The New York Times – Getting Pakistan Wrong

By Wajiha Ahmed      Huffington Post, December 11, 2009

In her December 5, 2009 New York Times article, reporter Sabrina Tavernise looks to history to explain why many Pakistanis are so critical of America. Unfortunately, Tavernise looks to the wrong history, focusing on Pakistan’s trauma after the partition with India. Instead, she should have focused on US support for successive Pakistani military dictatorships.

No doubt, as Tavernise highlights, there are conspiracy theorists in Pakistan, and criticizing America can be a powerful tool to elicit populist support. However, Tavernise’s analysis ignores very real grievances regarding American interference in the country.

It is worth noting that the last US-supported military dictator, General Musharraf, left the stage less than a year and a half ago. He allowed the Taliban to fester, ignored burgeoning economic problems, and institutionalized the military’s illegal hold over governance. It is easy to forget that Musharraf’s reign was the third period of U.S.-supported dictatorship in Pakistani history.

The point is that while some Pakistanis might subscribe to outrageous theories, it is disingenuous to paint such a simplistic picture of the vast majority of Pakistanis. Tavernise’s report that Pakistan’s media outlets “trumpet” conspiracy theories is incomplete. Even a quick skim of major Pakistani television networks and newspapers reveals a robust national debate.

In this debate, many Pakistani commentators place blame squarely on the Pakistani government for failing to protect its citizens. These commentators also blame Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies for past support of militant organizations.

Tavernise’s article isn’t the only example of problematic Pakistan analysis at the New York Times. There is also Scott Shane’s December 4, 2009 piece, “C.I.A. to Expand Use of Drones in Pakistan.” Shane’s piece deprives American readers of an opportunity to truly evaluate U.S. drone missile attacks.

The article focuses heavily on the thoughts of “one government official,” who not-so-surprisingly is an advocate for drone attacks. Shane’s article does mention that some counterinsurgency experts question whether the attacks do “more harm than good.” However, he doesn’t investigate these potential downsides.

Instead, Shane calls Pakistani press reports of hundreds of civilian casualties “sketchy.” He gives more space to the same unnamed “government official” who claims that civilian casualties are “just over 20.” The piece references a well-researched New America Foundation report claiming that between 260 to 320 civilians have been killed, but then immediately negates the quote with another quote from the unnamed “government official.”

Setting aside Shane’s dependence on an all-knowing secret government source, the negative consequences of drone attacks are real:

1. CIA drone attacks undermine indigenous Pakistani efforts to combat militants by redirecting popular attention to basic questions of the country’s sovereignty.
2. The attacks push militants away from the tribal areas and deeper into Pakistan’s urban centers, dispersing previously consolidated forces.
3. The attacks result in significant civilian casualties, which consequently increase anti-American sentiments.
4. Those civilian casualties serve as a powerful recruiting tool for Pakistani Taliban militias.

Shane also presents a partial sketch of a recent Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy report on the views of 550 residents of the tribal areas where drone attacks occur, authored by anthropologist Farhat Taj – who claims that professionals in FATA view the drone missiles as “liberators.” A more careful look at the survey, however, reveals that the report’s findings are so split down the middle as to be inconclusive.

When asked whether the drone attacks bring about “fear and terror in the common people,” 45% of respondents answered in the affirmative. “Fear and terror” are powerful words. When respondents were asked whether they thought the drone strikes were “accurate in their strikes,” 48% answered “No,” and 42% believed the missiles increased anti-American sentiment in the tribal areas. 100 of those approached declined to answer. These results are at best inconclusive, but by no means provide a solid argument in favor of drone attacks.

The New York Times needs to do a better job of reporting on the nuanced and diverse views of Pakistani civilians. Not only that, but the newspaper should also be more independent in its coverage of policies like drone missile attacks. More than two-and-a-half thousand Pakistanis have died in terrorist violence, and some three million Swat and South Waziristan residents have become refugees. Pakistani viewpoints deserve better coverage, and American readers deserve better analysis.

3 Comments

Filed under Afghanistan, Democracy, FATA, Pakistan, USA, War On Terror

3 responses to “The New York Times – Getting Pakistan Wrong

  1. coldrain

    Wajeeha, a brilliant and objective response. Bravo!

  2. Ali Abbas

    In reviewing the NYT’s article on Pakistan, Wajeeha makes the same mistake of one-sidedness that she critisizes Sabrina for. The NYT’s indictment of the Pakistani media stands as most of the media does peddle inconspiracy theories and its prejudice for selective individuals is blatant. While thousands of Pakistanis are being murdered, the overwhelming majority of the media is concentrating on the NRO issue in a manner that targets politicians from one province whilst giving a free berth to everyone else. Exceptions aside, are they any difference from a wild-eyed preacher inciting a lynch mob!

    Regarding drone attacks, I would not be so prompt in trashing Dr. Taj’s study. Her earlier articles condemning the Taliban from a Pushtoon perspective are refreshing when Tariq Ali and Imran Khan were terming the Taliban movement as “resistance”. The fact that more than 50% of the population does not oppose drone attacks should be an eye-opener for our democratically elected, oops, ISI sponsored media.

    As for the oft-repeated arguements that they infringe on our soveriegnity, what about the Arab/Uzbek/Uighir/Chechan Islamist mercenaries that pre-army action, had held FATA hostage to their barbarism. Several of the drone attack victims were not even Pakistani; what were these guys doing here? Surely, they were not smoking reed and traversing the hippie trail up north. Are they not culpable for the tragic civilian deaths from drone attacks and for using our civilians as shields!

    Today, American “interference” in Pakistan is based on us getting rid of the Jihadis. Isn’t that in our interests. We are getting paid billions for working against jihadi “exports” that have earned us global negative good will and that have caused us hundreds of thousands of dead Pakistanis and trillions of dollar of loss.

  3. Ayesha

    This rebuttal to Sabrina Tavernise’s trashy piece in the NYT is just on point—excellent! I was thinking of writing one myself but this was very good.

    @Ali Abbas,

    I did not get the sense at all from Wajiha’s piece that she was trashing Farhat Taj’s study. What she was doing however was putting it in perspective. I completely agree that it is in our interest to get rid of the jihadis but the NYT’s Pakistan bashing piece does not help with that. A balanced article which could have told of Pakistan’s difficulties as well as follies, as well as what America is doing right and what it is doing wrong would have been more appropriate on the part of NYT. Yes, it is true that a lot of our media is putting forth conspiracy theories, but there is also a counter-narrative building up. This NYT analysis though is akin to just deciding that Fox News and Hollywood represent America, which many people in Pakistan may subscribe to but it does not paint the whole picture. Wajiha’s analysis was very welcome!