Hitchens v Fair

The dangers of letting policy recommendations get ahead of objective assessment of facts

Over at the Huffington Post, C Christine Fair, an experienced, astute and bold analyst of Pakistan has rebutted Christopher Hitchens’ article on Pakistan in Vanity Fair. She faults Mr Hitchens for “the absurdities, fallacies and dubious assertions in the rest of his troubling account of Pakistan’s malaise.”

This is a critique of the critique.


Let me try to summarize and update the situation like this: Here is a society where rape is not a crime. It is a punishment. Women can be sentenced to be raped, by tribal and religious kangaroo courts, if even a rumor of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk. In such an obscenely distorted context, the counterpart term to shame—which is the noble word “honor”—becomes most commonly associated with the word “killing.” Moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter. [Vanity Fair]


The former refers to the rare, horrific instances where women and girls are subject to sexual assault by, in the words of the author, “tribal and religious kangaroo courts”…In this paragraph a complex polity of 180 million — most of whom condemn both practices — are essentialized as a barbarous people who embrace the notion that “moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter. [Huffington Post]

Mr Hitchens does not generalise the support for honour killings to all 180 million people. “Here is a society where people fly in their own private jets” does not mean all 307 million US citizens have their own private jets. It is Ms Fair who stretches Mr Hitchens’s argument in an attempt to prove it wrong. In any case, she does not offer any evidence to show that most of the 180 million Pakistanis condemn these heinous practices.


Thus, President Asif Ali Zardari cringes daily in front of the forces who openly murdered his wife, Benazir Bhutto, and who then contemptuously ordered the crime scene cleansed with fire hoses, as if to spit even on the pretense of an investigation. A man so lacking in pride—indeed lacking in manliness—will seek desperately to compensate in other ways.


This offensive passage reveals more about the psychology of the author than it does about that of President Zardari.

Mr Hitchens is factually correct on Mr Zardari’s cringing to the forces that killed his wife. We can agree with Ms Fair that Hitchens’ interpretation of that fact reveals something about his psychology.


However, there is no evidence that the government of Pakistan — then under President Musharraf — ordered her death. In fact, the U.S. government has consistently claimed that elements of the Pakistan Taliban ordered her death.

Here Ms Fair is being selective with facts. Shortly before her death, Benazir Bhutto herself blamed General Musharraf for her murder by not providing her the requisite personal security. The UN investigation report conveys the unmistakeable impression that the military establishment is culpable. It is disingenuous of Ms Fair to suggest that “there’s no evidence” of official complicity, not least because few Pakistanis are likely to believe it. Citing the US government’s claims on this is neither here nor there. It even believes that Pakistan is a “major non-NATO ally”.


They hate us because they owe us, and are dependent upon us. The two main symbols of Pakistan’s pride—its army and its nuclear program—are wholly parasitic on American indulgence and patronage.


According to the USAID Green Book, in 2009, total economic assistance to Pakistan came to $1.35 billion and military assistance totaled $0.429 (for a grand sum of $1.78 billion). In 2009, Pakistan’s gross domestic product was $162 billion. Calling this is a dependency is an obvious stretch. (In fairness, I too have been guilty of lapsing into this idiom until I crunched the numbers.)

Again, Ms Fair is being selective with facts. According to the US Congressional Research Service, direct overt aid to Pakistan was to the tune of $20.7 billion for the period 2002-2011. In 2009, the year Ms Fair quotes, CRS analysts estimate direct overt US aid to Pakistan at $3 billion. Further comparing it to Pakistan’s GDP is misleading. It is far more meaningful to see what the aid is in proportion of the Pakistani government’s budget. In 2010, the Pakistani government spent around $29 billion. US aid for the year was around $4.46 billion—that’s around 15% of Pakistani government’s budget.

Ms Fair refers to Israel. Its 2009 budget was $92 billion. Using Ms Fair’s figure for US aid to Israel ($2.43 billion) it amounts to a mere 2.6% of the Israeli government’s budget. It’s unclear at what level we can say a country is dependent on US aid, but Pakistan is certainly more dependent than Israel. That said, the reference to Israel is irrelevant. If we are to accept that Israel is dependent on the United States, it hardly means that Pakistan doesn’t. We should therefore treat Ms Fair’s allusion to Israel as gratuitous.


Everybody knew that the Taliban was originally an instrument for Pakistani colonization of Afghanistan. Everybody knew that al-Qaeda forces were being sheltered in the Pakistani frontier town of Quetta, and that Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was found hiding in Rawalpindi, the headquarters of the Pakistani Army.


Mr. Hitchens of course takes refuge again in the passive voice to avoid saying precisely who sheltered al Qaeda. It would appear that the author has confused al Qaeda (an international terrorist organization) and the Afghan Taliban (a regressive Pashtun-dominated Deobandi insurgent organization presently focused upon the international occupation of Afghanistan). The former has not been harbored by the Pakistani state while the latter has been a long-standing client.

