At The Barbarian’s Gates

US media will, based on the demands of US imperial and political interests, transform heroes into monsters and vice versa. The Pathan in Afghanistan and Pakistan know this habit well. Celebrated as freedom fighters and heroes when they aligned with US Cold War priorities, they were later quickly condemned as reprobates and “terrorists” when the tide of history turned. The Pathan people have long suffered in the cross-hairs of Western colonial machinations. In both garbs–as heroes and as “terrorists”–they have been dehumanized and reduced to mere pawns for Western exploitation. Denzil Ibbetson, the lieutenant governor of Punjab in 1907, could describe the Pathan as:

Perhaps the most barbaric of all the races with which we are brought into contact in the Punjab…He is bloodthirsty, cruel and vindictive in the highest degree; he does not know what truth or faith is…He is a bigot of the most fanatical type, exceedingly proud and extraordinarily suspicious. [Quoted in Madiha Tahir, “The Ground Was Always in Play,” Public Culture, 29:1, 2016.]

Today, their dehumanization is so complete that not many in the media, political, or even human rights world question the slaughter of those who have been ensconced in our minds as “barbaric,” “bloodthirsty, cruel,” and “fanatical.” Hidden behind a language of “terrorism,” or “the Taliban,” are human beings that we are now prepared to slaughter en mass. US media, pundits, and polemicists for war manufacture the Pathan as different, beyond rationality, impulsive, unthinking, emotionless foot soldiers to religious fanaticism and remove them from being worthy of our compassion, care, ethics, and legal considerations. This construction of their alien, inexplicable, and irrational behavior is less a fact than a confirmation of our being cultured, civilized, urbane, modern, and lawful. It sets the stage for mass murder.

The British colonial administrators and military strategists were always honest about their disdain and racist denigration of those whose lands they invaded and occupied. For example, Lieutenant-General Sir John Bagot Glubb, who served with the British forces in Iraq, advocated the efficacious and essential use of force to “teach” the Arab Bedouin tribes a lesson.

He argued that the use of force as social control against Arabs was possible “[because of the]…spatial packaging of the underside of British modernity, in which Arabia figured as the last bastion of the world free from bourgeois convention, a place of honor and bravery (however mindless), of manly sportsmanship and perennial conflict” [Priya Satia, Spies In Arabia: The Great War And The Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire In The Middle East, Oxford University Press, 2009:250.]

Glubb believed that for the Arabs, “war was a ‘romantic excitement,’” and that “tragedies, bereavements, widows, and orphans were a normal way of life” and need not be mourned, remembered, or regretted [Ibid.] Those inflicting these conditions need not be prosecuted but instead celebrated. The Arab dead need not even have names, for the Arabs “have no objection to being killed” [Ibid.]

The Pathan should not have any objection either.

What begins with British colonial era adventures–given the euphemism “The Great Game” to veil the fact that the white man’s “games” were the brown man’s genocide, pillage, massacre, mass murder, the refugee crisis–continues in service of US imperial wars in the region. The reductive, Orientalist, denigrating, and dehumanizing representation of the Pathan remains and informs dozens of texts written by diplomats, pundits, and self-proclaimed “terror” experts.

“Western governments have coerced and bribed the Pakistani military into extensive wars against their own citizens;” Pankaj Mishra pointed out, “Tens of thousands of Pakistanis [mostly Pathans] have now died (the greatest toll yet of the “war on terror”), and innumerable numbers have been displaced, in the backlash to the doomed western effort to exterminate a proper noun.” [Pankaj Mishra, “Book Review; Pakistan: A Hard Country by Anatol Lieven,” The Guardian, May 1, 2011]. Most of the “tens of thousands” have been Pathans living along what is referred to as the Af-Pak border [Afghanistan-Pakistan]. This imperial neologism has “shrunk a large and complex country to its border with Afghanistan, presently a site of almost weekly massacres by the CIA’s drones [Ibid.]

Their dehumanization has permitted their slaughter, and US journalists have looked away. Thousands have died in drone strikes, military campaigns, and bombardments. Tens of thousands have fled their towns and villages into camps. Their movements are restricted, and their lives are under surveillance. Few bother to investigate the consequences for individuals, families, and communities of these practices and policies or what disruptions they have wrought.

US journalists arriving in Pakistan or reporting the war from the comforts of an embed not only adhered closely to scripts provided by US military and political interests. They rarely questioned the right of an imperial power to arrive, carry out an act of violent collective punishment, and impose its will on a people who had nothing to do with the events of 9/11 that justified the US military assault.

As journalist and researcher Madiha Tahir pointed out, when reporting from Pakistan, some stories are considered “true” because that is what they have always been. Some voices are considered “credible” because that is how they have always been.

How stories travel has a lot to do with their truth-value; some travel a long mile to the center but remain unheard, some embody centrality wherever they are. One reporter’s newspaper gave him bylines on Pakistan stories for years while he lived in Europe. Another one claimed in print, bless his soul, that because he had gained a passing acquaintance with Urdu, he understood Pashto, which is about as sensible as saying that because you’ve read the manual for a sailboat, you know how to fly an airplane. But as long as certain formulas held, space could be elastic like that for some people. [Madiha Tahir, “The Ground Was Always in Play,” Public Culture, 29:1, 2016].

The denigration of the Pathan, too, has truth value and is a formula that holds. Overtly racist language is no longer possible in our “polite” post-colonial times. Thus, the dehumanization and demonization of the Pathans happen with subtly euphemisms. We must read carefully to notice it because it can begin before the writing begins.

