Taliban, Shmaliban says Pakistan

My colleague Anatol Lieven has an opinion piece on Pakistan in The Times today ‘Mistrust of the West is stronger in Pakistan than fear of the Taleban‘. Anatol is a guy I listen to carefully even if we disagree. In the article he writes what strikes me as amongst the most depressing conclusions I’ve heard in a long while. I wish he were wrong but I fear that he is not.

In a way, however, you really have to know only one fact to understand what is happening: and that, to judge by my meetings with hundreds of Pakistanis from all walks of life over the past nine months, is that the vast majority of people believe that the 9/11 attacks were not an act of terrorism by al-Qaeda, but a plot by the Bush Administration or Israel to provide an excuse to invade Afghanistan and dominate the Muslim world.

If that were not bad enough consider what are the chances that this attitude is not merely prevalent in Pakistan but pretty consistently held throughout the Muslim world? If we’re really in a ‘war of ideas’ the gulf between us suggests that it is going to last a long, long time.

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0 thoughts on “Taliban, Shmaliban says Pakistan

  1. Al says:

    Is this in any way linked to the authority deficit of American political leadership? Did the WMD fiasco create or amplify the mistrust of these same political/military institutions? Perhaps all this nonsense can be explained by the novelty and attraction of conspiracy theories. Even in western culture the allure of conspiracy often trumps rational thought and empirical evidence. Witness the controversy surrounding JFK’s assassination or the myth that Italy’s own security forces murdered former PM Aldo Moro despite confessions and criminal convicitions that proved otherwise. As has been stated before grand narratives and myths are powerful forces in conflict.

  2. David Sutton says:

    An old room mate of mine had a piece of paper on his door that stated, “It takes a lifetime to build trust, and only suspicion, not fact to destroy that trust”

    Everyone likes a conspiracy theory – if we didn’t they would go the same way of tabloid journalism.

    The question is how you combat that mistrust. Sure Obama and the new open US administration may hep but I feel that it will take a lot more fireside conversations between boots on the ground and native populations before we begin to erode the level of mistrust and suspicion that is focused toward the US and its allies.

  3. patporter says:

    Conspiracy theories against America, and the ideology of anti-Americanism, runs much deeper and is much older than the WMD fiasco, the impact of the Iraq war, etc etc. It is a highly convenient outlet for regimes that want to deflect criticism towards the great external enemy, the all-purpose scapegoat.

    It also endows the US with almost Satanic levels of power and manipulation, eg. in the notion that the US government engineered 9/11.
    Thus there is no coincidence in the pattern that anti-American conspiracy theories overlap with and borrow from ideologies of anti-Semitism.

    There is no easy way to mitigate this. And I’m not convinced that America should be working 24/7 to combat these hysterical delusions. Maybe its about time those who traffic in these theories were worried what the US thinks of them.

    At the same time, it should be the business of American statecraft not to do anything promiscuous that gives added power to these paranoid myths.

  4. Hey Pat, we agree! Particularly on this point: ‘its about time those who traffic in these theories were worried what the US thinks of them.’

    It is counterproductive to engage with these fantasies directly. I believe we would be better off articulating clearly what we are for in terms of principles and behave accordingly–come what may.

  5. Tom Wein says:

    I listened to an interview a little while ago by James Glassman, the head of US public diplomacy. I was interested to hear that his focus was actually not on promoting US values and liberal democracy, nor on reducing radical Islam. The link he wanted to break was between radical Islam and violence.

    (It’s available as a podcast on iTunes, if you want to hear it).

  6. Anthony says:

    “Is this in any way linked to the authority deficit of American political leadership? Did the WMD fiasco create or amplify the mistrust of these same political/military institutions?”

    The WMD issue might have made things worse (though I think it’s more of an issue in Western Europe), but this phenomenon is fairly long established in Pakistan. Both Akbar Ahmed and Jason Burke have written about having similar experiences of an extremely widespread and apparently immovable conviction – even among the secular middle classes – that 9/11 was an American/Jewish conspiracy. I think in each case this happened during fieldwork that pre-dated Iraq.

