American discourse on Pakistan: a double headed-monster

Published: June 29, 2010

This duplicitous tactic puts Pakistan in a very tenuous situation

When it comes to Pakistan, there are at least two narratives in the American media; one constructed on the basis of quasi-positive direct quotes of the administration, the other, an acrimonious narrative created by ‘unnamed’ official sources.

From stories that raised concerns on the safety of its nuclear assets to exposés that have alleged Pakistan reverse engineered legacy Harpoon missiles; from allegations that ISI engineered attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul to claims that ISI officials participated in high level Taliban meetings in Quetta; an image of a Pakistan gone wild is well established in the American imagination.

After a New York Times story last week claimed that Pakistan has become “emboldened” by the firing of Gen. McChrystal, the country has been painted in a box that can be very easily be labeled ‘evil’. The New York Times story and subsequent commentary on American TV claimed that Pakistan was trying to exploit the Obama administration’s perceived vulnerability in Afghanistan to carve a larger role for itself.

Interestingly, no sources were named. As a journalist with nearly twenty years of reporting experience, I understand that one often needs to protect their source, but even after not finding WMDs in Iraq, and after recognizing how many critical mistakes were made in the past ten years, mainstream journalists continue to trust ‘whisperers’ who say one thing on the record and another behind closed doors.  This duplicitous tactic puts Pakistan in a very tenuous situation.

Up until recently, American think tanks and officials complained that Kabul and Islamabad were extremely hostile to each other and that they should work together. The entire AFPAK strategy was premised on the argument that you can’t have enduring peace without participation of all local stakeholders. I remember attending an elegant reception co-hosted by Pakistani and Afghan diplomats in Washington DC where Special Representative Holbrooke was positioned as the potential grand savior of the region.  This reception was touted by the American administration as a clear demonstration that both the Afghans and Pakistanis were willing to work together. It was Holbrooke’s first milestone.  Americans at that time complained that Kabul and Islambad had very siloed strategies and that was counterproductive.

But, now the American media has begun complaining that General Kayani and President Karzai are keeping the Obama administration out of loop.

One wonders why this story was leaked a few days before General Kayani and Lt. General Pasha are heading back to Kabul. New York Times on June 24 reports:

“Though encouraged by Washington, the thaw heightens the risk that the United States will find itself cut out of what amounts to a separate peace between the Afghans and Pakistanis, and one that does not necessarily guarantee Washington’s prime objective in the war: denying Al Qaeda a haven.”

There is another, more ominous possibility, though. Perhaps the Obama administration is persisting in the tradition of a popular Bush camp negotiating tactic, and the NYT story is the “stick” that follows promises of supplemental military aid and enhanced engagement with the Pakistan army.

This is a high stake “tactic” that was used by the Bush administration; dates of events and the names of people and places, would continuously transform along a trajectory of a lethal narrative. Somehow, the identities of the main players manage to elude the mesmerized spectators, who watch an endless cast of characters all playing the same role of “evildoer” in “multiples theaters of wars”. In an instant, a cave-dwelling religious fanatic becomes a nationalist dictator. In an instant, an ally becomes an enemy.

Citing unnamed sources, the New York Times writes:

“Despite General McChrystal’s 11 visits to General Kayani in Islamabad in the past year, the Pakistanis have not been altogether forthcoming on details of the conversations in the last two months, making the Pakistani moves even more worrisome for the United States.”

This should be “worrisome” for Pakistan as well. Is the Obama administration preparing to put the blame of possible failure in Afghanistan squarely on Islamabad? Or is it possible that Pakistani generals are misreading an American exit strategy as retreat and demanding a bigger role for Pakistan through extremist proxies?

Both scenarios are lethal for Pakistan.

If the United States faults Pakistan for failure in Afghanistan there is a possibility of direct retaliation against Pakistani assets that will not bode well for the region. And, if the Pakistan army is really pushing the Haqqani network and GHQ still views extremists as ‘strategic assets’, the country has no hope of progress.

