Why Does Pakistan Matter to Us, Anyway?


Following is the text of a public speech Ethan Casey gave at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth, Texas, September 2, 2014.

This talk is going to start out in Pakistan, but it’s going to end up somewhere else. Please stay with me as I take you on a guided tour of the world we live in today, as I see it.

A few months ago, interviewed by the British newspaper The Guardian, the Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie declared herself

deeply critical of American writers for their total failure to engage with the American empire. It’s a completely shocking failure, not of any individual writer … but it’s the strangest thing to look around and say, “Where is the American writer writing about America in Afghanistan, America in Pakistan?” At a deep level, there is a lack of reckoning.

It’s irritating to be scolded in this way, of course. I don’t know Kamila Shamsie, and I don’t presume to know her mind. But many writers from Third World backgrounds, notably some who have done quite well for themselves such as Shamsie and the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra, make a habit of making self-serving blanket declarations about how everything wrong with the world is the fault of white people in the West and especially America, and about how invulnerably ignorant and myopic we all must be. As a white American myself, and a male one to boot – and particularly as a white male American writer who has made a great effort over many years to travel throughout the world and to engage with and understand it – I take that sort of thing personally.

Secondarily, Kamila Shamsie also annoyed me by telling The Guardian’s interviewer, “I don’t think there’s anything like the novel for empathy.  If you write nonfiction it’s as though you are from the outside looking at something. But if you write fiction, you are behind someone’s eyes looking out, and that’s the difference.” By making that hoary claim, in tandem with her sweeping assertion that no American writers are writing about America’s involvement with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Shamsie is slyly reinforcing a tiresome snobbery of the supposed superiority of fiction over nonfiction, thus eliminating quite a few thoughtful, incisive and hardworking writers from consideration as – well, as writers. For only one example but a very good one, I would refer Shamsie, and you, to Rebecca Solnit’s essay “Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage,” written in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. If Rebecca Solnit isn’t an American writer, I don’t know who is.

Needless to say, I find Kamila Shamsie’s attitude unhelpful. But it’s also true that there’s a grain of awkward truth in her words. For if I, as an American writer, am to engage meaningfully with my own country’s ugly and frankly sinister relationship with Pakistan – as I agree American writers should be doing – then I need for American readers to do so along with me. And, not to put too fine a point on it, this means you. Given the all too damaging political and military intimacy between our two countries over the past thirty and more years, every American should be fully and painfully knowledgeable about Pakistan.


Still, amid the nonstop confusing cacophony of recent world events, you could be forgiven for not having properly understood, or maybe even noticed, for example, the Pakistan Army’s attack earlier this summer on militant strongholds in the region called North Waziristan. Forgiven – but not excused. If you don’t know about what has been happening in Waziristan, you need to. I’m sorry to lay that on you, because I know that there are many other things that you also need to know about, but that’s just the way it goes. There’s a lot that you need to know about, especially these days, and especially if you want to claim to be educated.

Justified or not, the Pakistan Army’s attack on the militants in North Waziristan forced nearly a million innocent civilians to flee the fighting and to live in appalling conditions as refugees in their own country. The polite term for such people is IDPs, internally displaced persons, and it doesn’t begin to do justice to their experience or their humanity. Those of us who follow events in Pakistan know that the fighting might well portend an even larger disaster, of historic scope, for Pakistan itself. Furthermore, this was at least the third time in the last five years that massive numbers of civilians have been displaced by violence or natural disaster inside Pakistan. In late spring 2009 as many as 3 million fled similar military action in Swat, only to be displaced again a year later by the horrific flooding of the 2010 monsoon season, which left some 2 million people homeless and at one point covered 20 percent of Pakistan’s land area.

So, for starters, you should know and care about what has been happening in Pakistan because of the human suffering it has caused. We can argue about who is to blame or what should be done. But, first things first, let us acknowledge that human beings are suffering, and that that is bad.

Next, we need to admit candidly – and sympathetically – what is at stake for Pakistan itself. Pakistan has always been a work in progress, ever since its founding in 1947, and indeed since well before that date. And Pakistan is not a nation. A nation and a state are, by properly strict definitions of both terms, different things. And, for historical reasons, Pakistan exists even notionally as a nation only because it exists as a state. But there is a common tendency to use the terms interchangeably, as well as to bandy about the more specific term “nation-state” in loose ways that reinforce a pernicious confusion. One result is that a great many Pakistanis believe or suppose that their patriotism, which in itself is an understandable and admirable sentiment, must necessarily entail carrying water and making excuses for the Pakistani state.

