Friday, October 9, 2009

More Hyphenated Controversies

Wow! Who'd'a figured an American law to increase funding to Pakistan would cause such controversy. Being the irreverent cynic that I am, I'm compelled to frame the overwhelmingly negative response to the Kerry-Lugar bill as petty whining. The opposition is pissed because, well, they're the opposition, that's their job. Plus, they won't see any of that money. The army is pissed because they are being more than sidelined, they are being reigned in (the bill places some serious conditions on the Pakistani government, the foremost of which is to put the army under civilian control).

Admittedly, I have to retract my scathing criticism of the U.S. in an earlier post; seems they're not as unmindful of Pakistan's raging self-interest and duplicity as I'd thought. Kerry-Lugar is a tightly-packed document of limitations and oversight. Pakistan will receive the money it needs but only if it fulfills what the U.S. expects of it. The only valid criticism I can see in this is the accusation that the American administration is trampling on Pakistan's sovereignty by placing so many "conditionalities" on the money. But let's face it: it's their money. If Pakistan wants it, they'll have to accept the conditions.

The counter-argument of course is that the war Pakistan is fighting is America's war; they started it by invading Afghanistan so they should be obligated to pay for it. I disagree with that line of thinking. It is narrow and self-serving. Pakistan nurtured the Taliban, Pakistan promoted militancy in the northwest so that it could be used as a proxy to serve its interests in Kashmir. The narrative that has Pakistan sitting innocently by while war was brought to them from across the ocean is pure fantasy. Musing on irrelevancies like what might have happened if the U.S. had not invaded is pointless. The way things were going in that region, the world would eventually have had to turn its attention there anyway. And not in spite of Pakistan, but because of it.

Nonetheless, some of the conditions Kerry-Lugar sets will be hard to swallow. In one section, for example, Pakistan is expected to dismantle "terrorist bases of operations in other parts of the country, including Quetta and Muridke." But Pakistan denies terrorist bases exist in Quetta or Muridke. By accepting the bill as it is written now, they admit they have been lying.

I believe they have been lying. I've been to Quetta and met with the Taliban there. They told me in no uncertain terms that they use Pakistani territory, and Quetta specifically, to rest, re-group, and plan attacks across the border. "Our commanders work in shifts," they told me. "They work for four months in Afghanistan and then come to Quetta to rest and plan. A replacement is sent out from here with new orders." The only error the U.S. makes is in calling it a "base". There is no "base" in Quetta, not in the sense of a physical place that can be located and shut down. A better word would have been "network" but that's semantics.

Muridke is different as far as I know (I've never been there). My understanding is that a compound belonging to the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa (formerly the Lashkar-e-Taiba) is an ideological training ground promoting jihad against the Indian occupation of Kashmir. Young men are indoctrinated there and then sent to training camps in other parts of Pakistan (primarily in Pakistani-held Kashmir and Swat).

The problem here is that the Pakistani military considers both the Taliban in Quetta and the Jamaat-ul-Dawaa crucial strategic assets. Being told by a foreigner to stop supporting them could be interpreted as a direct violation of its sovereignty. What Pakistan's military doesn't seem to understand is that when you use proxies to influence events in another country, you lose the sovereignty cover.

What leaves me scratching my head is why the Pakistani people still bow down so pliantly to the military. It's not as if they've ever actually won a war. It was under the dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq that Pakistan began its self-destructive slide into Islamic militancy, and the chaotic Musharraf legacy should still be fresh on their minds. If anything, the Pakistani army has become little more than an elite class, comfortably ensconced in plush homes on heavily fortified, prime Pakistani land, enjoying the benefits of unrestricted power. They gorge on what little money Pakistan has while the people starve and suffer. They send out young men to fight wars of their own making and then portray themselves as the guardians of the state.

So why exactly is the army so "insulted" by Kerry-Lugar? Wouldn't logic dictate that after so many years of trying to play god with people's lives, after decades of subterfuge and meddling in political affairs, they would lose the trust of the international community? They should not be surprised. But they counter that their current battle against militants, in which thousands of young Pakistani men have lost their lives, should be enough to convince the world they can now be relied upon. I'm in the process of putting together a story which undermines that argument. Suffice to say the Pakistani army is NOT turning a new leaf.

The more pressing question is why the Pakistani people still feel the army acts in their own interest. Perhaps it's a question of placing your trust in the lesser evil. Politicians have completely failed Pakistan, and they do it with much less grace than the army. At least the army is skillful enough to cover up their blunders; politicians parade their ineptitude openly. Against that backdrop, the army looks positively angelic.

But now politicians, especially Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who has never had a good relationship with Pakistan's generals, sense an opportunity. My feeling is that Zardari would like to see military control transferred to his office, much as it is in the U.S., making him the Commander in Chief. Kerry-Lugar is a first step. As for the money, well, if the U.S. oversees how it is used as thoroughly as the bill lays out, then it shouldn't end up in the pockets of politicians. Nonetheless, I'm still skeptical. Pakistan's elite have been pilfering money for decades. They've become exceptionally good at it - masters of collecting cream. Their will to fatten up on foreign handouts is powerful so I don't doubt that they will find a way.

The key consequence of Kerry-Lugar is the wedge it has put between Pakistan's civilian government and the military. Now we have two self-absorbed groups battling for supremacy. Personally, I'm not about to pick a side. Both are distasteful to my palate.


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