The Depressing Reality That is Pakistan.

News connected to Pakistan is a bit like reading a George RR Martin novel. It’s grim. It’s depressing. There’s too many characters that come in and out of nowhere and the narrative never seems to arrive at a sensible conclusion. The myriad of interests that intersect and the constant natural and man-made calamities that assault the populace can be numbing.

But one constant emerges: Life is cheap.

If I offend, then I apologize. I don’t mean it as a pejorative against Pakistanis. The life of a Pakistani is worth as much as any person’s. Rather, it’s that human lives seem a constant currency being exchanged by everyone from militants to mother nature herself.

Factory fires in Karachi, floods in Balochistan, army offensives into the Swat Valley (Bajaur in particular) and bombings plus militant attacks show a country where people are killed with alarming frequency.

So it’s upon this backdrop, rather than a blank slate, that I’ve looked upon the presence of border conflict in the Af-Pak borderlands and drone strikes.

Even if we take the high range estimate of 881 civilians killed by drones since 2004, that’s only twice the number killed in one day by cruel and exploitative factory owners. It’s eight times the number killed in one week’s worth of fighting in the Swat Valley. It’s less than one percent the number of people displaced during the first Swat Offensive, and one twentieth the number of people displaced simply by the mere rumor that the Pakistani Military is going on an offensive against militants.

Just as importantly the drone strikes are not solely aimed at militants threatening the US. The government of Pakistan has been using the drone program as a means of attacking anti-government militants. The “bad guys” aren’t just Al Qaeda, but rather militant groups that have made life traumatic and violent in much of Northwest Pakistan. As Meg Braun deftly argues, the aggressive use of drone warfare in targeting militants may in fact be preventing spillover and general unrest in Pakistan as a whole. Certainly it’s a lesser evil than aggressive army crackdowns and offensives, which displace hundreds of thousands of people and kill thousands indiscriminately.

The lack of transparency in the drone program is troubling. There are many questions that need to be asked about it. I’m also very weary of comparisons that ask questions of “what if they were doing it in the US?”.

Pakistan is not the United States.

There are substantial concerns over the state’s stability and its ability to maintain control of large tracts of its own territory. Security assistance is part of that rubric. And while the US-Pakistan relationship is fraught with perils and murky in its reliability, I have serious and persistent doubts that US disengagement will on the whole simply make lives for innocents in Pakistan any better.

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18 thoughts on “The Depressing Reality That is Pakistan.

  1. “I have serious and persistent doubts that US disengagement will on the whole simply make lives for innocents in Pakistan any better. ”

    Though I think it will make lives for Americans better. And definitely save us some cash.


    • Also aguably we would be less directly responsible, if at all, for their ongoing woes. Natural disasters, poorly developed antideluvian societies and pre-enlightenment social attitudes can’t necessarily be laid at our feat. A drone fired missile with a little stars and stripes flag on the side definitly can be.


      • So it’s not about the actual suffering of innocent people.

        It’s about feeling guilty about the suffering of innocent people.

        Let’s assume that policy A has an innocent people cost of x.

        Not doing policy A would instead have an innocent people cost of x+1.

        However, the x in policy A is entirely your responsibility, while NONE of not doing policy A’s cost is blamed on your country.

        …which would you choose?


        • Of course it’s about the actual suffering of people. There’re two groups of people suffering in Pakistan: a very large group of them suffering scourges that are in no way unique to Pakistan and are generally not due to any action on our part. There second smaller group are people we’re actively blowing up. Their plight is relatively unique and is directly cause by our actions.

          Blame and guilt are the wrong words in your example. We’re talking about moral culpability. So, if we change blame in your part to responsible and the question is: “However, the x in policy A is entirely your responsibility, while NONE of not doing policy A’s cost is caused by your country.” Then yes I would endorse policy A.

          People will rightly condemn a man for pushing another man in front of a train. People will not typically condemn a man for failing to throw himself in front of a bus to push another man out of the way.

          And frankly, your point doesn’t even work in the case of Pakistan on its own merits. Horrible factories, bad government, primitive tribal societies, these are not our fault, they’re not caused by us and they will continue until the people of Pakistan develop and determine to end them. Drones floating over Pakistan and blowing the occasional person (and the people around them) to kibble? Those are our responsibility. I fail to see how those drones are having any positive impact on the other plagues in Pakistan. I can see how in some cases the drones arguably are making some of the other problems in Pakistan worse.

          And if we’re going to look at Pakistan’s more mundane problems; corruption, tribalism, violence, poverty and natural disasters and say that our inaction on these issues is an indictment of us I can’t even agree there. There are many places in the world that suffer these plagues and assuming that we did feel obligated to try and address them it’d be incumbent on us to spend our limited capacity to aid in a place where it would produce the most good and that’s unambiguously not Pakistan.


  2. Take out the WMD and this reads like a Republican’s excuse for invading Iraq.
    Scratch that. This actually reads like a Republican rationalizing the invasion of Iraq after WMD wasn’t found.