A related problem is that, in Pakistan, by far the most effective institution of the state is the military. This is not unique to Pakistan, though Pakistan is a notable instance of it. The British historian A.J.P. Taylor observed, in his biography of the German statesman Bismarck, that the armed forces are a bedrock institution of any state. That includes the American state to which many of us in this room pledge allegiance. Rather than making us unduly reverent of our own armed forces, though, that should make us wary of our own state.

In Pakistan (but not only in Pakistan), the state is unable – or unwilling – to provide any semblance of decent health care or education to most of its citizens. So what good is the state? Not much, frankly. But the troubling truth is that the state – the government, that is, meaning mostly the military – is the only thing in the world of concrete, existing reality that makes Pakistan what it is. The American writer Randolph Bourne argued, a century ago during the First World War, that “War cannot exist without a military establishment, and a military establishment cannot exist without a State organization. … We cannot crusade against war without crusading against the State.” The corollary, the trap for patriots in Pakistan or any other country, is that they cannot support the state without supporting war. Pakistan is also an idea: the idea that there should be a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. But an idea is an abstraction. And one of the biggest problems for both Pakistanis and Americans – one trait that we Americans notably share with Pakistanis, because of the history and nature of both countries – is that we too often care all too fervently about abstractions, and all too little about concrete, existing reality.

This is the context in which we encounter the disturbing phenomenon of Pakistani intellectuals who are fluent, not to say glib, in a political vocabulary that we in the West recognize as moderate, modern, tolerant, and liberal, rushing to defend the Pakistan Army’s summer offensive in North Waziristan. Thus Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of Pakistan’s most prominent liberal intellectuals, felt compelled in early July to tell an interviewer:

This military operation will certainly not eliminate terrorism. But unless radical militants are contained using force, they will soon overrun Pakistan. Recent events in Iraq and Syria should open our eyes to that terrible possibility. Progressive Pakistanis should openly support the operation against a barbaric foe. Raising objections without offering a practicable alternative is irresponsible and wrong.

And, writing in the liberal weekly The Friday Times, the well-known journalist Imtiaz Gul argued rightly enough that

Seeking strategic depth in Afghanistan has turned out to be like digging one’s own grave. It has hollowed out Pakistan socio-economically and polarized it politically. Cultivating and condoning relations with non-state actors represents a fatal blunder and its consequence is the biggest challenge to the country’s social cohesion, peace and security.

Gul is saying, quite directly and explicitly, and as a self-appointed spokesman for the state, something that many others, in many countries, have said before him: that the state should have a monopoly on the use of violence. It’s true that, if the state doesn’t enforce such a monopoly, bad things happen. But then again, bad things also happen when the state does enforce its monopoly on the use of violence.

The phenomenon of liberal intellectuals making excuses for the state and its wars should be familiar to any of us here in America who remember the contemptible way that so many of them rushed to burnish their credentials as hard-nosed realists, and/or to kiss up to those holding transitory state power, by making tortured arguments in favor of the Bush administration’s trumped-up and, as we now all must admit, immensely damaging decision to invade Iraq in 2003. There are many shameful examples, but I’m happy to single out especially Michael Ignatieff, Paul Berman, and the late Christopher Hitchens. I fail to understand how such intelligent people can be so lacking in self-respect and self-awareness.

Their ilk is not new, though. The more people change, the more they stay the same. Randolph Bourne identified the breed and what he called its “herd-intellect” a century ago, in his essay “The War and the Intellectuals” – the war in Bourne’s case being the First World War. “Simple syllogisms are substituted for analysis,” he wrote, “things are known by their labels, our heart’s desire dictates what we shall see.” It was Bourne, incidentally, who coined the oft-quoted (though not oft enough) dictum that war is the health of the state.

The unsubtle subtext, in all cases – here as well as domestically within Pakistan – is that “we” modern, enlightened, developed, democratic, Western or Westernized good people are both compelled and entitled to attack those other, benighted, primitive, superstitious, incorrigibly violent Orientalized bad people, be they Germans like some of my own ancestors 100 years ago, Vietnamese 50 years ago, or Pakistanis and other Muslims today. The blanket term that we use to refer to such people – the bad people over there who are violently opposed to us good people here – is “terrorists.” And, whether we want to admit it or not, we in the West today do conflate terrorists with Muslims. And we are wrong to do so.

