"You Don't Know Pak": On American Ignorance of 'The World's Most Dangerous Place'

What do Americans need to know about Pakistan? How about everything? How about anything?

If you're an American, chances are that "You don't know Pak." A friend of mine was an alum of a top university, claimed to have an IQ of 160, and claimed to read ten newspapers a day. He once asked, "Is your Mom okay in Pakistan? I hear there's lots of unrest in Ramallah." And I said, "Um, that's Palestinian territory, not Pakistani territory."

The Economist, the Washington Post, Newsweek and countless others have spotlighted Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world." Yet no nation has ever dominated headlines for so many years without Americans gaining a clue about it. No nation has ever been singled out for so many years as a challenge to American security without Americans beginning to grasp what drives that nation's citizens.

There are certainly reasons Joe Sixpack is ignorant and indifferent about Pakistan. It's not like Iran, which has been an explicit enemy of the Great Satan for three decades now. Pakistan is more like a "frenemy." It's complicated, and when it's complicated, ordinary Americans try to pay no attention.

But Washington politicians and smug newspaper editorial boards around the U.S. have no excuse for their own constant displays of ignorance about Pakistan.

Here, then, is a true-false test see if you know Pak:

Pakistanis are naïve about the threat that extremists pose to their own future.
Both true and false. US policymakers, and those priggish newspaper editors, fail to appreciate that not everyone will react to American interests the way we do, because not everyone shares our concept of what an existential threat.

Pakistanis tend to feel like residents of a beleaguered barrio that produces criminals who torment the rich neighborhood nearby. They feel that Uncle Sam is the bossy, rich neighbor that demands they clean up the barrio, lest Sam drop by to "clean it up myself." Sam's limited and conditional promises of aid and partnership seems meager to the Pakistanis, given how they suffer the daily fallout from the ruckus that the barrio clean-up yields.

Most American citizens and politicians believe that jihadists pose an existential threat to our society. This is mostly nonsense. We'll destroy what's best in ourselves -- our democratic values, our courage, our resilience -- more easily than some turbaned rednecks ever could. Pakistanis have believed for six decades that Indians pose the greatest existential threat to them. That too may be nonsense, but it explains how they operate. Now that we've been pushing Pakistanis around, telling them how to deal with jihadists, 60% of them now believe that we're the biggest threat to them, with India falling to a mere 18%. Talk about a mixed result.

Pakistanis hate America.
Again, both true and false. As we just noted, the polls would seem to prove it. But there's a crucial nuance here: Pakistanis have a natural affinity for America, but they feel like America's jilted lover, given how the US now seems to coddle an India that was in bed with the Soviets during the Cold War. Pakistanis have loved America, and could love it again. But trust can't be repaired overnight, especially given Washington's own dysfunction.

Pakistanis and Indians are age-old enemies.
False. Pakistan grew out of the rib of India a mere 63 years ago, to serve as a pluralistic Muslim republic. But 160 million Muslims still live in Hindu-dominated India. Many are among India's most successful figures in business, government and Bollywood. On the other hand, the Hindu nationalist BJP party that recently held power had been implicated in state-sponsored massacres of Muslims. Hindus and Muslims can get along, but there are no guarantees.

The Pakistani army exaggerates the threat that India poses, in order to maintain a convenient Cold War that distracts Pakistanis from the war they should be fighting against jihadists.
Ridiculously false. This notion is trumpeted by "distinguished" experts from both the United States and India. The Pakistani army isn't behind the obsession with India; it's an obsession that's widely shared in households on both sides of the Pak-Indian border, households that have vivid memories of the murders and rapes of more than a million people when those two countries were suddenly "partitioned" by a waning British empire. The British fled from the region so fast that an anarchic vacuum followed in their wake. If American and Canadian homes were filled with grandmothers who remembered how the "other side" raped their sisters and murdered their brothers due to religious differences, we'd have a similar state of mind today, despite the best of intentions in 2010.

Forward-thinking India worries far less about Pakistan than Pakistan worries about India.

True and false. There is something to this, as India does have bigger fish to curry (China, for starters). But this line of thinking is a bit too charitable toward the many Indians who rove cyberspace, planting Pak-damning comments in response to articles by writers like myself. Though I'm hardly a Pakistani nationalist, I grow alarmed by the number of Indians who write in to demonize Pakistan and to demand that the international community strip it of its sovereignty and its nuclear weapons. In effect, they explain Pakistani paranoia.

Pakistanis don't appreciate how we helped them keep the Soviets from invading them.
Not true, not false -- just stupidly beside the point. Yet this is what experts such as Peter Galbraith claim. Washington used Pakistan as ground zero for a holy war to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but then turned away as millions of Afghan refugees drained Pakistan's economy and civic life.

Pakistanis do have a victimization mentality that's hurting them right now -- but that's not to say they haven't been victimized by dumb decisions in Washington. But when we as Americans understand better the laws of unintended consequences, we'll make slightly smarter decisions about who to bomb and who to invade, and we can minimize the posturing, finger-pointing hysteria on our own shores.

What else do Americans need to know about Pakistan? That Pakistanis have good and bad reasons to be more focused on India than on jihadists. That the region has a shame-and-honor-based culture, which affects how they communicate and how they posture. That Pakistan has one foot in 2010 and one foot in 1010. That Pakistanis have an incredible heritage and great potential. And that Pakistan, like Israel, was created in the wake of World War II as a religious state that would try to be a pluralistic republic. And just like in Israel, "It's complicated." And while we Americans don't do well anymore in thinking in nuanced ways about what's complicated, it's essential that we regain that skill.

Rob Asghar, a Fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, is the author of the newly released, Lessons from the Holy Wars: A Pakistani-American Odyssey (Wheatmark, January 2010)