On Anatol Lieven, Empire and Knowledge

There have been some dissonant responses to Anatol Lieven’s Pakistan: A Hard Country. Some (many) call it “the perfect antidote to stereotypical descriptions of the country as the most dangerous place in the world.” (Pakistan isn’t a failed state, you see, it is a “highly conservative, archaic and sometimes quite inert and somnolent mass.”) Others, like Praveen Swami write that “there is little sense in this book of Pakistan as a place with people, rather than a problem.” Still others charge him with “viewing the country as the sum of all its military parts.”

That, I think, is an issue with this genre of books that either represent or inform, in Sepoy’s words,”the view from the mahogany conference tables in and around Washington.” Zia Mian and Sharon Weiner, in their review of some such recent policy-oriented literature about Pakistan, write that

Much of this literature sees Pakistan as a policy problem and seeks to inform Washington’s debate on how to get Pakistan to do what the United States wants it to do. The literature also reveals the limits of American knowledge and power when it comes to Pakistan.

What I find peculiar is that Lieven’s book reminds some of British colonial chronicles. Farzana Shiekh notes that the language in Lieven’s book is “reminiscent of the memoirs of a British district administrator under the Raj.” Swami notes that “Lieven’s book self-consciously locates itself in the tradition of the colonial chroniclers whose thoughts pepper the text.” Mian and Weiner are on the same page as well:

At times, Lieven sounds like a British officer trying to parse the peculiar ways of the natives. This impression is strengthened by his repeated citation of nineteenth-century colonial commentaries on South Asian and Muslim notions of honor, loyalty, honesty, the virtues of Islamic law, the role of saints, the withering away of old feudal families, Pashtun leadership and culture, Sindhi architecture and Baloch tribal structure, to give only some examples. The dilemmas of this backward-looking gaze are most striking in his discussion of the Pakistan Taliban, where he resorts to observations on tribal rebellion offered by the last British governor of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, Olaf Caroe.

This is the context I had as I read Anatol Lieven’s review of Ahmad OMFG-The-Tallys-Are-Coming Rashid’s new book and had the following conversation with Arsalan:

  1. Share
    Trenchant critique of A Rashid’s work by A. Lieven: “he is completely in thrall to…western ideas of “normality”” ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/2de121…
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 07:16:15
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    A. Rashid changed stance on Taliban as war narrative collapses. Journalist following lead of policy makers, rather than other way around.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 07:21:44
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    Lieven’s critique of Ahmad Rashid v @akkhan81 ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/2de121… / Also, shorter Lieven: West needs better knowledge to do empire better.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 11:08:17
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    After Said’s Orientalism it became fashionable to critique the nexus of power & knowledge,but at least the colonists were knowledgeable. #ha
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 11:11:25
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    @salmaan_H Lieven is right that the British had more local knowledge than the Americans do.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 13:13:25
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    @salmaan_H in this case, he’s saying that if the US had better understanding local conditions, they would not have occupied for 10 years.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 13:14:09
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    @salmaan_H we can agree that “doing empire” in Afghanistan is not exactly in the US interest, and understanding that would be good for all.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 13:16:03
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    @akkhan81 May be; I’d say the former were perhaps more interested in local ethnographic knowledge, perhaps due to the difference in the
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:09:00
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    @akkhan81 kinds of imperialism or the latter’s higher tech. The pretensions to knowledge though shouldn’t be taken on face value.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:09:31
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    @akkhan81 Knowledge as a tech of control is poor knowledge. Many reviewers have pointed to Lieven’s nostalgia for the Brit colonial admin;
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:10:06
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    @akkhan81 something that I too see in however little I’ve read him. If that holds some water, his critique of Pakistani liberals may betray
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:10:20
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    @akkhan81 the colonial distaste for the Indian Babus. But that’s my unscholarly (retreats into average-Joe-populism) 2 cents.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:11:10
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    @salmaan_H I don’t know about this nostalgia for British rule, but in this case its pretty clear that his point was that even the most..
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:16:12
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    @salmaan_H …superficial local knowledge would make clear that the US goals in Afghanistan are completely unrealistic, and their failure..
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:17:17
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    @salmaan_H to see that is because of willful ignorance on their part, and because people like Rashid, themselves incapable of..
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:18:08
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    @salmaan_H of understanding difference, have been giving bad advice for 10 years. that to me does not sound like nostalgia for British rule.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:18:55
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    @akkhan81 Of course, any critique of Rashid is welcome as far as I’m concerned. The point about superficial US knowledge is clear as well.
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:34:32
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    @akkhan81 My gripe is w what he says after reviewing Rashid. It seems to me that the argument is that instead of relying on Rashid’s tripe
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:35:03
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    @akkhan81 ethnography and history is to be employed by Western policy-makers “when trying to operate in profoundly different social and
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:35:27
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    @akkhan81 cultural environments.” a.k.a lean on scholarly knowledge to do empire better. That call is familiar, esp if taken in conjunction
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:36:08
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    @akkhan81 w chastising claims abt the knowledgeable Brits. I think of it as the nostalgia for Brit empire. Or mebbe I’m just an angry hack:)
    Thu, Apr 05 2012 14:38:01