Akbar Ahmed, the Pakistani anthropologist who teaches at American University in Washington, D.C., critiques this widespread mentality in his recent book The Thistle and the Drone, in which he contrasts technology-driven societies like ours with traditionally autonomous tribal societies such as that of the Pashtun in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Part of the point Professor Ahmed is making is that what we congratulate ourselves by calling “development” or “modernity” does not inevitably correlate with moral virtue. That’s a fancy way of saying that his point, and mine, is that we are not necessarily the good guys. That’s a hard thing to swallow, because human beings like to consider themselves the good guys. But especially in times like these, we should beware self-congratulation and self-exculpation. The great British writer Samuel Johnson made a closely related point way back in 1767, which he phrased so wonderfully that I’ll permit myself to quote him at length. “In a time of war,” wrote Dr. Johnson,

the nation is always of one mind, eager to hear something good of themselves and ill of the enemy. At this time the task of news-writers is easy; they have nothing to do but to tell that a battle is expected, and afterwards that a battle has been fought, in which we and our friends, whether conquering or conquered, did all, and our enemies did nothing.

Scarcely any thing awakens attention like a tale of cruelty. The writer of news never fails in the intermission of action to tell how the enemies murdered children and ravished virgins; and, if the scene of action be somewhat distant, scalps half the inhabitants of a province.

Among the calamities of war may be justly numbered the diminution of the love of truth, by the falsehoods which interest dictates and credulity encourages. A peace will equally leave the warrior and relater of wars destitute of employment; and I know not whether more is to be dreaded from the streets filled with soldiers accustomed to plunder, or from garrets filled with scribblers accustomed to lie.

Two hundred forty-seven years after Johnson wrote those words, I’m here to tell you: Don’t believe everything you read, and beware any state that demands your allegiance in the name of patriotism. And we in America are as susceptible to that ruse as Pakistanis are. Innoculate yourself against it by reading George Orwell’s essay “Notes on Nationalism.” As Orwell pointed out in 1945, patriotism – love of one’s country – is a good thing, and it’s very different from nationalism, which is a bad thing and inherently aggressive. If you’re asked to go to war for your country, or to support a war, or even to thank and congratulate soldiers and military veterans more readily than others who also serve our society (and even face physical danger) such as teachers and postal carriers, ask yourself whether your patriotism is being manipulated in the service of nationalism.

In Bangkok in the 1990s, my late friend and mentor Clyde Edwin Pettit told me that the Vietnam War had taught him that, as he put it bluntly, “all governments are bad.” Ed made the same point with more eloquence in the Foreword to his ironically titled masterpiece The Experts: 100 Years of Blunder in Indo-China. “The Vietnam War,” he wrote in 1975, “is a textbook example of history’s lessons: that there is a tendency in all political systems for public servants to metamorphose into public masters, surfeited with unchecked power and privilege and increasingly overpaid to misgovern.” It’s not coincidental that I quoted that passage in my own book Alive and Well in Pakistan. The Vietnam War was a prototype for all the American wars since. We Americans learned many things the hard way during the Vietnam War that we’ve made a point of unlearning in the forty years since it ended.


I hope that I’ve demonstrated that one important thing Americans and Pakistanis have in common is that both are susceptible to being manipulated or bullied into acquiescing in the state’s raison d’etre, which is to wage perpetual war against – against whom? Well, I think that the state sees as its enemy anyone who opposes the war that it’s waging. That’s true of the state in both Pakistan and America. And it’s potentially a perilous problem for anyone who believes, as I’m confident everyone in this room does, that war itself is inherently a bad thing.

The connection – the answer to the question I chose as the title of this talk – is clearest in the ways that, all of a sudden since Edward Snowden did what he did last year, it has become unavoidably obvious that the American state will be keeping all of us under constant and perpetual surveillance for the foreseeable future. This is a crucial part of a larger project to make us all sit down, shut up, and get with the program, which is essentially to abolish and even criminalize meaningful politics. Evgeny Morozov, author of the wonderfully-titled book To Save Everything, Click Here, coined the term “solutionism” to describe this. “The intelligence services embraced solutionism before other government agencies [did],” writes Morozov. “Thus, they reduced the topic of terrorism from a subject that had some connection to history and foreign policy to an informational problem of identifying emerging terrorist threats via constant surveillance.” In other words, we’re not only required to condemn terrorism, as well we should; we’re also forbidden even to wonder either why it occurs or whether the state’s means of combating it are justified. The state’s means of combating terrorism include constant surveillance of everyone, including you and me. And I don’t wonder whether that’s justified; I know that it’s not.