Ibrahim Sajid Malick

Ibrahim Sajid Malick

A Pakistani-American writer, technologist, and social entrepreneur. Malick graduated from New School for Social Research with a masters degree in anthropology. He holds several technology and management certifications.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    I dont see whats so unique about the American media claiming that we are trying to exploit the Afghan situation. Isnt that what almost every commentator in Pakistan has been voicing on how the Americans are about to leave, and its for Pakistan to insure its strategic depth to thwart the mischevious and nefarious designs of India? If our portrayal in the American media is poor, we have only ourselves to blame.Recommend

  • Naseer

    I agree with El-Edroos. You Pakistanis have only yourself to blame.Recommend

  • Shafique

    Your conclusion is very bleak, “If the United States faults Pakistan for failure in Afghanistan there is a possibility of direct retaliation against Pakistani assets that will not bode well for the region. And, if the Pakistan army is really pushing the Haqqani network and GHQ still views extremists as ‘strategic assets’, the country has no hope of progress.”

    What should Pakistan do?Recommend

  • Sidarth

    Pakistan Pakistan Pakistan…it seems the whole world, and not just India is watching it… what for???

    Well, it’s quite simple actually- All the places that have / had islamist terrorists have one thing in common – Pakistan.

    Whther its Chechenya or Afganistan or Kashmir, everyone says they have links in that country. Add a few military dictatorships, few mindless wars, lots of terrorist training camps, active institutional support to misadventures like Kargil, selling N-Power technolgies to countries like N.Korea and what do you have- A country that everyone is afraid of.

    Not because it has become a formidable superpower of sorts, only because the world can’t think of what should be done to restrain the increasingly unstable country.

    Tell me, if the Indian lobby has actually “accomplished” this feat, how come they are unable to pressurise Pak authorities to convincingly act against Mumbai attack masterminds.

    If Pakistan is indeed a very responsible country which has accomplished all battles against terror, why did you not give Omar Shiekh to us? After all, he was released in bargain for hijack victims.

    Well the truth is, the monster that Pak and US jointly created to counter USSR in Afganistan has become so powerful that it now threatens the very existance of Pak, and is a major headache for US.

    I’ll be very very surprised if anything concrete comes out of anything against Saeed. Actually tyou guys are very adapt at changing stances, takig people in custody 1 day and leaving them the next. Beware buddies, you cannot fool everyone forever.

    Mr. Ibrahim, please watch Discovery Channel more frequently, they show the Ammunition bazaars on Af-Pak border very frequently.

    As for the Bush or Clinton or Obama administration – they all know where the rot lies…its not rocket science you see.Recommend

  • Malik Rashid

    “If the Pakistan army is really pushing the Haqqani network and GHQ still views extremists as ‘strategic assets’, the country has no hope of progress.”

    Well, they are pushing not only the Haqqanis and Mulla Umar but the areas that were supposedly cleared have seen resurgence of Taliban. The Taliban are penalizing for short beards in Bara Tehsil of Khyber Agency. A psychology professor at University of Peshawar and his wife were beaten up because students wanted to force the christian professor to convert. Political leaders have been asking followers to get used to murders. Their prediction estimates 8 to 10 years for target killings and bombings to continue. Line that I quoted from your article registers as ‘country has no hope’.Recommend

  • Khalid

    Very well said. Excellent article! America has been playing double game with us. They should decide whether they are with us or against us.Recommend

  • Yunus

    I am in agreement with the author. This is another very good article by Ibrahim Sajid. Americans say different thing to different people.Recommend

  • Zulfi


    What is your problem mate? No body is talking about India and why do you have to start bashing Pakistan?Recommend

  • Nasreen

    Ibrahim, you are my favorite Pakistani writer – no doubt!Recommend

  • Faheem

    I agree with the author that America has been playing a double game with us.Recommend

  • Omar Farooq

    Well Pakistan should stay away from interfering in Afghanistan. We have no business there. Why is Gen. Kayani going to Kabul? This doesn’t look good.Recommend

  • Shams Hamid

    Instability in Pakistan is not good for Pakistan, its neighbours, the region or even the world. Everyone understands that Pakistan is in crisis and one cannot avert crisis by blaming any group/any institution or any nation.

    This article is about the American media changing American’s perception of Pakistan and the resulting challenges for Pakistan. American’s accused Pakistani government for their double standards in the war on terror and now they seem to do exactly that themselves.

    Tony Blair’s political advisor once wrote that developed countries should deal with each other in the civilized way, whereas they should use carrot and sticks with the developing countries like Pakistan, India and China and with the under-developed countries like Somalia and Afghanistan they should deal brutally with sheer force.

