Thursday, October 22, 2009

Knowing Something about Your Enemy--and your Friends

A recent acquaintance who knows of my fascination with the Afghan conflict--really the Afghan-Pakistani conflict, for several reasons not entirely relevant here--has begun emailing me articles on the subject from The New York Times. He sent me a disturbing one yesterday. A delegation of U.S. diplomats headed by Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke recently visited Pakistan, ostensibly to discuss trade. Holbrooke spoke as encouragingly as he could, while trying to say as little as possible. The reason: Congress may make the kind of exchange he wants to encourage so difficult as to become meaningless.

Meantime, a State Dept. official had an even more disturbing conversation, this one with a journalist known to oppose Pakistan's alliance with the U.S., its tolerance of Predator, C.I.A., and Special Forces operations in their country, and our war on al Qaeda and the Taliban. His general characterization of his frame of mind regarding us and of people who agree with him: "We hate you."

His view may represent the thinking (or feeling) of well less than half of Pakistanis. Still, it struck me as disturbing that we have even among the educated classes and the mainstream press such visceral enemies. This led me to pose a question. In formulating a military strategy and designing tactics to achieve its goals, one basic teaching applies to any and every combat theater: know your enemy. Intelligence estimates, the reading of history and memoirs or textbooks (Patton's reading of Rommel comes to mind), all serve this end. It reassures me, for one, that Gen. Stanley McChrystal devours not only intelligence reports but also history.

So, my question (and if it seems a bit pedantic, I taught for eleven years plus two in graduate school, so get over it): how much do Americans know about not so much our enemy, not to mention our friends, but something more basic than that--where we're fighting, and where our fight goes on quietly or by proxy? A very rough and entirely unrepresentative sample of my fellow workers today revealed a disturbing answer: not much, nor did it seem particularly to disturb them.

So, for what it's worth, I offer you a pop quiz on Afghanistan and Pakistan, based on my own reading over the last couple of months. This will not reflect expert knowledge, merely what an admittedly obsessive general reader has picked up from non-scholarly memoirs and journalistic writing, plus more than a little studying of maps. It is entirely possible (in fact likely) that an error or more will creep in unintentionally. Feel encouraged to find any such, and even correct them. Final hint: feel entirely free to cheat without shame. This quiz, if it accomplishes nothing else, will hopefully teach you a little bit of what you don't know about these two countries at the intersection of central and south Asia--which suggests as good a place to start as any.

1. Name the countries that bound Afghanistan and Pakistan (hint: two countries share a border with each of them).

2. Name four important cities in each country ("important" having a slightly different connotation than "major," and "cities" used somewhat loosely).

3. Name the conflicting religious groups in each country ("Moslem" will not do as an answer).

4. Name four provinces (Afghanistan) or states or territories (Pakistan) in each country.

5. Name the presidents of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

6. Name the two major languages in Afghanistan and the principal language of Pakistan.

7. Name our three major military opponents in Afghanistan (confession: the Pakistani Taliban insurgency remains a bit beyond my range).

8. Name the major mountain ranges in Afghanistan and Pakistan (extra points for one that defines part of Afghanistan's northeastern border; points deducted for "Himalayas," even though the major range in northern Pakistan forms their western reaches).

9. Name the principal ethnic groups of the countries (bragging rights if you can name impoverished and neglected ethnic minorities).

10. Name the book that has taught you the most about each country (even if you've only read one book, as is more or less the case with me for Pakistan, though many books on Afghanistan have necessary interludes or starting-points there).

My uncribbed answers, for what they're worth:

1. Afghanistan: Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China, and Pakistan; Pakistan: Iran, Afghanistan, China, and India.

2. Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar-i-Sharif, and Herat (also Jalalabad); Islamabad, Karachi, Peshawar, Lahore (also Quetta, important by location rather than size--probably more important than Lahore right now, certainly strategically).

3. Sunni, Shi'a, Sufi; largely Sunnis among themselves, including the Wahhabism imported by "the Arabs," i.e. bin Laden, et al. in al Qaeda, and their financial backers in Saudi Arabia responsible for the building boom of fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan that has benefitted the Taliban; Shi'a in northwest.

4. Kandahar, Arghand, Hazarajat, Kunar; North Waziristan, South Waziristan, Beluchistan, Northwest Frontier.

5. Hamid Karzai (pending election runoff with Abdullah Abdullah); Ali al Anzari (not confident here--the widower of Benazir Bhutto).

6. Pashto and Farsi (Persian spoken in two strains in the west and the northeast); Urdu (also remote areas such as Baltistan harbor obscure languages such as Balti--my Greg Mortenson is showing).

7. Mullah Omar; Commandhan Dostum (still alive?); Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (perhaps the most violent and extreme of the three, for all our focus on Omar and his Taliban).

8. Hindu Kush, Pamir, Karakoram.

9. Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek; Punjabi, Sindhi (from Sindh, Bhutto's home and base in south--shaky answer)

10. Tie, partly because one author goes south and the other straight through the middle: Sarah Chayes, The Punishment of Virtue, and Rory Stewart, The Places in Between; Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea, probably the one book on this region that people have read who have read no others.

Grade: who cares? We're all more aware of what we know and don't know. The issue I still haven't sorted out: what exactly we do about it, except keep reading. In my case, that means a so far wonderful book by Christina Lamb, The Sewing Circles of Herat, available in the Chapel Hill, NC library as soon as I finish it and a few other titles.

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