    I do love minimizing the value of Pakastani life because of natural disasters. That’s new.
    I would say Indonesia is ripe for drone use. All the hallmarks you have described. I would be surprised if U.S. drones aren’t already there restoring order!


    • If that’s what you got out of this post, I clearly didn’t do my job correctly.

      On the substance:
      1. This actually says nothing about my position regarding Afghanistan or US involvement in Pakistan. For the record: I’ve said several times that I’m in favor of draw-down and withdrawal of US presence from the region.

      2. The point of bringing up the calamities and chaos isn’t to minimize the value of Pakistani life. Rather it’s to the point out that there’s substantial problems that face the citizens of Pakistan, including militant bombings and shootings that happen in large urban centers like Karachi and Peshawar. The implicit argument of course is that the drone program is the least evil solution to tackling the militant problem. This argument stems from the fact that the other solutions (short of the Pakistani government rolling over and conceding to these groups) create substantially more terror, death and human tragedy.

      3. If the Indonesian government wanted drones to be used to take out Jemaah Islamiah in areas where their law enforcement powers didn’t reach, I’m not sure I’d protest. That said, the Indonesian government doesn’t seem to have capacity problems in arresting and sentencing violent radicals, so this is a pointless comparison.


      • There was an understated pro-intervention theme. Like “I care about suffering, but maybe shooting some of your people with drones is the humane option here given how awful your country is.” It’s not irrational, but not a moving defense of our presence there either.

        I see this type of reasoning, including your option of choosing between X and X+1 amount of suffering, as dangerously simplistic. I like simplistic, just not the dangerous kind. I reject any such calculus. I reject the idea that different humans lives are equal in a policy-relevant way. No one has ever dared to run their country, their town, their business, or their family that way, nowhere and at no time. Pakistanis get killed because they cannot stop us from killing them. We can feel bad about it or not feel bad about it. I feel bad that I finance it, but not bad enough to leave the US or to risk incarceration by not paying my taxes.

        Put another way, the complexity and variety of perspectives on what the “right” US policy is wrt Pakistan is strong evidence that we need to be humble in our analysis. We have v little capacity to map a policy into an outcome, especially in the medium and long term. I think that gets me to the same place as you, viz we shouldn’t be there at all.


  3. “There are substantial concerns over the state’s stability and its ability to maintain control of large tracts of its own territory”

    This brings to mind this post:

    As alluded to in that post, one of the international norms that has been standardized – particularly since the end-state of the break up of the USSR – is that the maps as they are drawn are almost fixed immutable objects. The majority of international diplomacy and engagement is given to 1) making sure everyone stays on their sides of the lines (see Iraq war 1, but also the flip side Russia Georgia 2008) and 2) esp since 9/11 (though it was going on before then) helping governments control the territory on their side of the line. (of course East Timor and now South Sudan make notable exceptions to this rule, as that post says)

    No thought is really given to “Hm these borders drawn out by imperial Europeans in the waning days of their empires are soup sandwiches, aren’t they”?

    The ‘right’ or even the obligation of Pakistan to maintain control of its territory is the unstated assumption in all this. Of course, the Pakistan government is very much for territorial integrity (and then some) due to its perception of the need for strategic depth with India. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the world needs to go along.


    • I’m sympathetic to this argument, because I tend to hate artificial borders and would prefer balkanising states if at all possible. I think the dissolution of Yugoslavia was mishandled by trying too hard to keep state boundaries intact after the initial plan, and that Iraq probably should have been partitioned after Saddam was ousted.

      I don’t deny that this dynamic exists to some extent in Pakistan. The problem of course is that it’s also combined with intra-sectarian and intra-ethnic conflict plus the simple fact that Pakistan as a “nation-state” is a weirdly constructed entity that is both incoherent but strangely cohesive in identity. That is to say, I don’t think FATA and the NWFP are actually analogous to Yugoslavia or Sudan.


    • Thanks for the in-depth historical background on Pakistan. Much info in your article that I hadn’t been aware of (OK most of it). The concept of a India-Pakistan one-state solution isn’t the first one that would have come to my mind, but your commentary on the subject makes a lot of sense to me. Still not a pretty picture, especially in the short term, but it’s likelihood for long-term progress seems better than the status quo.


  4. My own touchstone these days for failed/failing states is to ask whether they can keep the lights on — ie, maintain a reliable electricity supply — in the large cities. The direction of any trend is also important. Pakistan is heading in the wrong direction, with some parts of Karachi apparently down to four hours of power per day. At least one of the factory fires has been attributed to a malfunctioning generator, and a similar generator failure is suspected in another. India appears to be headed in the wrong direction; too many firms there are finding that job one is coming up with the diesel fuel to keep the lights on, and job two is the software/call center/whatever line of business. By this measure, Iraq — despite billions of US dollars — is not doing nearly so well as Iran.


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