Remote-controlled Knowledge

[Following is the Homistani edition of my review of Where The Wild Frontiers Are, published on Counterpunch and ChapatiMystey.]

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.”


The tech-savvy American empire has other ways of seeing and knowing as well. The Global War on Terror has spawned a whole battery of experts on Pakistan, Afghanistan, Middle East, Islam, and Muslims. Such expertise historian Manan Ahmed juxtaposes with the indecipherable mountains of data obtained through constant surveillance to conclude that “the American war effort prefers its human knowledge circumspect or circumscribed and its technical knowledge crudely totalized.” It is empire’s vacuous ways of seeing and knowing, the critical distance between knowing and understanding, that Ahmed brings into focus in his book, Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination, a curated collection of his blogposts and published essays. “The idea of unknowing (or deliberate ignorance),” he writes, “is at the heart of the empire—and arguably, specifically, the American Empire.” 

This deliberate ignorance is maintained by narratives that purport to explain, and explain away. Narratives serve as a device to forget, to unsee, to unknow: narratives that power proliferates; narratives that sustain power; narratives that obscure and obfuscate. Ahmed writes that the then Presidential candidate Barack Obama’s explication of America’s foe to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2007 was virtually indistinguishable from that of President Bush. It conformed to the scholar-combatant Bernard Lewis’ Orientalist pabulum, “the template of The Old Man of The Mountain,” for understanding terrorism and militancy. It completely ignored the history ofAmerica’s militarized engagement with the rest of the planet, and specifically America’s role in the birth of violent transnational Jihad during the Cold War. And that is because there was, and is, no alternative narrative available. “The myopia we extend out to the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan exists in North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma,” he writes.

The antidote to the blindness inculcated by separations and exclusions, and the hope that emerges from Ahmed’s writings is that we live in one and the same world, with shared and intertwined histories. We are, and have been, entangled with one another by movements and migrations, of people and ideas. But that same history is also one of violence, conquest, and exploitation, which have acquired terrifying efficiency and massive scales. And in this too, we remain intertwined.

Geography, a sense of the place, its people, local histories, and memory, is from where Ahmed’s critique of power emerges and where it is located. Noting that the “clash of civilization operates not on differences but on sameness—whether in Us or Them,” Ahmed posits that “Unless we decide to get local, to pay attention to local narratives, facts, histories, realities, languages, religions, ethnicities, cultures, and so forth, we will remain in this deeply flawed discourse.” And this is not merely a matter of intellectual nicety. Oblivious of local realities, war-mongers like Seth Jones call for drone strikes on “Baluchi cities like Quetta,” as the US has done “so effectively in the tribal areas.” Quetta is a major city of Pakistan, the provincial capital of Baluchistan, and a populous city with more than a million people. There is already a war raging on in Baluchistan. But none of this merits a consideration. The drone’s eye view collapses histories, geographies, cultures, and lives into one dangerous whole: the target.

Empires impart the belief that there is “a dominant ‘core’ that rule[s] over a conquered ‘periphery’” and that it is the “right of the Emperor to create and execute laws universally, i.e. absolute sovereignty.” [Original emphasis] To extend imperial diktat over the “periphery,” it must be deemed lawless— or in today’s idiom, a failed state. Pakistan (and Afghanistan), routinely visualized and coded as “lawless,” comprises the American empire’s internal frontier with which the center deliberately maintains distance and refuses to see its people historically as socio-political beings. The domestic dictators provide the narratives that the U.S conveniently swallows: “The forces of darkness hover at the border and only the rightfully guided leader can shepherd the nation. For Musharraf, the bugaboo is extremism; for Zia-ul-Haq, it was communism.” Ahmed lays out the history of theAmerica’s violent entanglements with Pakistan through the years; the antidemocratic agenda the U.S has pushed consistently (in Pakistan and many other Muslim-majority countries) by supporting military rule, presumably so that its people, stuck in the “not yet time,” can be taught democracy by despotic satraps.

