The author is the Senior Program Associate for South Asia at the
In Washington, Pakistan analysts enjoy a charmed
life. We are sought out by the media, invited to join the lecture circuit, and
called upon to enlighten the general public. As students of what is alternately
described here as the most dangerous, strategically vital, and perplexing
country in the world, our expertise is constantly in high demand.
Of course, it’s not all fun and fame. To be a Pakistan
specialist in this town — and in America on the whole — one must navigate
If your writing is critical of Pakistan, many
Pakistanis will brand you as an all-around dimwit with few redeeming qualities.
You will also be labeled a hypocrite for criticizing Pakistan’s corruption,
violence, and poor leadership even while the US suffers from the same problems
(my reply — my job is to analyze Pakistan, not the United States — is typically
met with silence).
Conversely, if your writing is complementary of
Pakistan, many Americans — and, most vociferously of all, Indians — will brand
you as an all-around dimwit with few redeeming qualities. After I suggested
several weeks ago that Pakistan has no immediate desire to nuke India, multiple
respondents denounced me as a clueless dolt.
It’s not the criticism itself that bothers me (anyone
who expresses their opinions publicly requires thick skin). What is frustrating
is the tone of this criticism — vitriolic and personal, not reasoned and
Allegations of government ties
I am constantly accused of being a shill for the US
government — whether in the form of a CIA agent, a propagandist, or a paid
flunkey. “Michael, is this once again a
State-Dept-assigned-let-me-explain-America’s-intentions article?” queried one
interlocutor regarding a
that innocently points out the unlikelihood of Pakistan
completing a gas pipeline to Iran. Additionally, I am often informed that my
employer is a US government stooge — a curious accusation given that the Wilson Center
strictly nonpartisan and does not take positions on any policy.
The challenge for Washington’s Pakistan analysts is to
convince Pakistanis that we do not necessarily support our government’s policies
simply because we are Americans. The knee-jerk reaction among many Pakistanis is
that we analysts all adore drone strikes, are hell-bent on getting Pakistan to
launch a military operation in North Waziristan, and are paid handsomely by the
US government to make these cases in our writings and presentations. Alas, it’s
— but it’s a tough myth to shatter.
The “been to Pakistan?” litmus
Many Pakistanis will not take American Pakistan
specialists seriously unless they have visited Pakistan (fortunately, I pass
this test). I wholeheartedly agree that there’s no substitute for knowledge and
experiences amassed in Pakistan. However, I think holding Americans to this
standard is too harsh. For one thing, there’s a double standard at play — I’m
sure many Pakistanis claiming to be experts on America have never visited the
United States. Additionally, with the proper contacts, and through vehicles such
as Twitter and Skype, Pakistan specialists in America can instantaneously gain
access to insights from inside Pakistan.
One may retort that such insights come courtesy of the
Internet-savvy, cosmopolitan Islamabad/Lahore/Karachi crowd, which bears little
resemblance to the “real” Pakistan. Fair enough. Still, US-based specialists do
have opportunities to interact with visiting Pakistanis from the “real” Pakistan
— from low-level civilian bureaucrats to rural-based youth. One of my most
rewarding professional experiences was meeting with a group of high school
students visiting from Fata on a US government-sponsored exchange.
Pock-i-staan vs. Pack-i-stan
Pakistanis frequently point
how often their country’s name is mispronounced by Americans.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton correctly say Pock-i-staan
. Yet George
W. Bush, Mitt Romney, and most of the general population (including celebrities
with a demonstrated interest in the country, such as Angelina Jolie and Madonna)
erroneously say Pack-i-stan
. (The majority Pack-i-stan
adherents are a feisty lot and denounce
pronunciation as pompous and exotic.) I try to say
, but confess to occasionally getting sloppy and reverting
to awkward hybrids such as Pock-i-stan
way, the line has been drawn: If you say Pock-i-staan
, you’re a
legitimate authority on Pakistan. If you say Pack-i-stan
, you’re a
fraud. Slip up before a large Pakistani audience, and your reputation could take
a significant hit.
The dominance of security issues in policy
I have written
that traditional security issues — militancy, violence,
instability — dominate policy debates about Pakistan, to the detriment of topics
such as natural resource constraints that affect millions more Pakistanis. The
most credible and sought-after US analysts of Pakistan are those who can wax
eloquent about the root causes of radicalization, not health
, or deforestation
. In effect, the voices of prescient US specialists focused on Pakistan’s most
serious — and perhaps even existential — long-term challenges are marginalized,
and unable to rise above the din of security-related chatter.