Grappling with Pakistan's 'influence operations': When the patriarchy moves in to silence a female critic
For some 10 years, I have relentlessly exposed Pakistan's influence operations against American scholars, analysts, journalists and the institutions that employ them and rely upon their ability to raise funds to support the organisations' overhead costs and salaries
For some 10 years, I have relentlessly exposed Pakistan's influence operations against American scholars, analysts, journalists and the institutions that employ them and rely upon their ability to raise funds to support the organisations' overhead costs and salaries. Through this basic economic necessity, most of the think-tanks in Washington, DC and the writers who focus on South Asia have been coopted by Pakistan's influence operations because these individuals have generally positioned themselves as Pakistan-whisperers to private and public funders.
This renders them dependent on Pakistani visas and access to officials in and out of uniform. The result is chilling: Analysts who know better — or ought to know better — self-censor to retain this access. In the process, they have become witting or unwitting assets to Pakistan. In response to my most recent criticism, two white men who are considerably senior to me, have turned to the popular tactic of appealing to my employer in an effort to silence me. Two senior men appealing to my leadership to discipline my voice or silence me altogether is white maleness in action. It is the patriarchy in action. In doing so, these individuals hope that I will temper my tone.
I will not.
On Monday 14 October, Michael Krepon who "co-founded the Stimson Center in 1989 and served as Stimson’s President and CEO until 2000, and who continues to direct Stimson’s programming" joined hands with Andrew Wilder, a “vice-president of Asia programs” at the United States Institute of Peace to draft a letter to the president of the organisation that employs me. They also contacted several other South Asia analysts in hopes that they would sign this letter. (I have reproduced the original letter below. Because some of the persons whom I know were contacted are not on this first email, I can assume that their first effort did not produce the anticipated yield of signatories and they reached into the lower benches of the field.)
The letter claims that my assertions about the ways in which Pakistani influence operations have shaped the policy debate to Pakistan’s benefit have coarsened the political discourse. What they seek to obfuscate is that these men do not contribute meaningfully to an empirically buttressed political discourse; rather, they contribute to an unrelenting parade of apologies for the most outrageous of Pakistani behaviours. It is they — not me — who have coarsened political discourse by introducing into it Pakistani talking points, preferred historical arguments, and representations for purposes of programmatic expedience and convenience as I explain below.
Given their seniority, in writing to the president of my employer, they are engaging in a form of bullying enjoyed by senior white men to silence agentive female critics, particularly those of us who are junior to the men who seek to muzzle us. This is the Old White Boys Club in its basest form appealing to oldest trick in the book of asking a senior man to discipline an uppity woman in his remit.
Michael Krepon has a history of sending me misogynist and condescending emails. He has accused me of “losing my way” as if I am a lost sheep and he is the masterly shepherd. When I chastised him for refusing to publicly acknowledge that he was a member of a task-force to re-examine US policies towards Pakistan much-less sign onto its recommendations, he rebuked me for daring to question his reservations about a report that recommended considering the possibility of considering sanctions against Pakistan at some indefinite point in a remote future.
I was not surprised by the language and tone used in this open letter, provided below, in which they reduced my concerns about the necrotic impact of Pakistani influence operations upon the public discourse surrounding that country as “eruptions” and consistently mischaracterised my descriptions of influence operations and their complicity in the same.
What are influence operations? A primer
While it is not uncommon for US officials to be seconded to other friendly nations for temporary duty assignments, Pakistan is not a friendly State. Its crimes include: Murdering thousands of Americans in and out of uniform as well as our NATO and non-NATO allies and tens of thousands of Afghans in addition to many thousands of Indians. Moreover, Pakistan — with lucrative and fungible American economic support–is fastest growing nuclear power inclusive of the development of battle-field nuclear weapons.
Pakistan uses this arsenal along with its petting zoos of terrorists to stoke the fears that “Pakistan is too dangerous to fail” and thus continues to coerce the United States to acquiesce to IMF bailouts and other forms of assistance. It is this verity that allows Pakistan to be near certain that there will be no FATF blacklisting and thus can view remaining on the “grey list” as a political victory. This is nuclear coercion in its crudest and truest form.
