In recent years, Pakistan has assumed increasing importance in American thinking as the place in which Washington's "AfPak" policy has became worryingly mired. But Pakistan's 175 million people have had their own history throughout these years, too: a history that was complex, enthralling, infuriating, and inspiring-- sometimes, all at once. How lucky, then, that we now have Manan Ahmed to guide us into the intricacies of the imbroglio between these two complicated countries.
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Since 2004 Ahmed, a deeply informed Pakistani-American historian, has been casting his keen and always wry eye on the U.S.-Pakistani interaction on his blog, "Chapati Mystery. Where the Wild Frontiers Are: Pakistan and the American Imagination is his own curation of the most trenchant of these blog posts-- a work that will forever change the way its American readers think about Pakistan. (And in an Epilogue penned in May 2011, he offers some final reflections on the multiple meanings that the U.S. killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan that month had for the centuries-long interaction between Pakistan's people and the 'West'.)
In September 2010, Ahmed was reflecting on the "failure of imagination" on behalf of U.S. officials, to which the authors of the American 9/11 Commission report ascribed the officials' failure to prevent the 9/11 attacks. To combat terrorism, he noted, the report's authors thought American officials needed to work harder on developing a more specifically novelistic (à la Tom Clancy) kind of imagination: "the capacity to imagine this Other, to give them an interiority, a mindfulness, an agency, a history."
But it did not work out that way. Where the Wild Frontiers Are vividly captures the failure of most members of the U.S. elite to successfully "imagine" the reality of people's lives and society in Pakistan in this important way. Ahmed unsparingly criticizes most of the so-called "experts" who prognosticate about Pakistan and its region in the U.S. mainstream media. About Robert Kaplan, he writes that ""The empire... will surely invite him to speak to groups with shinier brass and shinier domes. The historians reading [his] book will have less cause to be charitable". A similar charge, he lays at the feet of Rory Stewart and Greg Mortenson.
Where the Wild Frontiers Are looks clear-headedly at U.S. imaginings about Pakistan-- and also at the big historical and political trends within Pakistan itself. The Lawyers' Movement, the self-destructive last days of Pervez Musharraf's presidency, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the eruption of a vicious anti-Ahmadi pogrom, the disruptions and suffering caused by the 'Global War on Terror', the country's endless tangling with the complexities of its own past and meaning: All are the object of Ahmed's steady (and sometimes exasperated) gaze.
Between them, the book's ten chapters provide a compelling picture of the complexity of the U.S.-Pakistan entanglement in the first decade of this century.
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