start reading even the wide-circulation daily Urdu and English press from Pakistan. (( Senator Kerry and Clinton are also welcome to read my list of recommended readings)) It is quite easy, they are all online. It will have to know Pakistan's hopes lie with civilian institutions, civic bodies which protect women and minorities, elementary and secondary education for all, strengthening the judiciary, invoking land reform. It will have to know that the military is the largest land-owning entity, one of the biggest business entity and the greatest consumer of US AID. The Obama administration needs to focus on the people of Pakistan, in the PRESENT and not in some distant past surrounded in unknown terrain, if it hopes to combat escalating extremism in the region. Collectively, there are over 200 million inhabitants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There are mega-cities like Karachi with populations over 19 million. We are not dealing with hamlets and pockets. And the global context is certainly clear to the terrorists in Mumbai. In the violence they spread, over three days, and their targets and their statements, they drew upon this language of political violence. Nariman house to Gaza, Kashmir to Taj Hotel are not teleologies of tribalism and we make a grave error if we read them wrongly.

Ironically, 2008 began with one of the greatest moments in the history of this nation. After a year-long civic protest, led by the Lawyers Movement, the people of Pakistan democratically voted out this military dictator. The February elections in Pakistan were a resounding dismissal of a decade of military dominance, as well as the religious parties. Yet, we failed to engage with this flowering of democracy. And we need to engage with the civilian government of Zardari — however flawed that particular person is.

There are no military solutions to a decades old political problem. Because military solutions mandate that the language of political violence be the only language left (be it in Kashmir or Islamabad or Mumbai).


Jonathan Dresner | January 15, 2009

Have you sent a copy of this to your congressional offices? You should, seriously.

Zak | January 16, 2009

This is really excellent. I, too, was struck by Kerry's mention of Bell; I haven't read Wallach's book, but I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that it doesn't offer a particularly scathing critique of early-20th-century British imperial policy in the Middle East or enumerate the myriad differences between 1910s Arabia (!) and 21st-century Pakistan and Afghanistan. Presumably one of "Kipling's memorable poems about Afghanistan" Kerry is recalling is "The Ballad of East and West"...

SC | January 16, 2009

Sepoy, This, "Yet, while NYC and Mumbai are forever linked, the victims of Islamabad and Lahore find themselves on the other side of history," is an excellent point. I am sorry I missed the event. I am not sure if you mean the same thing here, but I was astounded by the exceptionalism of Mumbai which was created in the narratives after the event, rather than making links and connections with most especially the Marriott incident. Of course everyone wants to link Mumbai to NYC and telling that story has its own horrendous implications. What is really needed is the connecting of states, the way you have done here. We could also of course connect this to Sri Lanka and Assam where "insurgency" and extra-national repression of insurgency has been the norm for some time. Indeed we could move well beyond "South Asia" and find that the militarization of non-state actors is truly the norm, and if you trace the money-trail, "we" have only ourselves to look at. I did watch those hearings for Clinton's nomination and I was dumbfounded by the Alexander reference. thanks for posting this.

Asif | January 16, 2009

'The Pakistanis are also attuned to the silences. They note that in the teleology of modern terror - NYC, Madrid, London, and now Mumbai - there is no mention of Lahore and Islamabad.' Love this blog and this point. But I think before we attempt to get on the bandwagon of this teleology of modern terror, Pakistanis (the elite) should also note the existence of their own "other" - the poor and the islamists (both the militant and non-militant variety).

Bangash Khan | January 16, 2009

NYC linked with Mumbai ??! Who told you that? Maybe in Indian minds that would be so but certainly not outside of India. The Mumbai attacks will be completely forgotten a few months from now. Regarding the military of Pakistan, well it is a functioning institution that does what it says. Can't say the same about "people of Pakistan".

sav | January 17, 2009

I always learn so much here! This blog is like a public service :P

Count Floyd | January 18, 2009

Thanks for this insightful post. I would like to suggest one minor point: "Senator Kerry spoke about his trip to South Asia, in the immediate aftermath of Mumbai attacks. We do not live there. We don't live in the community, in a hamlet, in a small town, pocket, whatever you want to call it. And so we're not there often at night. They are. And the night often rules with the insurgencies. ... The reference to hamlets and pockets. Insurgency - the lexical contribution of the Iraq War which continues to hold sway." I don't know your age, you may be too young to make the lexical connection those of us 45 or over will make to the words hamlet and insurgency. Keeping in mind Kerry's background and life history, I suggest the model there is not Iraq but Vietnam, where the centerpiece of the US "counterinsurgency" strategy was the "strategic hamlet" program. In the US, the Vietnam War still rages.

aamir | January 18, 2009

Rory Stewart was in a state of total denial when he wrote that book. He simply refused to see any good. He was blind folded by some kind of stuborn idialism. He painted a very dark picture of modern day afghanistan without taking into consideration factors like war,famine,hunger and illeteracy.

Qalandar | February 11, 2009

One of your best pieces. Truly searing. On Mumbai: let us also not forget the colonized language of the media ("colonized" here in the sense of being a simulacrum of the "real", namely "the West"): only against such a backdrop can we understand Indian media references to "India's 9/11" (i.e. the Mumbai attacks), or "Kashmir's Obama" (i.e. Omar Abdullah), or even Gujarat's Obama (that was, to be fair, not the media but a bunch of prominent industrialists; Congress spokesperson Manish Jha did well to cite the glowing testimonials of German industrialists in 1933 and after.) Meaning, it seems, can only be conferred with reference to an event that has taken place "over there," where real history happens.

Qalandar | February 11, 2009

PS-- it is manifestly clear that the establishment seems to have learned little since the days of Robert "ancient-ethnic-hatreds-in-the-Balkans" Kaplan. The problem for the once-colonized in this context is that (s)he needs to walk a tightrope: on the one hand, the need to assert that the place in question has a history; on the other hand, the need to "rescue" that history from a pre-determined fate as a kind of anthropology. Your recounting of some of the relevant events here bears this out -- I remember getting into a bunch of post-9/11 discussions with people wanting to know "what the Quran says", as to why what happened in 750 AD was more relevant than what happened in, say, 1953.

Qalandar | February 12, 2009

PS-- An error in Comment #9: the chap's name is Manish TIWARI (Manish Jha is a filmmaker).

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