To me personally, there is nothing more offensive than being told that I can’t think for myself or say what I have to say. Does that make me a liberal, or a conservative? It’s a trick question. The correct answer is that it makes me a self-respecting, free individual. To cultivate and encourage personal freedom was once understood to be one of the basic, fundamental purposes of this country. But that was in a now bygone time, when thinking and behaving freely in America carried relatively little personal risk. Now, because the state has claimed our freedom and we have willingly surrendered it, we no longer know what we’re about as a country. So our patriotism inevitably curdles into nationalism. The political failure that led to this national existential crisis has been bipartisan. David Bromwich articulated it very well recently in the London Review of Books:

A perilous and unspoken accord in American politics has grown up while no one was looking, which unites the liberal left and the authoritarian right. They agree in their unquestioning support of a government without checks or oversight; and it is the Obama presidency that has cemented the agreement. The state apparatus which supports wars and the weapons industry for Republicans yields welfare and expanded entitlements for Democrats. The Democrats take to the wars indifferently but are willing to accept them for what they get in return. The Republicans hate the entitlements and all that goes by the name of welfare, but they cannot escape the charge of hypocrisy when they vote for ever-enlarging military entitlements.

The rest of us, ordinary Americans, are caught in the vise grip of this unspoken accord between the left and right wings of our country’s feckless political class. And the best we can do, which isn’t very good, is to say “A plague on both their houses.” Actually, we can do better than that: We can decide that the feckless political class is irrelevant, and we can remind ourselves that if we want something done right, we might have to do it ourselves.


But what does any of this have to do with Pakistan? All too much, because Pakistan is where the unmanned surveillance and attack aircraft known as drones got their start and achieved the baleful legitimacy that they now enjoy in American public life. Our willingness to use drones to spy on and kill “those bad people over there” led directly to our own perhaps irreversible loss of privacy and safety right here in Fort Worth. I remember well how, in 2009 when I was speaking at a church in Seattle about drone attacks in Pakistan, a woman raised her hand and asked me, “What’s a drone attack?” Bless her heart for doing so. Five years later, drones are completely mainstream in American awareness, but not in a good way. We think it’s neat that Amazon wants to use little drones to deliver packages to our homes.

David Bromwich quotes what he rightly calls an extraordinary speech by Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky:

The president believes, with regard to privacy in the fourth amendment, and with regard to killing American citizens in the fifth amendment, that if he has some lawyers review this process, that that is due process. This is appalling, because this has nothing to do with due process. … You cannot have due process by a secret, internal process within the executive branch. … Next time they kill an American, it will be done in secret, by the executive branch, because that’s the new norm.

You are voting for someone who has made this the historic precedent for how we will kill Americans overseas. In secret – by one branch of the government – without [legal] representation – based upon an accusation. We’ve gone from you have to be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to an accusation being enough for an execution. I’m horrified that this is where we are. … We need to ask ourselves: how precious is the concept of presumption of innocence?

Commenting on Paul’s speech, Bromwich points out that “In the second term of the Obama presidency, it was left to a Republican to speak these words on civil liberties – though he stood alone in his party.” But the reason Rand Paul stood alone in his party is that he is not really a Republican. He’s a libertarian, and I’m coming to feel that at least some flavors of libertarianism offer the most helpful angle for understanding and addressing the problems in our national life today. Or, at least, that if the only national politician with the courage and integrity to talk candidly about such things is someone who calls himself a libertarian, then I’m interested in learning more about libertarianism. Mind you, I’m not a libertarian, nor do I play one on TV. But when the only national figure to speak out forthrightly against drone attacks in Pakistan and elsewhere overseas, and against pervasive state spying on you and me by the National Security Agency and God knows what other shadowy entities, is the libertarian Rand Paul, perhaps it’s finally time for the rest of us to rethink the now utterly bankrupt labels “liberal” and “conservative.”


The great British writer J.G. Ballard once told an interviewer that growing up during the Second World War in the chaos of Japanese-occupied Shanghai – which he called “almost a twenty-first century city” – had taught him “many lessons, above all that the unrestricted imagination was the most accurate guide to reality.” Today, in the chaos of perpetual war in the actual twenty-first century, we must have the courage to let go of cherished illusions and to imagine that future political, geographic, economic, and even religious and moral configurations might be very unlike the ones that we’ve been used to for so long. Most of you in this room are still young and unformed enough that you might be able to pull this off. Believe it or not, so are most people in Pakistan, where 60 percent of the current population of 180 million is under the age of 20. One important step toward what is needed is for the young people of America and the young people of Pakistan to get to know each other better. In both countries, and everywhere in today’s world, the most effective blow any of us can strike against both the terrorists and the state is to acknowledge the humanity of another human being.