Yet it seems that there is literally no Pakistani crime which the witting objects of Pakistani influence operations won’t defend with three consistently and notable exceptions: Jeff Smith at the Heritage Foundation, whose integrity is beyond reproach and who is oddly not included in their missive; Ambassador (retired) Husain Haqqani of Hudson who has repeatedly outed the Derp State for its murderous hijinks; and the doyen of South Asian studies, Ashley Tellis of Carnegie, who never minces his words when it comes to Pakistan. The other gentlemen who opine and repine on South Asian affairs in DC refrain from criticism, engage in relentless “both side-ery” antics and traffic in false equivalence.
In this letter, both Krepon and Wilder, insinuate that I am suggesting that they are paid agents or have acquiesced to explicit quid pro quos with Pakistan. In fact I doubt that these are arrangements are so explicit as this courts jail time unless one is a legally registered foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Recent examples of persons who have been so convicted include Ghulab Nabi Fai and Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry. Explicit quid pro quos are not only risky, they are unnecessary.
As I have written previously, Pakistan gets what it wants from its dupes without paying them a dime directly. Although, in many cases, the Pakistan government does subsidize their writings by paying for their airfares to and from Pakistan and/or by facilitating their travel within Pakistan to places like Waziristan where their travel would otherwise be prohibited. For example, in Pakistan: A Hard Country, Anatol Lieven subtly thanks the Pakistan Army for doing so.
For several years, the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, DC hosted academics and journalists on paid tours to Pakistan, which included trips to Waziristan to showcase the ostensibly successful efforts of the Pakistan Army. In exchange for such opportunities, analysts write favourable assessments without any credible baseline. For example, Michael Kugelman wrote enthusiastically about his trip to Waziristan which he concedes was arranged by the Pakistan Army in his piece for War on the Rocks, an influence blog for those engaged in political-military concerns in the United States.
I understand the professional requirement for some of these persons to cultivate visas and meetings with high-level Pakistani officials in and out of uniform because they have assured various funders of their ability to do work in Pakistan. Thus, visas and access allow them to launder grants into their organisations to pay for overhead and salaries. This dependence upon such grants and soft monies is precisely why such influence operations are so successful. Only persons who have no need for such hustles are truly free to speak their minds. Of course, one has choice about the projects they take on: They could always choose projects that do not require them to propitiate Pakistan's equities. Thus this bureaucratic reality is not exculpatory, rather explanatory.
I know this process of cultivation well, because the Pakistanis long tried to cultivate me but failed although I never let them pay for my international airfare and blogged about the various (often humorous) lies they sought to sell me. And I do remember when I worked for the United States Institute of Peace and at the RAND Corporation, I too was compelled to work in Pakistan. When I said things that pleased them, I was easily accommodated. Early in my career, when I made stupid mistakes about Kashmir, the Army Band actually serenaded me at a banquet. It played my then favourite raunchy song: Bilo da Ghar.
But I grew wiser, began engaging more primary source documents and evolved from a research assistant to a researcher and began using my voice commensurate with my growing stature, I recall very well the dread of submitting my visa after being particularly outspoken. When the Pakistanis first began signaling discontent with my positions, they began delaying the processing of my visa. It went from being processed in the same day to six weeks. Finally, they threatened me with violence and never issued me another visa. But in being rendered persona non grata, I have been rendered free to speak my mind. It’s a freedom I cherish. I no longer need to bite my tongue about Pakistan’s crimes. I no longer expect a red carpet in Rawalpindi stained with the blood of citizens, friends and allies.
Pakistan is not the only country that does this: China has done this for decades. Many scholars who built their careers around their China expertise can no longer return because their writings eventually discomfited the regime. Many scholars, reporters and analysts have been ousted from China for writing what needs to be written and saying what needs to be said. Israel, Russia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar are just a few of the countries that seek to discipline those who write about the country by calibrating access to officials or even access to visas, needed to visit the country.
I am right to continue to identify the impacts of Pakistani influence operations and this effort of organisational bullying will only prompt me to redouble my trenchant observations of this phenomenon and its outcomes. I will not sacrifice my integrity for a visa or any number of opportunities to be lied to by Pakistani officials. Nor will I let my colleagues off the hook because they do.
The writer is author of In Their Own Words: Understanding the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (OUP, 2019) and Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (OUP, 2019). The views here are her own and do not reflect those of Firstpost, her employer or other organisations with which she affiliates.