Ms Fair has a point on Hitchens’ use of the passive voice. It is not clear “who” was doing the sheltering. We can’t say for sure but he’s probably wrong on al-Qaeda being sheltered in Quetta. It is the shura of Mullah Omar’s Taliban outfit that is being sheltered there, evidently, by the Pakistani military establishment. This outfit is involved in killing US soldiers in Afghanistan. But does this materially change Hitchens’ argument that the “lapdog’s surreptitious revenge has consisted in the provision of kennels for attack dogs?” Not quite.


Mr Hitchens next describes his own shock that “Osama bin Laden himself would be given a villa in a Pakistani garrison town on Islamabad’s periphery.” Dodging again behind the passive tense, he offers no evidence for this reckless and dangerous assertion. In contrast to Mr. Hitchens, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said that he had seen evidence that suggested Pakistan’s senior officials were unaware of bin Laden’s whereabouts. Hitchens’ claim that the state sheltered Pakistan is feckless journalism that encourages further ignorant speculation among publics who have no real understanding of the other and their governments.

Here Ms Fair is asking us to believe that Osama bin Laden lived in Abbottabad for five years without knowledge and connivance of the Pakistani military leadership and further, to take Robert Gates’ word for it. Perhaps a wee bit of scepticism is in order. Credulous journalism is as bad, if not worse, than feckless journalism.

The use of the term “Pakistani state” to discharge the Pakistani establishment of complicity is a device that has outlived its plausibility. The Pakistani state is always innocent because it is merely putative. It’s the military-jihadi complex that rules the place. It is understandable why US officials might want to exonerate their Pakistani ‘allies’ to save the alliance. That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have to swallow that line.

Where Ms Fair is on a stronger wicket is in her analysis of the US-Pakistan relationship. As she puts it: “Navigating this strained relationship under the pressures of reality is hard enough.” However her last couple of sentences offer a clue as to why as talented an analyst as she is selective with facts in this article: “However, accounts like that of Hitchens and others here and in Pakistan, dims the prospects for salvaging a relationship that is extremely important for the United States if not for Pakistan. And one has to wonder if that’s not the very goal of such fact-free musings.”

Ms Fair has allowed her opinion of what ought to happen to the relationship to get in the way of full objectivity. In so doing, she ends up being guilty of the same failings she accuses Mr Hitchens of.

This blog’s biases are clear: The Acorn sees the Pakistani military-jihadi complex as the irreconcilable source of threats to India, the United States, the international community, and indeed, to Pakistan. It must be contained and dismantled. Cutting off US aid to Pakistan is a good way to get there.

To the extent that exonerating ‘Pakistan’ also exonerates the military-jihadi complex, doing so is a bad idea. On the balance, therefore, Mr Hitchens provides a narrative that is far more useful in the project of containing and dismantling the military-jihadi complex.

5 thoughts on “Hitchens v Fair”

  1. Brilliant reply! Someone also showed me the exchange you had on twitter, and it seemed that Ms. Fair took your remarks a bit personally. The fact that her tone was acerbic and almost chiding, is unfortunate and unworthy of a disinterested and objective analyst.

  2. Mihir : Absolutely. I too saw the twitter exchange, and it was a shame that Nitin showed the other cheek in response to her immature browbeating, just because she happens to be a faculty member in some university. Moral : caste system is alive and flourishing in “enlightened” circles.

  3. “In any case, she does not offer any evidence to show that most of the 180 million Pakistanis condemn these heinous practices.” Wouldn’t the burden of proof be on the person making the accusation? and cmon brooo. You know Hitchens was going too far with that. He highlights a lot of serious problems with Pakistan, but saying that Pakistan is a society where rape is not a crime is very problematic.

  4. That was a silly attack by Christina Fair on Hitchen’s article. Hopefully being a professor and all that she knows the difference between a analytical piece and polemic. The latter uses rhetorical devices, including exaggeration and emotional appeal to persuade -which is precisely Hitchen’s approach. Missing this spirit (deliberately?) she goes on and on demanding evidence, and absurdly cites Gates’ statement as proof that Pak’s military leadership did not know about OBL. mmm..yes sure..USG officials are always to be believed…when they say something it is solid evidence eh?

    You are right about Fair’s agenda. She is striving to help keep the rickety US-Pak relationship from falling completely apart, just as the rest of the US govt is struggling to do. Which is why we hear from time to time some American bozo or the other sing the praises of Pak co-operation. If Pak turns totally hostile at this point they are completely shafted. Not a few yankee careers will blow away in the wind. Why else would american officials shake hands with a general that probably tipped off the bombmakers who very likely caused american deaths or an analyst rush to defend a people that greeted a cold-blooded murderer with flowers?

  5. Can someone please post the exchange between Nitin Pai and Christine Fair, for those of who aren’t following either on Twitter. I am curious about what her arguments were, in what way she was snide (as a couple of previous posters seem to indicate). I wonder to how she, in light of the recent article in the NY Times about HuM’s involvement as the go between between OBL and ISI, wants to react to her comments. Silence, perhaps.

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