For purposes of this column, I mean by “America” not the state or the establishment, but the society. It's important to draw that distinction, especially these days as the domestic conversation in America becomes at once more strident and more confused at both the official and the popular level. I won't try to give Dawn's readers in Pakistan even a thumbnail summary here of just how confused and at odds with itself American society has become; please take my word for it for now, and I promise to write more about it later if you want. There's a lot to say. From the outside, especially to those on the receiving end of its brute power, America might look monolithic and purposeful, but it's really neither of those things.
I just finished taking a rather grueling but excellent university course in the history of the Mughal Empire. Fascinating questions haunt the late Mughal story after the death of the Emperor Aurangzeb in 1707: Did the empire decline, or did it rather decentralise? Does it matter which of those verbs we choose to use to describe what happened? And might modern South Asia have developed more or less peaceably – or at least with its indigenous integrity intact – into a cluster of regional kingdoms, if not for the impact of the British East India Company especially after 1757?
These rhetorical questions are not really so far afield from 21st-century America, believe it or not. The analogy is in the way both the ideology of an imperial state long in the habit of claiming hegemonic prerogatives, and the self-confidence of the empire's domestic society, have become hollowed out, emptied of meaning and momentum, but not yet replaced by a new set of plausible stories. The best people living through such a situation can do is to make things up as they go along. That's what happened in proto-post-Mughal South Asia in the 18th century, and something like that is happening in America today.
I'm not saying that America is about to break apart. What I am saying is that Americans are no longer paying respect to the institutions and collective habits that for many decades effectively (if not always honestly or benevolently) governed our national life. Nor are we listening to each other anymore. And if, amid the sound and fury of our domestic life, Americans are not listening to each other, you can be sure we're not listening much to the outside world either. All too obviously this is a serious problem, especially when American soldiers urinate on dead Afghans or massacre women and children in their sleep.
Sunday, March 11 was one of those mornings when I woke up with the intention of minding my own business while enjoying my first cup of coffee, only to be walloped by the latest horrific news from Afghanistan. So I wrote an article very explicitly comparing the futile American war effort in Afghanistan with the war we spent a decade losing in Vietnam. I published the article on my own website, and it was excerpted on Dawn.com, but the version I want to draw your attention to is on the Huffington Post, the widely read liberal Web publication. My article was featured on the Huffington Post's front page – one reader pointed out that, tellingly, it was the only article on the topic so featured – and it got an unusual number of reader comments. If you want to get a sense of what Americans are thinking and saying about Afghanistan and Pakistan in the wake of the massacre last Sunday outside Kandahar, I suggest reading those comments as fairly representative.
In the wake of the recent string of shocking American-instigated incidents in Afghanistan, the most disturbing thing to me here in America is not that some Americans approve of or excuse them, but that most Americans seem hardly to have noticed them. We make rueful jokes about how the American attention span is like a dog in a park full of squirrels, but that's not really very funny. Our fickleness and ignorance have real-world consequences. I don't have a complete solution to that, or the power to fix it fully, but I do know what needs to be done. Educating and engaging the American public about the world and our involvement in it is a long, hard slog, but it's necessary work.
My Huffington Post article resulted in a television interview with Keith Olbermann, a national political talk show host. In the American park full of squirrels, when you get a few minutes of people's attention you try to get the most important points across. So, when Keith Olbermann asked me if anything could be done to repair the damage in the wake of the Kandahar massacre, I referred to the quote in my article from my friend Todd Shea. Todd, who has done lifesaving work in Pakistan ever since the 2005 earthquake, argues that “if US leaders had treated [Pakistanis and Afghans] as important in a human way [after the 1980s Afghan war], then society in Pakistan and Afghanistan would be far further along today, because we would have helped them avoid all the things that are happening now.”