In late March, Foreign Affairs produced a three-day roundtable called “What’s the Problem with Pakistan?” proceeding to discuss the country as though it were a psychiatric patient refusing its happy pills. “Unfortunately for Pakistan,” declared Ashley Tellis from the Carnegie Endowment of International Peace, “the West is losing patience with its shortcomings—and while Pakistan may be slowly changing, the threats emerging from that country toward the rest of the world are increasing fast.” The real issue in—and indeed with—Pakistan is militancy.
Civil society disappears, and the discussants recast the protests as a fight between two political leaders, President Asif Ali Zardari and his political opponent, Nawaz Sharif. That kind of politics—and the movement along with it—can then be deemed irrelevant. Thus, Shaun Gregory, author of Pakistan: Securing the Insecure State, writes, “As for Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, this is a wholly unnecessary fight that diverts huge amounts of political energy from real priorities.”
Not to be outdone, Foreign Policy, last month, ran the “Idiot’s Guide to Pakistan”, an allegedly humorous “Georgetown cocktail party” primer on—as it turns out—the Taliban, the Pakistan Army, the tribals, and other assorted bogeymen. Published in the same month as the protests, it fails to mention the democracy movement even once. Its sole success is being unintentionally honest about its name as it lurches through a fool’s errand, reducing the entire country to six pages of chaos, crisis, and crazies.
The ‘tick-tock boom’ has been around since as early as 1964, says University of Chicago historian and blogger Manan Ahmed, with the publication of Lawrence Ziring’s The Failure of Democracy in Pakistan. By the 1970s, Pakistan had been tagged a troubled state based on development indicators established at Harvard’s Institute for International Development, as well as its Center for Development Studies.
“That narrative slowly percolates from the social sciences into the humanities and politics and State Department folks and outside of academia,” says Ahmed. “They’ve been saying this stuff for forty to fifty years, and there’s been no attempt to rethink or reformulate that narrative.” For Washington, the story has provided rationalizations for supporting dictators, encouraging repressive tendencies in successive Pakistani governments, and, lately, killing Pakistanis with drones. ‘Pakistan is chaos,’ the strange logic goes, ‘and the US will contain that chaos through dictatorships and bombing.’
Reporters, too, have their own ends. The “Idiot’s Guide” is—again, perhaps unwittingly—truthful about this, advising, “Tick off the name of a Taliban leader or two and make a reference to North Waziristan, and you might be on your way to a lucrative lecture tour.” Indeed. Journalism is a business, and the story sells.
Another issue has to do with what counts for ‘expertise’ on Pakistan, and who counts as an “expert.” Media discussions about the country routinely favor current or former government employees, security experts, think-tank political scientists and—in a circular fashion—journalists who’ve spent time filtering their reporting on Pakistan through these other groups. See the Foreign Affairs roundtable and this New York Times commentary for two examples. It’s a nexus of experts that’s close to Washington. The resulting expertise then, has much to do with security talk and U.S. concerns, and little to do with the complicated realities on the ground.
So whether the day’s news is about extremists or civil society activists, the story consistently remains one that’s about chaos, existential threats, and failure. Just take a look at early April’s New York Times Magazine cover word art for ‘Pakistan’: Perilous, anArchic, broKe, vIolent, Splintering, corrupT, Armed, goverNable? This serves as the title graphic to a story that’s actually about the protests.
Chaos is ultimately a story line that’s easier to recount with insurgencies than mass democratic politics. Hence, articles about the democracy protests regularly re-frame the story to focus on the insurgency. For example, a New York Times analysis dismisses the uprising of civil society as an interruption to the real task of counterinsurgency. “The way ahead is likely to be messy for everyone, including the United States, and could turn out to be a major distraction from efforts to counter the insurgency, which is spreading closer to the main population areas.” Pakistanis, in other words, are a nuisance to their own history.
The article explains that this is Washington’s view, too, as it tries to “convince Pakistan that the insurgency, not internal politics, was the most important challenge.” Everything else is just the distracted meanderings of a civil society with a massive attention-deficit.
Official opinion turned news turned judgment: A New York Times editorial on the protests begins by observing that it took “huge street protests and the threat of chaos” to compel a resolution. Chaos. Check.