support your local marplot

Laura Rozen reports that the US government is talking about Pakistan’s “existential crisis”. (They do not mean, apparently, brooding about lobsters and smoking too much.) It’s currently being manifested by the Pakistani army fighting its way back into the Malakand Division; basic details here. Fans of Winston Churchill’s My Early Life will of course remember that he took part in a similar operation in exactly the same place as a young man. Some words of his are probably appropriate here:

The Political Officers who accompanied the force, with white tabs on their collars, parleyed all the time with the chiefs, the priests and other local notables. These political officers were very unpopular with the army officers. They were regarded as marplots. It was alleged that they always patched things up and put many a slur upon the prestige of the Empire without ever letting anyone know about it. They were accused of the grievous crime of “Shilly
shallying,” which being interpreted means doing everything you possibly can before you shoot.

We had with us a very brilliant political officer, a Major Deane, who was much disliked because he always stopped military operations. Just when we were looking forward to having a splendid fight and all the guns were loaded and everyone keyed up, this Major Deane – and why was he a Major anyhow? so we said, being in truth nothing better than an ordinary politician – would come along and put a stop to it all. Apparently all these savage chiefs were his old friends and almost his blood relations. Nothing disturbed their friendship. In between the fights, they talked as man to man and as pal to pal, just as they talked to our General as robber to robber.

We knew nothing about the police vs. the crook gangs in Chicago, but this must have been in the same order of ideas. Undoubtedly they all understood each other very well and greatly despised things like democracy, commercialism, money-getting, business, honesty and vulgar people of all kinds. We on the other hand wanted to let off our guns. We
had not come all this way and endured all these heats and discomforts which really were trying – you could lift the heat with your hands, it sat on your shoulders like a knapsack, it rested on your head like a nightmare – in order to participate in an interminable interchange of confidences upon unmentionable matters between the political officers and these sulky and murderous tribesmen.

And on the other side we had the very strong spirit of the ‘die-hards’ and the ‘young bloods’ of the enemy. They wanted to shoot at us and we wanted to shoot at them. But we were both baffled by what they called the elders, or as one might now put it ‘the old gang,’ and by what we could see quite plainly, the white tabs or white feathers on the lapels of the political officers.

As it turned out, the traditional authorities who Major Deane knew so well couldn’t hold back the young bloods on this occasion, or it didn’t suit their aims to do so, and Lieutenant Churchill and friends got the fight they were looking for.

However, nobody ever seriously imagined they would sweep out of the mountains into the Punjab. The only people who did imagine that were in distant London and almost as distant Delhi, where they insisted on imagining Russians everywhere. Otherwise, the question was always one of compromise. Today, we insist on projecting visions of the armies of Al-Qa’ida sweeping into the Punjab; as is well pointed out here, this is just as unlikely as it was in the days of Sir Bindon Blood as it is in the era of David Kilcullen.

As Arif Rafiq warns, the theatre of violence and the bureaucratic glamour of Richard Holbrooke is having much the same effect on the US government and the thinktank industry as the announcement of Bindon Blood mobilising for the Frontier had on the British Indian army of young Winston’s day. Every ambitious young fool is suddenly a Pakistan expert, much as Churchill called in all his political contacts and travelled two thousand miles overland whilst theoretically on leave in order to get shot at in Malakand. You have to show willing, after all.

Hysteria has been a constant in Western thought about Pakistan ever since it was created. However, as I’ve said before, somehow the worst-case scenarios have a way of not happening. Either we’re all incredibly lucky, or else the forces in Pakistani society that make for stability are stronger than outsiders imagine. It is worth repeating to yourself that 85 per cent of the population lives in Punjab or Sindh and that of the remaining 15 per cent, only 15 per cent of the fraction that lives in the NWFP votes Islamist.

Of course, hysteria has its uses; hence Robert Kaplan musing on just getting rid of Pakistan.

Especially in the west, the only border that lives up to the name is the Hindu Kush, making me think that in our own lifetimes the whole semblance of order in Pakistan and southeastern Afghanistan could unravel, and return, in effect, to vague elements of greater India

Can anyone imagine how this sounds to, say, a Pakistani Army officer? It’s the business-class version of hoo-yah fuckwit Ralph Peters’ irresponsible furblings. An exercise; substitute “Rio Grande” for Hindu Kush, Mexico for Pakistan, Texas for Afghanistan, and Spain for India, and you’ve got a classic American Apocalypse/Immigrant Panic rant. Although, Tom Ricks does Kaplan a disservice by confusing the Indus and the Tigris. It isn’t quite that insane, but I think the slip is telling.

But the important point is that permanent crisis fuels the crisis industry. It helps to legitimate your ideas and staff your organisation. At the other end of the pipe, the permanent crisis helps the Pakistani government’s Pakistan desk manipulate the US government’s Pakistan desk. And their top priority is, of course, India; Robert Kaplan’s geopolitics quoted above is all about looking north from the sea, towards Afghanistan, over Pakistan’s shoulder as it were.

Want a policy prescription? Well, if everyone else is an expert, at least I serve only my own interests, and I have run this by the only Musharraf supporter I’ve ever met. I recommend a combination of this:

so if the people feel they don’t have a say in their own fate, “Washington” should come up with a new plan they don’t have any say in? I don’t get it. The one thing we haven’t tried doing yet is persuading the Pakistani people we’re on their side, rather than telling them we are and dumping millions of unaccountable dollars into their country.

and this:

But cliche seems to drive policy here. Pakistan doesn’t need gap shrinkers, assault ships, setting up the precinct or any other Thomas Barnett bollocks. What it needs is respect, and specifically respect for civilian government.

Just stop pressing those buttons.


  1. Pashtun

    Although you lament the preponderance of Pakistani experts in foreign countries, I would hasten to add to that lament the total absence of Pashtun experts in Pakistan or in any other western country.
    The problems in Pakisan are often ascribed to the Taliban. Most Taliban are Pashtun although at a total population of some 50 Million clearly not all Pashtun are Taliban.
    So why all the fuss over Pakistan and so little over the Pashtun?
    OR put another way, why is the Pakistan army so fond of attacking & killing its own people, viz a viz, the Bengali’s in 1971; the Balochi’s during ZA Bhutto’s time, – and time again, and currently as well; and now a full fledged attack on the Pashtun people in Swat and in Waziristan. Do you follow up on collateral damage of Pak army operations the way you deride American army actions?




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