A New York Times piece about US drone strikes in the region gives us a masterclass in “tribal” as caricature. Titled “A Long History of Rebellion In The Mountains of Pakistan,” the title alone delegitimizes an Indigenous people by using the word “rebellion.” The Merriam–Webster Dictionary defines “rebellion” as “open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government” [Douglas Schorzman and Kiran Nazish, “A Long History of Rebellion In The Mountains of Pakistan,” New York Times, June 30, 2014].

Under the pen of the New York Times writer, the indigenous becomes illegitimate while the unlawful foreign occupation force becomes legitimate. The writers pen the piece by continuing to choose appropriate words that deliberately continue this inversion. “Long before Al-Qaeda and the Taliban found shelter in the forbidding mountains of the tribal region,” they write, “Waziristan was a wellspring of guerrilla insurgency and resistance to whatever power had tried to bring it in line.” [Ibid.] 

Words matter.

The writers use words like “insurgency” and “rebellion” to delegitimize the Waziris, who have lived in these lands for centuries and have a right by kinship, history, heritage, lineage, and memory to claim it as their own. The Merriam–Webster Dictionary defines an “insurgent” as “a person who revolts against civil authority or an established government.” The use of this word bestows legitimacy to an illegal occupation force while denying it to the people of the region.

This journalist instead garlands legitimacy onto “whatever power had tried to bring it in line”–the British, the Americans, the Soviets, and even the comprador post(colonial) Pakistani State. The onus for the regional crisis is placed on the Waziris. Their resistance to imperial invasion becomes the raison d’être that forces the colonialists and imperialists to kill.

“Pashtun tribes of Waziristan have never been truly conquered,” they argue. It is yet another colonial cliche written to avoid asking why the tribes need to be “conquered” in the first place. The writers never wonder why “conquest”–a word that implies occupation, control, and erasure–is the only engagement the Waziri must face. It seems not to occur to the writers that collaboration, democratic participation, civilized discourse, and other acts that imply that they are equally worthy of rights, humanity, intelligence, and engagement are possible.

A disingenuous answer, however, is provided a few lines further on. “Courting them as allies has almost always ended up backfiring on whoever has tried—ask the British, Pakistanis, Afghans, and, for that matter, the Americans.” [Ibid.] It is disingenuous justification because it erases the long history of colonizers and imperialists lying, double-crossing, exploiting, misleading, and outright cheating the people, stealing their lands, siphoning away their resources, and double-crossing them at every turn [Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: The Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia, Perseus Books Group, 2006].

The history of the British in India, the Soviets in Afghanistan, and more recently, that of the Americans is a litany of lies, false promises, double dealings, cynical calculations, vile trickery, brutal militancy, overt racism, and absolute disdain and disregard for the people of the region. If “courting the Waziris” has backfired for the colonizer, it is with good reason. The tribesmen were never completely jarred loose,” the writers point out, relying yet again on cliches borrowed from colonial discourses. But how does one “jar lose” a people who are indigenous to lands that are their homes, source of lineage, farms, fields, burial grounds, playgrounds, memories, art, traditions, identities, and sense of community? And where are they expected to go?

The use of subtle language assists in the dehumanization of the Pathans, which posits them as irrational, unreasonable, violent, tribal, stubborn, inflexible, untrustworthy, and not like us. The journalists can no longer think of them in human terms but only as comic book characters–uncivilized, savage, brutal, lawless, guerrilla, irritant, rebel, militant, terrorist, jihadi.

Once you dehumanize a people, even their most humane, civilized, and rational acts of compassion, care, generosity, integrity, and humanity can be interpreted and presented as criminality and danger. Journalists can read such acts as suspicious, backward, and beneath contempt. Legitimate acts of resistance and self-defense become acts of fanaticism and barbarism. Rightful claims for justice and restitution are dismissed as the crazed rantings of terrorists.

Colonial marauders, raiders, settlers, and murderers are instead garlanded with a language of legitimacy and legality, positing their right to take, steal, and kill the indigenous in the process of doing so. The New York Times article isn’t an anomaly. The habits of wordplay, turning right to wrong, and the criminal to legal are how journalists narrate regional wars.

For example, a piece that appeared in Air & Space Magazine, written by Graham Chandler, tells about A. J. (Jack) Capel, who, in the summer of 1924, was mercilessly bombing the villages and homes of the people in Waziristan [Graham Chandler, “The Bombing of Waziristan,” Air & Space Magazine, June 2011]. On one such sortie, he was shot down and captured by the tribesmen. Instead of killing him, as would have been their right, they did something unusual. They nursed him to health and released him back to the British after providing him “with a box of tinned food, a bottle of whiskey and some beer and some clothes.” [Ibid.] 

For good measure, they gave him Rs 1000 for his “inconvenience.” Their act of humanity, however, is lost on the writer, who attributes it to greed. He explains that the RAF offered a Rs. 9,000 bounty for the return of its pilots. Ironically, the very British High Command killing the Waziris held them in far higher regard than the writer. The British gave their pilots a goli chit–a safe-conduct letter from the RAF to any tribesmen who captured a British pilot. The British High Command expected that the very people they were murdering were civilized enough to return their downed pilots based on a letter from the High Command! 

Later, in the same article, we find Chandler also turning the world on its head, just as the New York Times writers had done. “Since the mid-19th century,” Chandler tells us, “the Waziris, Mahsuds, and other mountain tribes who lived in the area had harassed the British by stealing cattle, looting, and kidnapping and ransoming British citizens” (emphasis mine).

The frontier zone, home to the Pashtuns for centuries, becomes the rightful and necessary geography of the empire’s ambitions and illegitimate and alien geography for its actual inhabitants, reducing them to bandits, insurgents, rebels, and ‘terrorists,’ who harass, steal, loot, kidnap and ransom.

By denigrating them, Chandler makes the Waziris, whom he paints as sub-human and beneath civility, suitable for death.