So Nicholas Schmidle’s piece on the Abbottabad-raid got a lot of attention, plus a valid criticism from Christine Fair’s side. Although I think Schmidle did a good job writing a captivating recount and I wouldn’t have objected on the fact that he didn’t explicitly state that he never talked to any of the SEALs, from a journalistic viewpoint Fair is quite right – and if Schmidle would have taken some thought to it in advance, he may have well woven that fact into the article without spoiling its film-script appeal.
What struck me with both pieces though, is the fact that they stumble along pre-conceived lines of narratives on Pakistan. That is not something new in today’s writing on the area, but since these are two writers I more or less respect on what they have to say, it’s worth pointing out. Also it’s not a criticism specifically of these two as writers – they both have set out to write their pieces on another aim. Schmidle simply wants to portray the raid without embedding it in a wider local perspective but purely from the American’s viewpoint and Fair looks at the extent writers should state their sourcing. It’s rather also a criticism of us as readers, what we already expect as granted and what has penetrated our mind to such an extent that we do not find it weird any more. And of course of US army’s flawed decisions on issues they should by now have tackled.
Also some parts of the discussion do not appeal to me as a European reader as they may to an American. The SEALs are not ‘mine’ (as Fair puts it; even if the Austrian Cobra unit would have done the raid, we would not call them ‘ours’, they are just some guys doing some job), and the times where someone here would say ‘for God and Country’ casually, are long gone.
Schmidle picks up the vaccination story. This has been dealt with by the Guardian already, and I hope a day will come soon, where we will find it so ridiculous to assume that it may be a good idea to start a vaccination program really anywhere in Pakistan, that mentioning it in a lauding article of the American army and C.I.A. will become obsolete.
Then comes the point where the American translator, ‘Ahmed’ fends of locals in Pashto. Fair and many of her (Pakistani) commenters, have adressed that in a typical way, just to show of some rudimentary knowledge off the couch of themselves – they point out that in Abbottabad more people speak Hindko, a Pashto translator is therefore rubbish. They are quite right, but a Punjabi speaker may have equally done the job, locals may not have found that a big issue. It may be cool to be a smart-ass on Pakistani languages and where they are generally used, it would be more valuable to understand how the West uses that knowledge to subjugate the locals into tribal vernacular linguicists who need to be adressed in their local customs. Pashto, and that not only in the Army and the intellignence services but also in the wider blogosphere and scholarly literature, is considered the language of the tribal hilly-billy Taliban and quickly from there, of all those evil terorists (be they Punjabi Lashkars or German-Turkish mercenaries). On the one hand, that is very convenient, because now scholars who work in the field can always point out their knowledge, ‘that Pashto, really, is a very difficult language to learn – you will understand that I can not master it but will rather report on the area without understanding the locals’. No I don’t understand. Unfortunately that narrative has gone so far, that many do not even attempt to learn it properly. To go in line with Fair’s argument of disclosing sourcing, I think reporters and especially scholars who report on the area extensively (like Schmidle and Fair) should be oblidged to state in their papers ‘that I actually don’t even understand the local population without a translator’. On the other hand, it fosters the narrative that the terrorist lot is ethnically and linguistically homogenuous and tribally backward (you’ve got to talk in their harsh vernacular to them!). Also Abbottabad is no such hamlet – it’s a (‘small’) city with nearly 200 000 inhabitants and a number of universities/colleges.
Schmidle also ‘recounts’ how the SEALs catch bin Laden’s wives in bear hugs fearing they were wearing suicide wests. I understand that precaution is never a stupid thing, but the fact that the narrative on al-Qaeda has managed to expect us that women of their high-ups put on a suicide west each night after they take down their make up and brush their teeth with an electric toothbrush (yeah, I guess they even have that – shocking, eh?) is showing how far we have managed to construct the evil ‘other’ to our liking.
Fair also manages to do some collectivizing of ‘the Muslim world’ although here I think/hope that’s purely because of poor wording. Altogether her criticism of Schmidle’s piece, while getting to a valid point, is more of a rant unfortunately.
Hoping to look into the role of exciting, exotical and eastern mountaineering as part of careers in the east that have become part of our understanding of the area that is belted by Hindukush. Karakoram and Himalaya, I am currently with Francis Younghusband in Tibet. While he was determined to understand the locals here (and earlier in Hunza and the Pamirs) and of the Great Gamers is definitely one who was relatively well informed about local customs and histories, he always manages to portray the locals as backward through narratives that are a mixture of empire-supremacy, political opportunism, ethnology and heart-felt-love for or heart-felt-despise of the people. I smirk now and again at his descriptions – after all, that was a whole century ago. Todays’ writing that becomes policy relevant like Younghausband’s did in it’s day is, chastened by the ever present threat of being accused of Orientalism or breach of political correctness, a lot less obvious in such revealings of imagination. But when it does come up, it leaves me with a cringing smirk.
[I am not on the pay-roll of Manan Ahmed - I do not even know him, not even as a tweeting fellow. But his book on that issue is a recomendation. It deals with exactly that - 'the American imagination of Pakistan'. I have reviewed it in german here. Also, if you are more interested in how the bin Laden raid has any significance rather than what was the weapon of choice of each SEAL, his At Sea is still worth a couple of thoughts.]