The Most Dangerous Threat to the World Is ... Collective Psychosis in Pakistan?

Yikes. Islamabad's former ambassador to the United States puts a provocative frame around a nuanced analysis of his home country.
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Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani with senior army officials and scientists before test firing the Shaheen-1 medium-range ballistic missile at an undisclosed location January 25, 2008. (Reuters)

It may not be the most dangerous place in the world, but, with its mix of political instability and nuclear capability, it's plausibly the most dangerous place for the world. Yet according to Husain Haqqani, Americans have a chronically hard time understanding why.

"I do believe that Pakistan is a dangerous place," Haqqani said, speaking with The Washington Post's David Ignatius and retired U.S. general Stanley McChrystal at the Aspen Ideas Festival today, "but ... not for the reasons the Americans think it is. The Americans don't get Pakistan."

Haqqani, who served as Pakistan's ambassador to Washington from 2008-2011, thinks that U.S. diplomats and military leaders have, after decades of on-again, off-again engagement with Pakistani officials, internalized a distorted sense of possibility in the United States' involvement in Pakistan as a whole.

Haqqani believes that Islamabad's generals in particular have played a big role over time in flattering Americans' sense of efficacy in Pakistan -- and seems to believe that U.S. generals have been particularly susceptible to their Pakistani counterparts: "American generals look at Pakistani generals and see fellow soldiers. Pakistanis, especially those who have been imprisoned by generals at one point or another, look at them as politicians in uniform."

It's not that American officials' thinking about Pakistan is insufficiently complex, according to Haqqani (McChrystal, after all, had just emphasized the importance of not looking for simple fixes in Pakistan); it's that American officials' thinking about Pakistan serially overestimates the United States' ability to promote stability and development in the country at all.

U.S. foreign policy naturally looks for levers to pull. But what if, despite all the complexity among all the issues where the U.S. has been looking for levers, there is, after all, a central, defining issue with no lever connected to it? "It's not America's problem to solve Pakistan's problem," Haqqani said. "It's Pakistan's problem to solve Pakistan's problem."

So what's the problem?

Haqqani's account here is rather meta: The problem is a dominant and determining sense of collective insecurity that prevents Pakistan from understanding its situation in the world.

It was a country that was created with very little prior discussion and analysis. People forget: There's been an Egypt for 5,000 years; there's been an Iran for centuries -- for millennia. There's been an India for millennia. Pakistan is only 66 years old. So therefore it has, essentially, a lot of psychoses, more than it has actual threats and challenges.

India, for example -- I understand that Pakistanis have a lot of concerns about India. But, as a Pakistani, I look at history. ... Yes, India has never philosophically accepted the idea of Pakistan. But it has never been responsible for initiating any of the wars with Pakistan. Let's be real about that. Afghanistan is too weak and too poor to attack Pakistan. So most of the problems that Pakistan sees itself in are psychological rather than real.

Which isn't to say Pakistan doesn't have real problems. This is, after all, a country now with a population of 210 million and the highest population-growth rate in the region. Half the country's population is below the age of 21. One-third of them have never been to a school of any kind. One-third of the population overall is below the poverty line, with another one-third just above it.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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