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When experts generalise

Publication Date : 06-08-2012


The city of Washington, D.C. looks at everything outside the United States as if it is taking place in an action/suspense Hollywood film.

Policymakers and "experts" tend to speak about Pakistan and its problems in a sensational way, and talk of their work as something that is salvaging a country that is on the verge of collapse. The experts paint everything as good or evil, and expect an end where the good — that is, the US — will ultimately win against all the evil — that is, everything in the "outside" world.

The experts in Washington have succumbed to fantasies created by filmmakers. But what they see as a movie playing thousands of miles away is reality for millions of people living in Pakistan.

The crux of the problem is the ease with which one can become an expert on Pakistan in Washington and the subsequent race among them to be remembered as a Brzezinski or a Kissinger. As long as you know that Pakistan is not in the Middle East, you’re all set to become an expert on the country in Washington. This is what I have noticed on my current research trip to this city after meeting a few such specialists on Pakistan.

Most of these experts were formerly working on the Middle East or other related regions. They tend to have degrees in Middle Eastern studies from reputed schools, have little or no travel experience to Pakistan and forcefully try to understand or analyse Pakistan through the same lens and theoretical models that they previously used to analyse the Middle East. Still, they have the confidence to proclaim themselves as experts on a "seriously messed up place" such as Pakistan.

Since the focus of the US has of late shifted entirely to Pakistan, and there has been a massive migration of experts from the study of different areas to the Pakistan studies section, the competition to rise amongst the ranks has become a little stiff. This has forced the experts to become proactive in fleshing out the issues in Pakistan. But if all you’re looking for are stories with which to thrill the audience in the US, you’re certainly going to end up scratching something out of nothing and amplifying a reality that doesn’t exist on the ground.

Instead of truly trying to understand the situation on the ground, the experts more often resort to attempting to display their expertise by using Urdu words every now and then, especially on social media such as Facebook. This, they believe, shows their advanced knowledge and understanding of Pakistani society. Similar is the effort to pronounce the country’s name correctly.

Since President Barack Obama made an effort to do that, it has become a symbol of expertise among the crowd working on Pakistan.

However, as Marx would have predicted, there are hierarchies even within the experts. And, to break into the highest level of specialists that are eyeing a national award, or a New York Times bestseller, or perhaps even an advisory position at the White House, one has to talk the talk of the power groups in Washington.

This is where I have noticed that many of the experts lose their objectivity in analysis and end up making sweeping, generalised statements about Pakistani culture, religion and society. Without nuance, they bash the Pakistan Army and the country’s intelligence agencies without giving much in evidence or conducting any serious research. They criticise the massive corruption of the politicians without understanding why they act in such a way. They see no difference between terrorist groups and Islamic parties, spam Facebook and social media websites with anti-Pakistan and anti-military rhetoric, blame the failure of the US in its ‘war on terror’ on Pakistan, and portray the US as a flawless superpower that simply can’t go wrong.

The more hawkish and vocal one is against Pakistan nowadays in Washington, the quicker one’s rise up the experts’ hierarchy, with guaranteed legitimacy as a scholar on Pakistan. And that situation is unfortunate for the specialists who, at the end of the day, have to make a choice between having a successful career or being a true, objective but ignored academic. Since most of the experts have to make a living out of the field, they choose the limelight.

The experts, in order to stay in the picture, end up writing radical op-eds, blogs or research journals with sometimes illogical and fudged statistics which nobody is going to cross-check or even bother to read. They focus strictly on the negative, since nobody in the US is interested in publishing positive things about a war zone, and remain silent if there are any positive developments in Pakistan.

To some extent the crisis situation in Pakistan reflects the failure of the US in its policy towards the region. One is left puzzled by America’s rhetoric and actions when it comes to its dealings with this country. The continuous policy blunders, I used to wonder, cannot just be careless mistakes — the issue has deeper roots in how the experts in Washington have got it all wrong in analysing Pakistan. This is now having a devastating effect on US-Pakistan relations.

What Washington, D.C. needs are real specialists on Pakistan who can offer constructive suggestions rather than quick fixes for quick bucks. Pakistan is a highly complex, religiously and racially intertwined nation that has for the past several decades been analysed through the lens of either Islam or terrorism because of the lack of will to develop a framework specific to Pakistan.

Had that existed, it would have allowed experts and policymakers in Washington to truly understand the country. It would be of great significance and advantage to the US to have a clear understanding of the ground realities in Pakistan, so that policies are based on facts, not myths.

There are only a handful of people in Washington who truly understand and feel for the problems faced by Pakistan. And they can be identified easily, because they don’t claim to be experts on the country.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, D.C.


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