    I think Prof. Lieven’s illustrative example of what things would be like is the British Army’s soldiery believed that 9/11 was carried out by the Americans is pretty smart and telling. That said, it’s also worth remembering – as is often forgotten – that the Pakistani armed forces have actually taken over 1,000 combat fatalities since 9/11. That doesn’t necessarily brighten things up in terms of the bigger picture, of course.

  7. Al says:

    I think Prof. Lieven’s illustrative example of what things would be like is the British Army’s soldiery believed that 9/11 was carried out by the Americans is pretty smart and telling. That said, it’s also worth remembering – as is often forgotten – that the Pakistani armed forces have actually taken over 1,000 combat fatalities since 9/11.

    It is difficult to say if combat fatalities are a sign of military incompetence or a general willingness of officers and troops to engage in fierce fighting. Perhaps someone can shed some light on the moral forces animating the Pakistani military and their fight against domestic militants. Some commentators maintain that Army brass are complacent about the threat of Taliban extremism while others extol their efforts to rout a persistent menace from nests of civilians. So where does the truth lie? Has the Pakistani military rank and file been inculcated with the same distorted perception of 9/11 as Western conspiracy thus impairing their motivation and morale? Or have they performed well despite this malicious tall tale? Maybe their inability to achieve any lasting gains against the Taliban is unrelated to all this. Could inadequate equipment and force doctrine be of primary concern? At the very least all of these issues and questions will provide excellent fodder for military historians in the years ahead.

  8. Jeff M. says:

    This issue is mostly irrelevant. Likewise, the concept of a ‘war of ideas’ is farcical at best. It is quite evident that efforts on the part of USG and HMG to change perceptions, whether in the ‘Arab street’, the ‘Muslim world’, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, et al. are fundamentally flawed. This is not just a matter of implementation; it is a matter of a misguided concept. It is also a matter of the concept of a ‘war of ideas’ competing with more important national priorities, rather than being the top priority which drives everything else (such as military operations). Indeed, similar to the belief that ‘poverty is the root cause of terrorism’, and other theories that suggest the prospect of massive terrorism or massive uprising unless massive amounts of aid money are provided, the notion that millions of Muslims believing fallacies about 9/11 should be a significant concern to Western countries, is not supported by evidence. Rather, many assumptions are made, without any supporting evidence, often using discredited models of worst-case scenarios. If one were to perform a historical case study analysis of other ideas, similar to the ones mentioned by Prof. Lieven, that have also had large audiences, I’d suspect very few cases exist where the majority of people who believed such things actually took up arms, or actively resisted authority. It is one thing to sympathize with the ‘anti-establishment’, quite another thing to become an active ‘disestablishmentarianist’. Even among those advocates for a ‘war of ideas’, there are obvious disagreements about target audiences, and more importantly the message to be sent. As far as target audiences are concerned, are we concerned about the ‘masses’ or the ‘elites’? As far as the message is concerned, are we trying to convince the locals (in this case Pakistanis) that the US did not conduct 9/11 on itself? Even if by some ventriloquism we were able to do this, will not the vast majority still dislike the US for its current actions. Most analysts seem to agree that the drone attacks in Pakistan seem to be having a negative impact on perceptions in that region. Should the USG put the ‘war of ideas’ first, and stop the drone attacks? Clearly it must prioritize. Unfortunately, the only audience of concern to Washington is the US public, rather than that of Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. (clearly in evidence every time airstrikes kill dozens of civilians, who are consistently officially labeled Taliban). While the latter audience may receive some rhetorical attention, it is always the former that drives policy. Time to give up on the ‘war of ideas’ abroad, which is clearly un-winnable, and focus our study on the more successful ‘war of ideas’ at home. The way in which we internalize our own ‘war of ideas’ is far more relevant to the way we wage war than how a ‘war of ideas’ is directed outwards,

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