But Ahmed is no scribe of power. His is not a critique smitten with the omnipotence of power so as to have no hope in the agency and resilience of people, and no room for resistance. Ahmed gives readers a sense of Pakistani politics through carefully crafted profiles of some of its public figures, past and present, such as Zaid Hamid, Imran Khan, Mukhtar Mai, Jinnah, and the Bhutto dynasts; and the nation’s political history through a series of essays on the Pakistan Movement, entitled “Imagining Pakistan.” Ahmed chronicles Pakistanis’ struggle through non-violent protests to end General Musharraf’s dictatorship and usher in democratic rule; and the movement to restore the judiciary that stood up to military rule. This, though, does not mean an uncritical romanticizing of “the people,” let alone that of the Pakistani nation and nationalism. Ahmed does not lose his sense of justice and offers a searing critique of the various hegemonic projects of the nation. He writes with profound empathy for those –Ahmadis andPakistan’s other religious minorities, women, the poor, Balochis, and Bengalis— at the receiving end of the violence and injustices meted out by the society and the state.

“[H]yperbolic invocations of local violence have played a substantive role in colonial imaginations of frontiers, in general,” writes Ahmed. “Now, it plays a rhetorical role in our present day imagination of Pakistan.” Violent, unstable, and chaotic are common tropes in imperial narrative about the places it deems the frontier— a distant place, a place of danger, peopled by barbarians. The anxiety the frontier provokes; it “paradoxically internalises a peculiar fascination with the frontier even as it pushes away more robust understandings – it simultaneously keeps the frontier a known object and an unknowable terrain,” writes Ahmed in a more theoretical essay, “Adam’s Mirror: The Frontier in the Imperial Imagination,” that regrettably is not part of the collection under review. This particular view of the frontier obscures all “historical contingencies, the particularities or the specifici­ties, and those instated there” and replaces it with “a caricature of the exotic, the unknown.”

To elucidate empire’s ways of knowing and unknowing what it deems the frontier, Ahmed turns to imperial history, and brings to the fore the imaginative terrain –unknown, dangerous, and exotic –by which the frontier is routinely circumscribed. Ahmed says that for empire, the anxiety of the frontier “embeds itself in the frontier itself, waiting to be recalled, remembered and reproduced.” The task of recalling it for the prince is performed by the expert who either reproduces the frontier in the “image of the capital or reproduce[s] an image of it for the capital.” The expert, writes Amitava Kumar in the Foreword, “speaks from a distance; the expert sees like the State. … Or like a drone.”

Ahmed studies the profiles of those who are deemed experts and invited to the halls of power to ply their craft, to understand and arrive at an ideal type that the official point of view considers an “expert:”

Such an “expert” is usually one who has not studied the region, and especially not in any academic capacity. As a result, they do not possess any significant knowledge of its languages, histories or cultures. They are often vetted by the market, having produced a bestselling book or secured a job as a journalist with a major newspaper. They are not necessarily tied to the “official” narratives or understandings, and can even be portrayed as being “a critic” of the official policy. In other words, this profile fits one who doesn’t know enough.

Rory Stewart and Greg Mortensen are examples of a particular type of expert – “the ‘non-expert’ insider who can traverse that unknown terrain and, hence, become an ‘expert.’”

Ahmed writes that “the effort to be ethical in the world we inhabit cannot wait for better times and milder risks.” Critical scrutiny of the nexus of knowledge and power in general and the American empire in particular, is an abiding concern of his writings. The prince’s councils, the experts of many stripes, come in for a thorough examination (and stick): globetrotters like Robert Kaplan “who claim expertise by staying in hotels and who produce nothing but banal observations;” unabashed apologists of empire such as historian Niall Ferguson; peddlers of racist tripe such as Thomas Friedman, reportedly a pundit President Obama reads “to get a local flavor for events;” and “authentic voices,” like that of Ahmed Rashid and Daniel Mueenuddin, that confirm the caricature of violent brown masses. Ahmed drives the congruity between drones and experts home with characteristic polemical verve:

The appeal of the drone’s eye is precisely that it does not see everything, because it carries no understanding of the things it records. The experts who are required to imagine Afghanistan or Pakistan traverse those spaces in a manner similar to the drones, on their own preprogrammed missions where every little thing becomes a target on which to pin their policies.

As the political theorist and psychoanalyst, Ashis Nandy writes, “knowledge without ethics is not so much bad ethics as inferior knowledge.” With drones colonizing the skies and experts the discourse, it is one with grave consequences for the world.

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