    What we need at this time though is to discuss ways to stabilize Pakistan. Sidarth Hate and violence never solve any problem you’d know this better than me being named after ‘Buddha’. People affected by violence during partition care less who was to be blamed for it; they would rather not be affected by it.

    Please listen to Shafique and try figuring out a way to cheat the looming hopelessness over Pakistan and Pakistanis.Recommend

  • hassan

    America has the right to know what is going on in these meetings between President Karzai and General Kayani.Recommend

  • Shoib Khan

    Very timely article. Gen. David Petraeus today told the Senate Armed Service Committee that Pakistan’s role in helping reconciliation in Afghanistan is “essential.”

    “Such an agreement I think is going to depend on a number of factors that will play out over the course of the summer including creating a sense among the Taliban that they are going to get hammered in the field and perhaps should look at some options,” he said.

    Petraeus said he had spoken with Afghan President Hamid Karzai about reports that he had recently met leaders of the Haqqani Network, an al Qaeda ally and one of the most effective insurgent groups operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    “He assured me that he has not met with a Haqqani group leader … in recent days, or I think at any time.”Recommend

  • Bruce Goodman

    Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama made the decisions on Afghanistan they made because they understood the enormous stakes. Rethinking the war shouldn’t be about getting out but about victory and what it will take to achieve it.

    The war in Afghanistan began as retaliation for 9/11. In the process of fighting it, however, we came to understand that Afghanistan was more than just a sanctuary for al-Qaeda. Coupled with the Islamist-Jihadist forces inside Pakistan it is one half of the beating heart, if not the brain, of the Islamist-Jihadist threat. As long as that heart beats strongly we are not safe. It is a threat to the Government of Pakistan. And should the Islamist-Jihadists ever gain control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons it would destabilize the world and paint a nuclear-terrorist’s bull’s eye on every American city.

    The criticism that we took our eyes off Afghanistan while we struggled to win the controversial war in Iraq is true. We under resourced our efforts, and the results were predictable. But that’s water under the bridge. Now, as with Iraq, a “surge” is necessary to recapture lost ground and put us in a position to achieve victory. The surge—the bulk of the 30,000 troops Obama authorized are just now arriving in country—will, no doubt, succeed in the short-run. It is not, however, the key to victory over the long term.Recommend

  • PakAmericanFriendship

    The persisting ambiguity over the US’ decision to pull out of Afghanistan has encouraged Pakistan and its all powerful intelligence, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), to continue supporting militant groups like the Haqqani network and hedge their bets.

    President Obama’s decision to replace Afghan war commander General Stanley McChrystal with Central Command (CENTCOM) chief General David Petraeus has sent multiple signals regarding his plans of moving out of Afghanistan.

    Last December Obama had said that the Americans would start to pull out after 18 months, however, the recent developments have added to the ambiguity surrounding the nine year old struggle.

    While US military and intelligence officials argue that the deadline of pullout have made the Afghans less determined to fight the Taliban and other extremists, Obama’s Democratic allies in Congress, on the other hand, are pressing him to make sure that July 2011 begins a serious drawdown.
    House leaders also want to pass a war spending measure before the ongoing session ends. The liberal lawmakers hope to use the bill to force conditions for scaling back the American military commitments across the world.

    On the other hand, the Obama administration maintains that the July 2011 deadline was intentionally flexible, but it also had some desired effect.

    In view of this, Pakistan is correct in hedging both sides of the bet.Recommend

  • Dilawar

    America has no place telling us not deal directly with Afghanistan. We have historic relations with Afghanistan and no power can change that.Recommend

  • Mairaj Khan

    You said it best, “In an instant, a cave-dwelling religious fanatic becomes a nationalist dictator. In an instant, an ally becomes an enemy.” Nothing more to say hereRecommend

  • Wajid

    They are now openly accusing ISI. David Petraeus yesterday said he would not be surprised by links between ISI and Islamist extremist organisations, who have established a safe haven in Pakistan.

    But he conceded, “Let’s remember that we funded the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to build these organisations when they were the Mujahideen and helping to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. And so certainly residual links would not be a surprise.The question is what the character of those links is and what the activities are behind them.”Recommend

  • Nusrat

    I agree with Wajid. It is not double game anymore. They openly accuse us. Remember what Hillary Clinton said after Faisal Shahzad was arrested. There is not even charade of friendship anymore.Recommend

  • Pahalwee

    @Bruce Goodman says “Coupled with the Islamist-Jihadist forces inside Pakistan it is one half of the beating heart, if not the brain, of the Islamist-Jihadist threat.”

