Thursday, January 6

The ghost

The problem for Obama, Mullen, Gates, Clinton, Petraeus and all their advisors is that they cannot comprehend what life was like for Pakistan's ruling families during the British Raj. There's no use trying to explain what it was like because they will interrupt and say, 'I know.' They know nothing and understand even less. They have their heads stuffed with postcolonial theories thought up by leftists such as Edward Said and guilt-ridden Britons.

But if you saw James Cameron's Titanic and recall the scene in the flooded grand ballroom with drowned passengers in elegant evening attire, you might intuit a little of what it was like for those families. It was all swept away after World War Two, a way of life Pakistan's ruling families thought would never end.

Westerners must accept that they can't fully understand what was lost. It might surprise you to learn that the Indians can't fully understand, either. That's because Indians can't imagine how it feels to realize one has traded everything of lasting value for a mirage.

The true Pakistan is a ghost, a ghost of the British Empire at its most glorious.

Westerners can understand, I think, what the most informed Indians already know: that without the help of the ruling families who supported the British enterprise in India the British couldn't have lasted there as long as they did. The ruling families were the British Raj. So it was a symbiotic relationship, not a parent-child one, a relationship that created a lifestyle of timeless order.

The order was an illusion, just as an unsinkable ship is an illusion, but that was seen only when the British could no longer afford to maintain the illusion. Yet the illusion was so powerful that Pakistan's rulers didn't see Partition as abandoning the motherland: they would go on ruling, as they had always done, and the mighty British Empire would continue to remain their protector. The second great European war was a blip, as the first great European war had been; the British would bounce back and everything would continue as before.

When the illusion vanished Pakistan's ruling families were left with the outward forms, the mannerisms of Pax Britannica: cricket matches, marching bands, a patronizing contempt for Hindus, high tea. That's what they gave up the motherland for and they know it. That's why it could take Pakistan's ruling families another generation before they're able to let go of a past that is more real to them than anything around them today.

However, Afghans and the NATO countries don't have a generation to wait for the balm of time to exorcise a ghost. For that reason the NATO military command and its civilian bosses need to cease trying to reform, advise, or otherwise guide the Pakistanis. Instead, they need to buckle down to the task of persuading Afghans that the Westerners leading the war in Afghanistan aren't barking mad.

I myself, being a Westerner, find nothing strange about people who change their mind every 15 minutes; I think of it simply as either a lack of focus or being data-driven in one's decision-making processes. But the NATO leaders must allow that some people do consider the trait a sign of insanity. That perception is now the greatest obstacle NATO faces in Afghanistan.

Photograph: "A boy uses cream on his face as he sits in rain water on a street in Karachi, July 27, 2010" from Pakistan through the eyes of Reuters - a gallery of Reuters news photos published in collaboration with Pakistan's Dawn newspaper.

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