Where the Wild Frontiers Are
Pakistan and the American Imagination
Foreword by Amitava Kumar
This book should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in understanding why the United States has repeatedly failed to build an effective relationship with Pakistan.Myra Macdonald, senior Reuters journalist
Where the Wild Frontiers Are
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.
Like the unleavened bread in which Indian rebels hid their encrypted communications during the Great Rebellion of 1857, Ahmad’s columns disguise a lethally witty response to the casual sadism of empire.
Juan Cole, University of Michigan
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.”
I urge any one who has an opinion on Pakistan (and who doesn’t?) to read this. I also wish this book was one thousand pages long!Mohammed Hanif, author, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
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.
Manan Ahmad’s essays on American intervention in the Muslim world are cantankerous, literate, biting, and contrarian. He argues back against the poobahs of superpower arrogance. He demolishes shibboleths. He peers into the rotten foundations of the Neoconservative castles in the sky and finds them crumbling in the jaws of the termites of fallacy. His is a canny insurgency of the keyboard and the kilobytes. Like the unleavened bread in which Indian rebels hid their encrypted communications during the Great Rebellion of 1857, Ahmad’s columns disguise a lethally witty response to the casual sadism of empire.
Juan Cole, University of Michigan and author, Engaging the Muslim World
The “Chapati Mystery” blog has provided some of the most well written and historically aware commentaries on the War on Terror over recent years. It has also emerged as a refreshing alternative to the opinion pages in the mainstream media. Manan’s posts are sometimes angry, sometimes funny, but always engaging. He can be combative and elegant in the same sentence. I urge any one who has an opinion on Pakistan, (and who doesn’t?) to read this. I also wish this book was one thousand pages long!
Mohammed Hanif, author, A Case of Exploding Mangoes
If you read only one book about Pakistan this year, read this. A rare combination of erudition, dark humor, and clarity of thought, strips bare the prejudices which distort America’s view of Pakistan. This is not the country of the U.S. imagination—a near-failed state where bearded fanatics and mad mullahs burn the American flag while darkly plotting to seize control of the nuclear bombs. Manan Ahmed’s Pakistan is a diverse and dynamic country with a rich past and promising future. Its history is shaped by Islam, by British colonial rule and, more recently, by American support for its military dictators. Its future lies in democracy. But this book is not only about Pakistan. It is also about the United States, and its peculiar blindness to the way it slips into the old habits of British colonial thinking. Creating a Pakistan in its imagination very different from reality, it convinces itself that without its firm guidance the country would descend into chaos. Despite its professed commitment to democracy, America has never really learned to trust “the masses” of Pakistan or indeed of other Muslim countries. This book should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in understanding why the United States has repeatedly failed to build an effective relationship with Pakistan.Myra Macdonald, senior Reuters journalist, blogger, author of Heights of Madness, a book on the Siachen war
Ahmed belongs to the proud tradition of dissenting academic voices, and specifically one that utilized blogging to engage with the general public.Salman Hussain, Editor, Tanqueed
Ahmed has an expert grasp of Pakistani and Afghan history, but he also takes advantage of the blog post’s inherent informality, interrogating his own assumptions and allowing for the kind of uncertainty rarely tolerated in an op-ed.
It is easy in retrospect to award points for Ahmed’s powers of clairvoyance, but more credit should be given to him for the quality of the analysis he displays here… Potentially unpopular, this analysis is also shrewd and penetratingly precise. Our world could use more of it.Jacob Silverman, Author, Terms of Service , Contributing Editor, The Baffler
Where the Wild Frontiers Are is available in Paperback ($20.99) and Ebook ($9.99)