    Your country created these jihadists and their brain and heart belongs to you. Pakistan is just a victim.Recommend

  • Bruce Goodman

    Pakistan is an ally but our friend has not always been straight. There is a history of supporting both side of the war. I can only hope that it will stop soon. There is no reason for Pakistan to inject Haqqani network in Afghan government. Even if Pakistan is successfull, it will not last too long.Recommend

  • Raza


    Characters like Bruce Goodman strike have used Pakistan for their own interests. We should recognize our interest and move forward instead of dwelling too much in past.Recommend

  • Madiha Jawain

    Another great article, Ibrahim Sb. The revolutionary in you is coming out again :-)
    I can’t figure out what kind of website is this? seems liberal from Pakistan’s standard but I see many pro army stories. what’s up with that?Recommend

  • Munir Ahmad

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos
    Just because some Pakistani journalists do that same it doesn’t mean it should become the norm. I am glad ISM has pointed out contradictions in American reporting.Recommend

  • Fareed

    First for all I would like to congratulate Express Tribune for launching such a great website. The fact that you have attracted writers like Ibrahim Sb is a great sign that you are good direction.

    Mr. Malick, I will find you wherever you blog because you write what needs to be written. Your blog on drone attacks, ISI, foreign policy and now this one has a consistent message: Pakistan needs to get it’s act together and start differentiating between friends and foes. I hope powers to be in Pakistan are listening.Recommend

  • Kamran

    This is really a sad situation. It seems like we are going from bad to worst every year. What will happen after Americans leave again? I guess Taliban will over and we will be back to square1Recommend

  • Fatimah

    ET blog rocks! Keep these writers happy and we will keep coming back.Recommend

  • Naheed Khan

    You are Mr. Malick.

    Head we loose, tail they win! We need some drastic changes to address challenges ahead.Recommend

  • H Saqib

    There is an interesting analysis published in Washington Post on hypocrisy of Muslims in general as compared to Americans. Please read full analysis at:

  • Pahalwee

    @Bruce Goodman

    Pakistan has done more than it’s share. What has the done for us? Drone attacks?

    More than 900 people have been killed in over 100 drone attacks carried out by the CIA since August 2008, including hundreds of innocent civilians. Earlier this month, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings Philip Alston said that weapons such as drone aircraft pose a growing challenge to the international rule of law and warned about a “Playstation mentality” developing among those operating these unmanned killing machines from the other side of the world. The fact remains that this approach fuels more anger against the US in a region where anti-American sentiment is already running high. Such attacks are a violation of international law and also of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Islamabad has often complained about these strikes to the US. Besides, the huge number of civilian casualties means that there is a high probability of angry relatives joining the ranks of militants to avenge the deaths of their loved ones. It is ironic that the frequency of the drone killings has only gone up since Barack Obama took over the US presidency.Recommend

  • zakir

    Pakistan should stay away from Afghanistan mess. We have been suffering the damage of what we did in 1980s. We should keep our eyes on internal issues. And Generals have no role to play in foreign policy.Recommend

  • abrar

    I agree with you. We got heroine, AK47, Afghan refugees, Mullahs and Blackwater… all because of our Afghan policyRecommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    There is no such thing as “American” reporting. they are so many media organizations, with different ideological leanings. On any given day every media outlet in the world will report the same event in subtly different manner, but draw totally different conclusions from it.

    That said, why are we so obsessed with what America thinks about us? The fact of the matter is that only bad news that comes out of Pakistan makes the news in America to begin with. Why is that? With all that is going on around the world, we have to compete with a whole host of events on a daily basis. It is our disillusional sense of importance that makes us think that we are at the centre of the world. For most American’s, Pakistan is not a daily concern, and they would rather read about issues that concern them on a day to day basis.

    A rosy piece of reporting that is sympathetic to Pakistan may not make headline news, but what we consider negative propaganda will prop up from time to time. Why? Because that is what is considered news worthy!

