Concluding Thoughts on Feroz Khan’s ‘Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb’ and Pakistan in International History

So, what are some of the lessons to draw after having read Eating Grass? One that jumps out at me – more precisely the historian in me – is a desire to re-analyze critically the history of Pakistan, and the broader region of South and Central Asia, in the 1980s. That’s something I’m trying to do, I hope, in my dissertation and in my research (see a new brief write-up here), but it still strikes me that there’s a lacuna when it comes to historians’ treatment of modern South Asia, even as opposed to the ex-Soviet Central Asian states. Part of that has to do with archival access. Contrary to most people’s expectations, the archives in at least Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and to some extent Tajikistan can be accessed by the intrepid graduate student, allowing one to investigate certain themes in Central Asian history all the way through the 1980s. There are some reports from researcher friends in Delhi of Ministry of External Affairs files going up to 1983, but it’s hard to say the same of Indian and Pakistani archives – or at least that’s what the situation seems like today. (If there are any people reading this who have, indeed, navigating public record holdings in Pakistan, do tell!)

SWM, 27, seeks unifying narratives for Central Asia

That’s too bad, and not just for selfish graduate students wishing to hoard as much exotic material as they can get their hands on. The more I’ve read throughout parts of this term of the economic thought of Mahbub ul-Haq, the more I’ve been both inspired and frustrated: Mahbub perhaps deserves to be mentioned in the same conversations as Amartya Sen or Muhammad Yunus, and yet it remains difficult to see, without extended exposure to academics in Islamabad, Lahore, or the World Bank archives, how, exactly, one might begin to write an intellectual biography of Mahbub or indigenous thinking about poverty and development in Pakistan from the 1960s onward. One tires of Oxonian seminars on yarn markets in Dorset in the 1640s, but remains, at least for now, at a loss to figure out how to make the next step out towards the next big undertaking. But our inability to find the sources or frameworks also hinders any attempts at a conversation – one led by Pakistanis but informed by history rather than demagoguery – towards articulating what some alternative paradigm for what the country’s economic or cultural paradigms could look like. As writers like Kamila Shamsie, whose ‘Pop Idols‘ I enjoyed in a Granta issue on Pakistan I read before traveling to the country last May, underscore, throughout the 1970s cities like Karachi had (small and élite) pockets of high culture that were later written over. She writes of her parents’

Karachi of the early seventies, which had no shortage of glamour and East–West trendiness: nightclubs; locally made films with beautiful stars and catchy songs; shalwar kameez fashions inspired by Pierre Cardin (who designed the flight attendants’ uniform for Pakistan International Airlines); popular bands who played covers of UK and US hits at fashionable spots in town. It’s true, a good part of this world was known only to a tiny section of Karachi society, but I grew up in that tiny section.

In Shamsie’s telling of the story, this was all before the ‘the dramatic shift that took place in Pakistan’s cultural life between the early seventies and early eighties. The shift had a name – ‘Islamization’ – and a face – heavy-lidded, oily-haired, pencil-moustached. That face belonged to Pakistan’s military dictator, Zia ul-Haq, ally of the Saudis and the Americans.’ Out were the old music videos like ‘Disco Deewane’, which made such a splash when it appeared in the early 1980s; in were Saudi-funded mosques and arms shipments routed from Washington, Beijing, and Cairo. Shamsie’s telling of this story may be too teleological for some – a 1970s Karachiite apogee followed by the constant fear of the Zia years; still, rather than simply dismissing the point of view as representative only of a highly educated Anglophone élite that gets its education in Western liberal arts colleges and not overcrowded Pakistani universities, the task here is something else. It has to do with figuring out how such diverse movements as ‘Islamization’, the nuclear program, and a rollback of Bhutto’s nationalization programs (along with Mahbub’s attempts to reform Pakistani welfare services) all happened at the same time. We need, in short, to try to extend intellectual history as a methodology to Pakistan (indeed all of South and Central Asia) and begin the work of developing some framework to understand what, exactly, the intellectual situation was.

Disco Deewane, a popular music video in Pakistan in the early 1980s

This gets to the second lesson I drew from Eating Grass, which has to do with US-Pakistan relations. As criticism of President Obama’s nominee for Director of the CIA, John Brennan, has underscored, the expansion of a poorly understood and monitored drone program has driven the militarization of US foreign policy. What may be best understood as local or tribal conflicts, best ‘managed’ by diplomatic and civil society engagement with foreign countries, are increasingly recast as instantiations of a global war on terror populated by ‘bad guys’ who have to be continually ‘zapped.’ This may sound attractive as a short-term fix, and it’s understandable that Democrats once cowed into submission as wimps circa 2004 will be eager to boast that ‘their other Prius is a drone’, all while Republicans flummox to mount a convincing criticism of US foreign policy. But this focus on military solutions to what may essential be local political or social problems imposes a myopia on the way Americans see the world. As Nader Mousavizadeh writes in a recent New York Times op-ed,

such has been the near-complete militarization of U.S. foreign policy over the past decade that for all intents and purposes the only alternative presented to an invasion of the country is a combination of drone strikes and targeted killings. The tried and tested principle of diplomacy backed by the threat of force has seen a near-total inversion. Axiomatic now as the only alternative to doing nothing is the use of lethal force backed by the occasional choice of diplomacy as clean-up job. This is unworthy of a great power — and a great foreign service. 

It’s also a vision unworthy of a country with the universities and scholars that the United States has, and, one hopes, will continue to have. Particularly as concerns the ‘Uzbekibekistans’ of the world, it’s easy in our intellectual climate of flippant irony and militarization to suggest that perhaps we really should just commit to having drones hover over Waziristan until the end of days. But it’s difficult to see how such a ‘multigenerational campaign’ (to use Brennan’s words from an August 2010 Times article) can actually be carried out against, much less in, countries which could have populations approaching 300 million (in the case of Pakistan) by the middle of the century. Still harder is it to see how liberals might square a commitment to human rights and democracy with permanent aerial warfare conducted in conjunction with regimes which may not share these commitments. The American strategy of viewing its relationship with Pakistan primarily in terms of military-to-military links, dating back to the days of John Foster Dulles, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ayub Khan, may have served its purpose in a Cold War world where a fear of Soviet expansionism justified a lack of support for democracy. But as Pakistani friends at Oxford underscore, the combination of being seen as indifferent towards democracy in Pakistan, and a permanent campaign of drone attacks in the Pashtun borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, is not a tenable long-term vision for America’s relationship with Islamabad.

Not an actual foreign policy

Charting a different course, however, requires more than just opposition to the vision of permanent drone war; it requires divining some understanding where of other societies are coming from (hence the importance of understanding the 1980s, for instance), finding common points of contact, and recognizing that compromises will be as necessary as misunderstandings are inevitable. Programs like the Fulbright (whose American-to-India and Pakistanis-to-America programs are now its biggest), people like some of the Foreign Service Officers whom I’ve met and who have helped me out with bureaucratic insanity in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and, hopefully, scholars, too can play a productive role in forming a realist, internationalist, smart view of the world that, as Eating Grass reminds us, can be a scary place.


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