Policy-centered texts are one kind of knowledge. Embedded social science is another. The smart-card yielding study of culture is yet another. And the tech-savvy empire has other ways of knowing as well.

They rain death and destruction from above, burying their prey in the rubble they reduce their targeted location to. And then they hit the rubble to ensure their kill stays dead, killing rescuers in the process. They buzz incessantly, making it difficult for people to fall asleep and sending the demand for anti-depressants and sleeping pills soaring in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Besides their function as airborne assassins, drones are also used to watch, observe, monitor. What they monitor, they relay back as grainy images. Images are also captured on checkpoints: images of retinas, faces and fingers. Biometric data on 1.5 million Afghans, that is “every six males of fighting age, ages 15 to 64” and on 2.2 million Iraqis, “the equivalent of one in four males of fighting age” was collected and stored, reported The New York Times. Within the U.S, foreigners from certain countries (almost all Muslim) were ordered to have their biometric data collected. Since then, biometrics have proliferated to airports en-masse. All of this has yielded piles of information. Still, the appetite for more data remains and the fantasies about technologically cutting edge data-gathering toys abound. The nano drones being developed “can fly after their prey like a killer bee through an open window.” The Gorgan Stare, a U.S Air force technology, it was reported, will look at a city 24/7 so that the “adversary” knows that it is being watched but never knows what exactly is being looked at, because, as The Washington Post’s giddy headline put it, “we can see everything.”

If this is bad knowledge, is there some kind of good knowledge of the colony, acquiring which the empire will suddenly realizes that she is the disease that ails the colony? What can knowing Afghanistan or Pakistan “better” do?

Pointing to the “critical distance between knowledge and understanding,” sepoy writes:

To understand fully is to be constricted, imperially speaking. The empire must not understand for that understanding carries with it a price that is simply too dear. Therein lies the distance between knowledge and understanding at the core of all imperial ventures. … Kipling’s warning is apt – if the empire understands the position of the colony, the condition of colonialism itself, it cannot maintain any lie about either its civilising mission nor its emancipatory one.

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3 Responses to On Anatol Lieven, Empire and Knowledge

  1. Jakob says:

    i haven’t read lieven. but from comments of people (pakistani and non-) who resent writing like riedel’s or other ‘informed analysts’, they trust lieven because he managed to portray himself as someone who cares and also sees the ‘soft part’ of the country (contrary to his title), culture, history, customs and such. I find it quite easy for writers on Pakistan to get to some level of expertness by simple splashing out platitudes ‘i was at cookoo’s den and loved the food’ or ‘the people up there in the north are so friendly’. If you mix that with some knowledge of history it quickly sounds like genuine understanding. and especially in pakistani media then it is bought as such, and once it surfaces in reviews here, less informed media in europe will say ‘if even they say so, it must be good’ (i am judging mainly for geman writing media here). an extreme form of this want for ‘positive news’ is the sadly funny VoicePakistan page on facebook.

    ahmed rashid here of course basically is understood as ‘to know’ because he ‘really lives there’ and his name is ‘local’, he’s got to know. in german writing media he to date is the most interviewed on Pakistan.

  2. Greased Cartridge says:

    Thanks for commenting Jakob. I’m yet to read Lieven’s book, and based on Sepoy’s review I demur. I might have to suck it up and read it as my shitty read of the year. But who knows? I may be pleasantly surprised. Either way, the amount of chatter it has created and the controversies/media-spectacles Lieven seems to be a magnet for makes me curious. (http://www.thefridaytimes.com/beta2/tft/article.php?issue=20120330&page=10 ) I guess the spectacles work.
    Rashid is the authentic voice that we all need to tell us we are right. He was vigorously peddling the “galloping Talibanization of Pakistan” shtick a couple of years back. Then it was, oh send aid to the flood-stricken Pakistani hordes lest they regress from their stadial ladder back to their natural state of savagery. I wrote about that (somewhat) last year here: https://greasedcartridge.wordpress.com/2011/05/20/madrasa-madness/

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