    Has anyone stopped to think, that if Pakistan is only portrayed in a uni-dimensional, terrorism related prism, whose fault is that? It is ours alone. What great scientific or economic achievement has come out of our nation that would make global headlines? The list can go on! All we want to hear is an acknowledgement in the foreign media that we are victims, and a nice write up sympathising with us.Recommend

  • yasir Ali

    Well Afghanistan is extremely critical for Pakistan. We can’t just stay away and let India establish power there. those who say army should not decide foreign policy are irrational. Only army can decide what is best for the country. Civilian rulers like Zardari and Nawaz Sharif are thieves.Recommend

  • Mairaj Hassan

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos
    I am surprised that an intellectual of your calibre does not understand the anomaly of representation: duplicity of American stance is under question here. Author makes a valid point that when American administration officials speak about Pakistan they find some thing positive to say. When reporters file stories with unnamed sources that are always poisonous. I think that’s a valid observation.
    I don’t think we have brought this hell upon ourselves. Pakistan was not competing to be the center of the world. Our geo-political locations, our strategic assets are what makes us so desirable for Americans.
    Please have some empathy with us, poor Pakistanis.Recommend

  • Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    @Mairaj: Agreed totally that there is duplicity. Ofcourse there is. But that is what media outlets do and I dont get why we are so shocked and surpised by it. In which country in the world can anyone claim that information genereated by the news cycle is accurate? My emphasis is to argue that our perception in the world is based on how how we mould and shape our own perception to an outsider.

    If we are claiming that the news does not match reality, then complaining about it is not going to change that percetpion. For those on the outside, it just looks like a list of excuses.

    Obviously, people trust news sources that are indegenous to their own surroundings. For us to claim that the NYT or Washington Post is biased, which they obviously are is all well in good. But for a reader who has subscribed to those papers in America whose opinion is he going to give weightage to? Therefore it is for us to change our perceptions to meet the reality of our country. Expecting that American media outlets should sympathise with us, puts the onus on them not on us. We should take control of how we are percieved, by our actions, rather than waiting for, nay expecting someone else to paint us in a positive light.Recommend

  • Malik Rashid

    I have copied a post from another board on Express Tribune. Feel free to compare the media in Pakistan to their ‘western counterparts.

    This was posted by Free Hussaini:

    How a scholar died in Pakistan and how his death was reported.


    “Faisalabad—An elderly man died of a heart attack in Faisalabad as police officials and an employee of a sensitive department tried to arrest him. According to sources, Dr. Faqeer arrived at Fayyaz Colony on Tuesday night where two police officials and an employee of a sensitive department tried to arrest him. Meanwhile, he fell on the ground due to a heart attack. Hearing the commotion, the neighborhood people arrived at the spot after which the police officials fled the scene and the people apprehended the employee of the sensitive department and his accomplice. The local police arrived at the scene and moved the body to the Civil Hospital for autopsy whereas the two persons were arrested. Dr. Faqeer was a P.H.D. and had founded an institution for chemical research work.”

    The above is an almost exact translation of a news story as its appears in the on-line version of the Urdu language Pakistani newspaper, Jang.

    Here is a story published in Dawn on June 30, 2010.

    KARACHI: Police on Wednesday seized and defused a bomb near Karachi’s Model Colony area, reports said.

    Preliminary reports said the bomb was recovered from a bag near the security printing press in Karachi. Officials said an unknown person phoned airport police and informed them about the presence of a suspicious bag.

    Police recovered the bag and called the bomb disposal squad that defused the bomb.

    No detonator or explosives were found from the bag, police sources said. Dawn story.

    Should we continue with our allegations of the foreign media or learn from them? Just a thought.Recommend

  • Mairaj Hassan

    @Syed Nadir El-Edroos

    Unfortunately we pay more attention to what gets published in New York Times and Washington than Dawn or News or Tribune. Even when Washington Post reporter sneezes it becomes news for TV channels. They run tickers, breaking news, have lengthy conversation.

    It becomes problematic because New York Times and Post reporters are always using unnamed sources to portray us in very negative way.Recommend

  • Naila Khursheed

    @ Malik Rashid

    I feel very dumb because I don’t understand the purpose of your comment. What are you comparing? Poor reporting in Pakisan vs. poor reporting in the US? Is that what is this article about?

    I read articles but when I get to comments it always seems as if discussion has changed. I wonder why we can’t stick to a point and argue that single point to conclusion. Or as close to conclusion.Recommend

  • Malik Rashid

    Naila Khursheed
    Sorry. I know I digressed. Thanks you pointed out.Recommend

  • Naila Khursheed

    @ Malik Rashid

    Did not mean to point finger or criticize you. You are a great writer and I follow you on as well.Recommend